In the 75 years since its premiere (75 years this Sunday, as a matter of fact), Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane has accumulated countless prizes and endless kudos. The definitive Sight & Sound poll christened in the finest film ever made for five decades straight. It topped the American Film Institute’s greatest movies survey, the Village Voice’s 100 greatest films, and Time Out’s top 100. Its praises have been sung by everyone from Roger Ebert to Woody Allen to Martin Scorsese to Stanley Kubrick. Oh, and it’s the favorite film of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee – though he doesn’t seem to have quite grasped its nuances.
Donald Trump spoke about Citizen Kane at length just after the turn of the century, for an aborted project from director Errol Morris called The Movie Movie. Morris’s idea was to interview world leaders and cultural figures, and put them into “the movies they most admire.” The film never came to pass, but he repurposed some of his footage into a short film that aired during the 2002 Oscars. A few years later, Morris released a cut of Trump discussing Citizen Kane, and it is… interesting.
It’s easy to see what would draw Donald Trump to this film; he and Charles Foster Kane are not dissimilar. Both had the seeds of their tremendous wealth handed to them; both used it to build their own empires (Kane in media, Trump in real estate). Kane constructed Xanadu, “the costliest monument a man has built to himself”; Trump built Trump Tower, Trump Plaza, Trump’s Castle, and Trump National Doral Golf Course, and while they might not match Xanadu’s 20,000 tons of marble or 100,000 trees, all are undeniably yuge. And just as Charles Foster Kane’s first marriage is ended by his assignations with a would-be singer named Susan Alexander, Trump’s first marriage crumbled due to his affair with would-be actress Marla Maples. One can almost imagine him thunderously slow-clapping in the balcony of The Will Rogers Follies’ opening night. (The New York Times: “‘Citizen Kane is my all-time favorite movie… I know, I know,’ he said, mulling over whether there was any resemblance between his support of Ms. Maples’s career and the plot of the movie based on Hearst’s romance. Finally, he said, ‘I see no analogy between the two.’”)
And then there is this similarity, as noted by the narrator of Kane’s opening newsreel: “In all his life was never granted elected office by the voters of his country.” Kane made an independent run for governor, “the White House seemingly the next easy step in a lightening political career,” but the revelation of his adultery sunk his campaign. How quaint; as Trump himself notes, he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, ok?”
But their campaign styles are so similar, it almost seems as though Trump is subconsciously channeling Charles Foster Kane. Kane trash-talks opponent Boss Jim Gettys at every turn (much like Trump regards “Lyin’ Ted” or “Little Marco”), and boasts that “Every straw vote, every independent poll, shows that I’ll be elected” (ditto), but that’s all he can offer in a campaign speech; he skips policy promises by insisting, “I’d make my promises now, if I weren’t too busy arranging to keep them,” which is a good deal more artful than Trump’s hilariously vague promise that “We’ll have so much winning, you’ll get bored with winning.”
Trump will go on and on about the honest, hard-working Americans who make up his base, just as Kane insisted it was his duty and pleasure “to see to it that decent, hardworking people in this community aren’t robbed blind by a pack of money-grubbing pirates.” He makes vague promises to “the working man,” to help “the underprivileged, the underpaid, and the underfed,” but Kane, whose initial fortune was amassed while he played in the snow, has never been any of those things – nor has Trump, a man who can refer to a “small loan of a million dollars” with a straight face.
Trump will vamp endlessly about his wealth, as though that accumulation alone qualifies him for the highest office in the land – but as Kane’s Bernstein notes, “It’s no trick to make a lot of money, if all you want is to make a lot of money.” In his Morris interview, Trump grants, “I think you learn in Kane that maybe wealth isn’t everything, because he had the wealth, but he didn’t have the happiness.” But he also seems to devalue the importance of “the happiness”: “There was a great rise in Citizen Kane. And there was a modest fall. The fall wasn’t a financial fall, the fall was a personal fall, but it was a fall nevertheless.” To be clear: Charles Foster Kane dies alone and miserable, surrounded only by the loot he’s accumulated, longing for the simple pleasures of boyhood. This is not “a modest fall,” or, as Trump puts it elsewhere, “not necessarily all positive.” This is the tragedy of Charles Foster Kane – and you get the sense that Trump merely sees it as the story of a guy who should’ve taken greater comfort in his money.
But for Trump, in ultimate contrast to Kane, there is no pain that cannot be eased by wealth. He seems on the verge of real insight and self reflection when he tells Morris, of the famous scene where the Kanes’ expanding dining table serves as a metaphor for the widening divide between Kane and Emily, “Perhaps I can understand that.” But then watch where he goes: “The relationship that he had was not a good one for him. Probably not a great one for her, although there were benefits for her [italics mine].” And there you have the Donald Trump worldview, in a nutshell – Kane was an emotionally unavailable adulterer, but hey, his wife got to live like a rich woman, so what the hell is she complaining about, am I right?
But Morris saves the most chilling moment of his Trump interview for the end, when he asks the simple but powerful question, “If you could give Charles Foster Kane advice, what would you say to him?” Trump responds, with barely a second’s hesitation, “Get yourself a different woman.” Yes indeed, that’s the message: not that wealth corrupts, not the trap of materialism, not the complexity of the American Dream. No, the takeaway, from a man who is currently on his third wife and whose sole unchanging philosophy is outright misogyny, is that Kane stuck with those broads too long. Don’t quit your day job, Donald.
Yet it’s fascinating, and speaks to the power of Wells’s film (and the script he wrote with Herman J. Mankiewicz), that the ideas and icons of Citizen Kane still resonate so strongly, three-quarters of a century later. Charles Foster Kane was a man of tremendous riches and resources, but he let those qualities overinflate his understanding of his own importance, wisdom, and empathy. He claimed to speak for those who could not speak for themselves, but ultimately, from his berth of privilege, saw them with contempt, a rabble who would think “what I tell them to think.” He ultimately stood only for wealth, accumulated and vigorously maintained; even his own best friend said he never believed in anything but himself. It was only late in his life, long after his nation had ceased to either listen to or trust him, that he could admit, “If I hadn’t been rich, I might’ve been a really great man.”
I’m not so sure the last part applies to Donald Trump. But you get the idea.