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On Robert Orlando’s “Citizen Trump”

(Nexus Media)

To do so, he tells President Trump’s life story in the cinematographic style of Citizen Kane, incorporating the iconic snow globe, the campaign poster, and even the mysterious word (‘Rosebud’) that is central to Orson Welles’ masterpiece.”

President Donald Trump has been compared to Hitler, Mussolini, Caligula, Nero, George Wallace, Jefferson Davis, and a host of other historical villains. Some of these comparisons are outrageous; others are more plausible. Be that as it may, this act is getting tired, and perhaps we should give up on comparisons and, instead, consider President Trump to be a sui generis case.

Or, maybe not. Perhaps we can still find one suitable comparison to President Trump. Filmmaker Robert Orlando thinks he has found it—and not in a historical villain but in a fictional complex character: Charles Foster Kane. Orlando’s latest film Citizen Trump is his attempt at a double homage: Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, as well as Welles’ Citizen Kane. Very much as the Greek historian did with many paired characters of antiquity, Orlando points out many obvious (and not so obvious) parallelisms between the lives of President Trump and Kane. To do so, he tells President Trump’s life story in the cinematographic style of Citizen Kane, incorporating the iconic snow globe, the campaign poster, and even the mysterious word (“Rosebud”) that is central to Orson Welles’ masterpiece.

Actually, despite his personal bravado, President Trump’s foreign policy is rather dovish, and one important feature of his presidency has been to stay out of international militaristic adventures (something Orlando acknowledges later on in the film).

In this cinematographic endeavor, Orlando is largely successful, though there are a few shortcomings. The voice actor reading some of President Trump’s quotations does not sound anything like the man himself. Given that—apart from being a homage to Citizen Kane, this film is also a documentary—it could have benefited from interviewing experts, yet they are completely lacking in the film. And, some of the parallelisms between Kane and President Trump are a bit unfair. For example, the film points out how Kane’s manipulative tactics incite a war in Cuba, thus implying that President Trump might do the same in some nation in the developing world. Actually, despite his personal bravado, President Trump’s foreign policy is rather dovish, and one important feature of his presidency has been to stay out of international militaristic adventures (something Orlando acknowledges later on in the film).

But Orlando is spot on when he criticizes how “hyperreality” (a term he explicitly borrows from philosopher Jean Baudrillard) and media culture have eroded the United States’ political scene. In Orlando’s view, President Trump’s rise to power has far more to do with tweeting, sound bites, name-calling, diversionary tactics, and spinning than with reasoned debate or old-fashioned political virtues. Most of President Trump’s dirty media and political tricks were already foreshadowed in Citizen Kane.

Yet, Orlando is clever enough not to make President Trump a boogeyman. The real monster is media and political culture at large, and President Trump’s adversaries are also willing participants in this game. They, too, are eager to indulge in the same dirty tricks against the “Orange Man.” In so doing, they do a great disservice to the American nation. Orlando reminds viewers that—by coming down the escalator to announce his entry into the presidential race—President Trump portrayed himself as a god coming down from the heavens to save the common people (a very Kane-like tactic). Such gestures found popular appeal because, indeed, liberal elites patronized and obliterated large sectors of the American electorate.

In Orlando’s reckoning, President Trump delivered most of what he promised during his campaign. This may be a debatable proposition, but, alas, there is no denying that President Trump had a number of successes during the first three years of his tenure. According to Orlando, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) may prove to be President Trump’s undoing, thus prompting the perfect finale for a tragic Greek hero (not unlike Kane’s desperate scream of “Rosebud” in his deathbed).

Yet Orlando hints that President Trump may not be finished. As Antifa activists vandalize property and statues of Columbus are toppled down by mobs, President Trump may, very well, resurface as the politician who will put a stop to the madness of political correctness. My view is that it is hard to tell what lies ahead. Yes, President Trump is his own worst enemy. However, given that in the wake of George Floyd’s death, identity politics is running amok, President Trump may get the second chance that Kane never did. When a vice presidential candidate is included on a ticket because of her sex and her skin color—much more than because of her political views—many disillusioned Americans will pull their MAGA hats out of the drawer and wear them again with gusto.

Citizen Kane was released in 1941, two years subsequent to Sigmund Freud’s death. It is a very psychoanalytic film. As Welles tells the story, particular events in childhood shaped Kane’s personality. Most psychologists today realize that Freud’s variant of psychoanalysis was too speculative, and his ideas are mostly dead. Yet, strangely, President Trump has resurrected Freud. It is very indicative of the current mood that a group of psychologists and psychiatrists published in 2017 The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, with chapter titles such as “Trump’s Daddy Issues.”

During the 1964 presidential campaign, psychoanalysts were eager to claim that Republican candidate Barry Goldwater was a latent homosexual, who perpetually sought his father’s approval. At the time, this became an embarrassment to American psychiatry, and the American Psychiatric Association issued the so-called “Goldwater Rule,” instructing psychiatrists to refrain from making diagnoses of public figures without a proper clinical interview. Today, few mental health professionals seem to care about the Goldwater rule, and many will gladly psychoanalyze President Trump on the basis of very slim evidence.

Citizen Trump does—at times—engage in this over-psychoanalyzing of President Trump. However, that takes little away from the film’s many good qualities. Whatever the result of the upcoming November elections may be, President Trump’s political and psychological case will be an interesting topic of discussion in the years to come. And, even if President Trump is best described as a sui generis case, any comparison to Kane will be highly informative. Kudos to Citizen Trump for bringing that comparison to the table.

Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. His Twitter is @gandrade8o.

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