A Face in the Crowd Boards the Trump Express

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When you’re a libertarian living in New York and working in academia, you learn to keep your politics to yourself most of the time. But something strange is happening in New York, and indeed across the nation. Over and over again, I’m hearing dyed-in-the-wool, knee-jerk social Democrats say, “You know, I’m kind of leaning toward Trump.” It happened again this morning on my way to the airport. My Italian-American New York cab driver asked what I thought about the political race. I talked about the merits of Rand Paul’s philosophy. And he said, “I’m leaning toward Trump.”

What does this blowhard, demagogy, crony capitalist have that I’m missing? When he isn’t being blatantly and outrageously offensive, he’s demonstrating a naiveté that makes Sarah Palin look like a Rhodes scholar. His answer to every challenge is a version of, “Trust me. I know how to fix that. Everybody likes me. I like everybody.” Sheesh! What do people see in Donald Trump, besides the fact that he’s not a career politician?

It makes me think of Elia Kazan’s 1957 masterpiece, A Face in the Crowd. It’s nearly 60 years old, yet it’s so timely that it could have been used as a storyboard for Trump’s triumphant rise as a political candidate — and his potential fall. Of course, Trump’s early life was quite different from that of the title character in the movie, but they are prophetically similar in the way they use the media to sway and control their audiences.

When Trump isn’t being blatantly and outrageously offensive, he’s demonstrating a naiveté that makes Sarah Palin look like a Rhodes scholar.

In the film, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) is the host of a popular radio series called “A Face in the Crowd,” for which she interviews ordinary people and asks them about their lives — kind of a combination of the modern “man in the street” interviews and the old “This Is Your Life” series. She thinks it would be interesting to interview someone in the drunk tank at an Arkansas jail, and that’s where she meets Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a loud, obnoxious, uncouth drifter and country singer who agrees to do the interview because the sheriff has promised to let him out of jail a few days early if he will. Rhodes ad libs some off-the-cuff good humor and sings a song that becomes a running theme, “Free Man in the Morning.” Marcia, charmed by his untrained openness and the blues in his voice, promptly nicknames him “Lonesome” Rhodes. A radio-television star is born.

Lonesome has neither social graces nor emotional filters. He speaks his mind, mocks his sponsors, coddles his listeners, and rejects the idea of being “dignified” or respectful. He’s a brand new kind of star, just as Trump is a brand new kind of candidate, and the public loves his folksy, off-script style. He develops a following of avid — some might say rabid — followers, who riot in the streets when a mocked sponsor understandably fires him for his rude, outrageous comments. He is indeed a “free man in the morning,” owing nothing to anyone, and the public loves him for it.

When a new sponsor, “Vitajex,” designs an ad campaign based on scientific analysis of its energy supplement’s ingredients, Lonesome rejects the facts and ad libs his own campaign for Vitajex based on emotional appeal and unsubstantiated claims. Sales soar, and so does Lonesome’s popularity. His face ends up on the covers of every national magazine, while his name is attached to ships, roses, and even a local mountain. You can’t buy that kind of publicity — and you don’t have to, when the press is fawning all over you. (Donald Trump knows that secret, too.) Lonesome watches his ratings the way Trump watches his polls. He has no formal background in marketing, but he knows instinctively just what to do to keep his ratings moving upward.

Like Lonesome Rhodes, Trump avoids the use of data, studies, or even common sense to support his claims.

Eventually Lonesome becomes the campaign advisor to presidential candidate Worthington Fuller, a ”worthy” candidate who is smart, wise, respectable — and boring. Lonesome markets him as a product rather than a statesman. “Do you know anyone who bought a product because they respect it?” he bellows. “You gotta be loved — loved!” Lonesome makes Fuller a folksy man of the people, and Fuller promises to create a cabinet position for Lonesome: Secretary for National Morale. In short order Lonesome has moved from drunk-tank denizen to cracker-barrel entertainer to national celebrity to influential politico. “This whole county is just like my flock of sheep!” he brags. “They’re mine. I own ’em! I’m gonna be the power behind the president!”

Marcia is charmed, fascinated and repelled by Lonesome, and Neal is masterly in the way she portrays these conflicted emotions. Director Elia Kazan colors the black and white film with an artist’s palate, manipulating the shadows with skillful lighting that enhances character and mood, especially Marcia’s growing horror at the monster she has created. Griffith, too, excels as an actor; in fact, he portrayed Lonesome’s despicable, manipulative persona so believably that, according to Hollywood insider Marc Eliot, he virtually ended his own movie career. This was the era of typecasting, and audiences had trouble accepting Griffith in any other way than as the loathsome Lonesome Rhodes. But the brilliant actor went on to success in playing country bumpkins (No Time for Sergeants), a folksy southern sheriff (The Andy Griffith Show), and a folksy southern attorney (Matlock). He was immensely successful in those shows, and he became one of Hollywood’s most respected and beloved actors. Yet in A Face in the Crowd, his debut film, audiences can see the depth of his talent and consider what might have been if audiences had been able to separate the actor from the character.

The connections between Lonesome Rhodes and Donald Trump are eerily apparent. In a recent front-page article for the New York Times, reporters Patrick Healy and Maggie Haberman analyzed the results of a linguistic study they commissioned that examined all of Trump’s public words uttered in speeches and interviews for an entire week (“95,000 Words, Many of Them Ominous, from Trump’s Tongue,” December 6, 2015, A1, 27). Their findings confirm my thesis. Trump isn’t folksy as Lonesome is (leave it to Hillary to fall into an artificial cornpone drawl when she campaigns in the South), but Healy and Haberman point to Trump’s “breezy stage presence” as crucial to his connection with the American public. Like Lonesome, Trump is “an energetic and charismatic speaker who can be entertaining and ingratiating . . . There is a looseness to his language that sounds almost like water-cooler banter” and is almost as meaningless. In one particularly meaningless attempt to be ingratiating, Trump is quoted as saying of his fellow candidates: “All of ’em are weak, they’re just weak. . . . I think they’re weak, generally, you want to know the truth. But I won’t say that, because I don’t want to get myself, I don’t want to have any controversies. So I refuse to say that they’re weak generally, O.K.? Some of them are fine people. But they are weak.” Yet the public is buying into it.

Lonesome doesn’t know it, but in the time it takes to go from the penthouse to the ground floor, public opinion will have turned against him.

Granted, Trump is as different from Rhodes in the content of his speech as he is in social origins. He has successfully tapped into the fears of the nation by creating an Orwellian “precarious us” vs. “dangerous them” scenario. Healy and Haberman point to his constant repetition of “divisive words, harsh words and violent imagery” to stir up hostilities and prejudices that most Americans have been afraid or ashamed to voice. He has made bigotry fashionable again. By contrast, Rhodes lulls his audiences with good ol’ boy platitudes. But Trump is very much like Rhodes in his maverick approach to marketing, and his stubborn insistence that he is right and everyone else is wrong. Again referring to the study of Trump’s stumping, he “forgoes the usual campaign trappings — policy, endorsements, commercials, donations — and instead relies on potent language to connect with, and often stoke, the fears and grievances of Americans.” Also like Rhodes, Trump avoids the use of data, studies, or even common sense to support his claims; in fact, Trump stubbornly refuses to recant statements that are outrageously and patently false, such as his claim to have seen thousands of Muslims cheering in the streets of New Jersey after the 9/11 attacks. Instead, Trump taps into the public’s growing mistrust of government and the media “to erode people’s trust in facts, numbers, [and] nuance.” Facts are the enemy now, but we have the Donald to protect us. Just trust him.

Trump and Rhodes are particularly connected in their narcissistic need for attention, power, and adoration. Lonesome Rhodes cries out plaintively, “I’m gonna make them love me!,” while for Trump it’s already a done deal: “I like everybody. Everybody likes me,” he reminds audiences matter-of-factly whenever he is challenged to provide specific details about how he will solve a problem. As my cab driver explained, “Trump surrounds himself with smart people. They’ll get things done. He doesn’t have to give details. He’s a smart guy.” How does my cabby know? Because Trump tells us so, multiple times in every speech. Trust him. He’s right.

Can Trump be stopped? Should he be stopped? I’m fascinated by the diverse support this offensive, bombastic demagogue is amassing. Even many Liberty readers have boarded the Trump Express. But where is that train headed? In one of the most ironic moments of A Face in the Crowd, Lonesome enters an elevator after what he thinks was a successful TV show attempting to sell Worthington Fuller to the public. He crows enthusiastically to the operator, “Going down. Going all the way down” on his way to a fancy dinner in another part of town. Lonesome doesn’t know it, but in the time it takes to go from the penthouse to the ground floor, public opinion will have turned against him because of something he said on the show. One can only hope that Trump makes a similar misstep that takes him down. So far, however, his intellectual and ideological blunders keep translating into higher polls. I don’t get it. But unlike my cab driver today, I’m leaning away from Trump. All the way away.

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