Trump. Fake news. The merger of media, celebrity, and politics. Hollywood saw it coming since at least 1941, decades before the arrival of Putin and Russians armed with Facebook and Twitter. As discussed below, some of the greatest filmmakers have critiqued the trajectories of politics and media in America, while providing powerful indictments of television, fake news, celebrity culture, media viruses, and outright ignorance and propaganda — and the audiences who drink it up and remain thirsty for more. In these films, the journalists, celebrities, pop singers, television personalities, media corporations, mass audiences, and behind-the-scenes puppet masters are all willing participants in the media spectacle. No one is innocent. Rather than a Russian ploy, Trump is more like a Hollywood prophecy.
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan once explained that we live in a total media environment, a fully ambient world of media images and technologies we create—and to which our consciousness and society adapts. The media spectacle has proven irresistable, unstoppable, and damn near all-powerful in its ability to shape the world in its own image, where celebrities reign, slogans supercede analysis, and the fake is worshipped as being better than the real.
Citizen Kane (1941): A media mogul wants to be president
Directed by Orson Welles and starring Welles, Dorothy Comingore, and Joseph Cotten.
Long considered one of the greatest films ever made, Orson Welles’s innovative masterpiece recalls the life of a media mogul who aspires to become president of the United States. Loosely based on William Randolph Hearst, one of America’s first entrepreneurs to become very wealthy via mass media ownership, the character Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) uses his media empire to accumulate good will and political power by exposing corruption, defending the poor, and becoming a national celebrity.
Like Trump, Kane inherited a fortune. Kane even uses his newspaper to hype an unnecessary war, while billing himself first and foremost as a patriotic American, not unlike future presidents exploiting patriotism to justify wars. Kane’s presidential aspirations are eventually derailed by a sex scandal. In the character of Charles Foster Kane, we see the cinematic DNA of Donald Trump, a rich media celebrity so loved by followers that even a sexist sex scandal does not derail his presidential aspirations.
Meet John Doe (1941): the merger of fake news and politics
Directed by Frank Capra and starring Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper.
An idealistic newspaper reporter (Barbara Stanwyck) creates a fake news story about an unknown man who plans to commit suicide on Christmas Eve by jumping off a skyscraper in New York City. Why? It’s his protest against the declining state of society on the precipice of World War II.
Known as “John Doe,” the fictitious man’s suicide message sweeps across America like a media virus, leading to the creation of the “John Doe Movement” to make a better society. To keep things going, the reporter secretly finds an unknown jobless man (Gary Cooper) to play the role of John Doe for the public—thirsty for a hero rising from their midst to provide hope for a better America. The reporter writes his idealistic-hopeful newspaper articles and speeches; he gives the speeches to millions of Americans via national radio broadcasts. John Doe’s public speeches fill stadiums and he is a major celebrity. Most Americans like him and many join the movement to make America better again. Cynical about corrupt and hypocritical politicians, the masses are ready to follow a new kind of leader. In the John Doe Movement is the DNA of Trump’s “Make America Great Again.”
Soon, the wealthy owner of the newspaper begins to exploit the John Doe Movement—in hopes of becoming president and building an authoritarian America ruled by the wealthy. Amazingly, a film from 1941 shows fake news going viral to impact the presidential aspirations of a very rich dude with authoritarian tendencies.
Eventually, John Doe is outed as a fake and the movement disintegrates. In the 21st century, being fake is no longer a hindrance. In fact, being fake is seen as being better than the real, hence a reality-TV star is president. Let’s not forget that John Kennedy was a TV-handsome rich guy, Ronald Reagan was a charismatic movie-star, and George W. Bush was a plain-spoken baseball team owner. Talk show hosts, social media stars, and corporate titans might be next in line. Comedians, too.
A Face in the Crowd (1957): rock singer meets reality-TV and a presidential hopeful
Directed by Elia Kazan and starring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, and Walter Matthau.
An angry and crude singer-songwriter exploits the power of radio and television to achieve fame, power, wealth, and national celebrity status. He’s an Elvis from the dark side. His marketable memes include his invented name — “Lonesome Rhodes” — and two hit songs, “My Momma Guitar” and “I’m Gonna Be a Free Man in the Morning” (which his fans even shout out loud). It becomes a mass slogan, not unlike many TV political slogans to come
In Lonesome Rhodes’ ideology is the DNA of the Tea Party and red-state anger at a globalizing world. Though he mocks the rich and powerful in his broadcasts, Rhodes (Andy Griffith) is soon consulting with presidential candidates on how to get elected by dumbing down their TV campaign messages and replacing intellectual discussion with slogans and soundbites. Rhodes even creates a reality-TV show to manufacture personas for himself and the presidential candidate, featuring fake news mixed in with real news. The show also features a segment called “Lonesome Rhodes Cracker Barrell” — where Rhodes and the presidential candidate speaks in simplistic, small town language for the average folks.
A Face in the Crowd prophetically shows how Americans would come to love their guitars, freedom slogans, and dumbed-down spectacle—regardless of actual truth or reality. When I screen this film in my classes, students are blown away that a film from 1957 would be so relevant for their world in the 21st century.
Privilege (1967): rock meets religion meets nationalism
Directed by Peter Watkins and starring John Paul Jones and Jean Shrimpton.
John Paul Jones was a rock star singer with the Manfred Mann band, while Jean Shrimpton was perhaps the iconic supermodel of the “mod” era (along with Twiggy). Jones and Shrimpton are time-capsule memories of the mid-Sixties, but their performances in Privilege echo across the decades. The film is an intellectual tour-de-force. Prior to Privilege, British director Peter Watkins directed The War Game (1965), the infamous documentary about nuclear war that the BBC refused to broadcast because it was too realistic and utterly terrifying.
Privilege is loaded with so many radical ideas and visuals, it’s hard to believe the film got produced and released. Seriously! Set in a possible future, Jones plays a rock star co-opted by the dominant political and religious forces, seemingly bent upon using rock music as a tool of social engineering, with the goal being a theocratic state based in nationalist religion. Pop music becomes a force for propaganda, patriotism, and political control. Privilege must be seen to be believed. And it seems all-too-real, with megachurches merging rock music with televangelism, country-western’s hot-button religious patriotism, and celebrity rock stars serving as messiahs for the masses.
Obviously, Trump is not a rock musician. But, Trump and his sidekick-creationist Mike Pence are ramping up the entertainment police-state with widespread support from evangelicals and fundamentalists. In Trump’s administration, we see the merger of celebrity and theocracy as foreshadowed in Privilege.
Network (1976): TV’s angry prophet
Directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, and William Holden.
A TV newscaster at the end of his career, suddenly rises to fame with his spontaneous rants about America’s decay and decline in the 1970s, generating a massive following among angry and patriotic viewers. Network features an epic television rant in one of the greatest scenes in Hollywood history — “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.”
Portrayed by Oscar-winner Peter Finch, Beale is soon railing against America’s political policies and garnering acclaim from the New York Times and huge TV ratings from viewers. Like Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd, Network’s Howard Beale becomes a celebrity hero and media messiah for the masses. Eventually, the owner of the TV network uses Beale to espouse his philosophy of globalization and corporate capitalism. And then there is the utterly crazed ending, which leave students with jaws ajar and bug eyes when I screen the film in class.
Beale’s angry TV rants clearly foreshadow talk radio stars like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones, both of whom lead directly to Twitter Gods like Trump. As program executive Diana Christensen (Academy Award-winning Faye Dunnaway) says in Network: America needs an “angry prophet decrying the hypocrisy of our times!” In Trump, we have the angry prophet. Then the next question is: of what he is a prophecy to come?
Wag the Dog (1997): fake news and fake wars win an election
Directed by Barry Levinson and starring Robert De Niro, Anne Heche, and Dustin Hoffman.
An incumbent president is running for re-election when he is accused of sexual misconduct two weeks prior to election day. That sounds like Bill Clinton and Donald Trump scenarios. A crack team of media manipulators is deployed to secretly change the news agenda of the unwitting media, journalists, and American consciousness.
The team includes “Mr. Fixit” (Robert De Niro), the “Fad King” (Denis Leary), a Hollywood movie producer (Dustin Hoffman), and Johnny Dean (Willie Nelson), a country music singer. How do they do it? By secretly creating the appearance of a brief war with Albania and a group of “nuclear terrorists” who have smuggled a “suitcase bomb” (a small nuke) across the Canadian border.
Soon they manufacture what all TV wars require: a “victim” needing rescue, a war “hero” trapped behind enemy lines, and plenty of patriotic songs, slogans, burgers, and T-shirts. And it is all consumed by viewers on electronic screens as if the war really happened. How could they know otherwise? Perhaps the Russians were inspired by this movie.
Idiocracy (2006): a wrestling star is the American president
Directed by Mike Judge and starring Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph, and Terry Crews.
The Army conducts a “suspended animation” experiment that goes awry, causing a typical soldier (Luke Wilson) to wake up 500 years in the future. Named Joe (as in your “average Joe”), the soldier finds a dumbed-down, anti-intellectual America, where commercialism and consumer society dominate everything and the environment is destroyed. Joe is now the smartest guy in the dumbed-down America of the future.
Ignorant and illiterate with a monosyllabic vocabulary, American citizens are addicted to “Brawndo” sports drink and have a president named Dwayne Mountain Dew Camacho (Terry Crews), who was a famous professional wrestling star on TV! Yep, the future president is a branded reality-TV star. Considered a parody when released, Idiocracy now seems a prophecy. But, Trump arrived a lot sooner than 500 years.
From Citizen Kane to Network to Idiocracy, Hollywood has warned us many times—long before there were Russians with fake news and tweets. Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (1998) prefigures Trump, where a California senator goes off-script with rap songs and various offensive remarks, only to become a media darling with skyrocketing popularity. Borrowing from Privilege and many other films, The Hunger Games (2012) shows the merger of entertainment and domination as a media-powered system of control. The BBC-Netflix series Black Mirror takes things to the next step in “The Waldo Moment” (2013), the episode where an animated TV character hurls insults at politicians and celebrities—and is soon running for political office against the Conservative and Liberal parties in England. The trajectory is clear, yet the media spectacle has proven utterly unstoppable and almost irresistable. Screens are almost exclusively hot media and they privilege reaction, not reflection; entertainment, not enlightenment; celebrity, not capability; the tribal, not the universal.
Given the corruption and sheer hypocrisy of the Republican and Democratic lawmakers in America, can there be any doubt that Donald Trump is not the final rich celebrity president who wants to rule? Perhaps it will be a celebrity dictator, a political superhero supported by millions of voters who want law and order in America, and it better be damn entertaining and dominating. As Abby Moore and I wrote:
In the 21st century, Americans expect their presidents to be superheroes battling the doomsday scenarios of the other party — thus we give the presidents ever-expanded political and legal powers, as if we are trying to give them superpowers and make them into superheroes with super solutions. Both major parties do it. Don’t deny it. When the dictator arrives in America, it will be in the guise of a presidential superhero with political superpowers. As Trump has shown, the superhero prez won’t even need to be rational or coherent or even sane. They just need to be superheroes who zap the bad guys. This is what happens when tribalism and nationalism merge with Hollywood and the 24/7 media spectacle.
We won’t need Putin and the Russians to make it happen. We’ll do it ourselves. After all, Hollywood sees it coming.
Barry Vacker is the co-editor (with Angela Cirucci) of Black Mirror and Critical Media Theory (Lexington, 2018). The anthology is due out in November.