Trapped in the fog of conscientious obscurantism, Twitter-wracked neurosis, blatant bungling, executive-order malfeasance, lurking corruption, lifeboat ethics, and neo-fascist quasi-ideology, we may well want to look for clues to the interior life of the Social Darwinist thug presently making a landfill fire of the federal government. The red-alert tenor of the moment is unprecedented, and as the despair grows with each passing week, any clue will do, because while we know too much about Donald Trump, we also know almost nothing. Glimpses inside, as chilling as that sounds, have been rare. Amid the scant psychobiographical residue, there’s one simple stated fact that continues to bedevil me: that Trump has gone on record, more than once, as saying his favorite film of all time is Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941).
As with many cultural indices (chocolate vs. vanilla, what sort of self-aggrandizing tattoos you have, who’s your favorite Monkee), favorite films can be revealing—of one’s weaknesses and delusions, more often than not. But rarely has the juxtaposition between a public figure and his or her most treasured classic film been more confounding, and filthier with contradictions. (George W. Bush cited Field of Dreams as his fave, a daydreamy choice that wouldn’t even surprise the population of Iraq.) At first blush, Trump’s choice of Citizen Kane suggests two contradictory things: that Trump may in fact have far better taste in movies than we might ever have guessed, and that he doesn’t understand the Welles film at all. It is unarguably something like Pat Roberts proclaiming his allegiance to Elmer Gantry. But of course it is more complicated than that.
A throng of commentators made click-bait hay late last year about how Trump must’ve missed the point of Citizen Kane, a collective yowl of irrelevance that in itself misses any chance of understanding either Citizen Kane and Trump’s ardor for it. Kane is about as far from being a didactic work, with a “point,” as any film made in America; in its dogged ambivalence it invites interpretations but resists conclusions. Just as in its plot’s famous narrative gambit—the newsreel reporter’s search for the meaning of the billionaire-deathbed last word “Rosebud”—the movie, through its characters, offers multiple guesses and suppositions and ideas, while at the same time readily admitting their inadequacies. The burning sled with its “Rosebud” insignia melting off at the film’s end plants what seems to be a decisive answer—but it depends on exactly how we read its significance in Kane’s mind as he dies, a consciousness that we are never privy to, in a first-person sense, for a single moment during the film’s overlapping-pancake, questionable-witness accumulation of story. Did he bereave his childhood, or his mother in particular, or himself as a little boy? Did he miss the innocence, the freedom, the youthfulness, the play, the Western wilderness, all of the above? Did he mourn for what he knew, or what he thought he might’ve had, in a different drift of events? Was he idealizing his own childhood experience, or remembering it accurately? Was his existential nostalgia unique to the arc of his experience, or was it the same universal loss we all feel toward our younger selves? What kind of life did he wish he had had? How would we, or the newsreel reporter, ever know?
We would not, even if Kane were a real man. As the reporter himself says in the end, one word can’t explain a man’s life. All I’m saying is it’s a bear of a text, a Modernist novel’s worth of mysteries and human ambiguity and textual slippage and unreliable reportage, without even convenient class-war points to score off magnate capitalism. Trump, interviewed on video by documentarian Errol Morris in 2002 for an aborted project, sums up his reading thus: “You learn in Kane, maybe wealth isn't everything, because he had the wealth but he didn't have the happiness... In real life I believe that wealth does in fact isolate you from other people. It's a protective mechanism—you have your guard up much more so [than] if you didn't have wealth.”
Here we have the strange situation of a decades-old film having more profound and complicated things to say about a real life paradigm than does a flesh-and-blood man who lives it himself. Trump seems to resemble a real-life Kane in only the aspects that Trump notices—wealth and a taste for public bravado. What fueled Kane’s discontent, what marked his maddened search for fulfillment and meaning, seems to have escaped Trump altogether, in life as well as in watching Citizen Kane. It seems safe to assume that Trump empathizes and identifies with Kane, and this identification is the simple source of his enthusiasm. But identify how? With Kane’s plight only insofar as Trump sees himself as having negotiated around a similarly wealth-burdened life and heroically defeated its destructive arc? Is Kane the goat to Trump’s king of the hill, and Citizen Kane is, for him, just a huge, baroque launch of schadenfreude? We shouldn’t dismiss the possibility: when Morris, from behind the camera, asks his subject the one piece of advice he would have given Kane, Trump responds, “Get yourself a different woman.”
Maybe that works for some people. Kane’s existential crisis was a little more robust. Political campaigning seemed to answer an inner need for Kane—a need for “the love of the people” or some such configuration, depending on what subjective voice in the film is talking—in a way that exposed the fact that for Kane wealth wasn’t enough, and would not buy him satisfaction. This hardly seems to be a template you could fit onto Trump, who is clearly unsatisfied with life as one of the uber-rich and uber-famous, but whose year-old political career seems motivated from the inside only by the compulsive jive of the kleptomaniac conman. But perhaps the film resounds in the echo chamber of Trump’s heart in ways which he dares not examine, and about which we can only guess. There are, after all, many films about rich men—why choose the one that so fiercely dissects a rich man’s personal failure? Why choose the film so famously massaging the black heart of the American Dream? Being President seems to have made Trump even more of a whining, malevolent grump than he was before—perhaps he too senses a bottomless well that he simply cannot satisfy, with money, power, women, or fame. Does he have a Rosebud? Is there a little Charlie Kane, a little unloved rich boy, a keening ghost disinherited in some way that has nothing to do with literal inheritance, inside the shell? I’m reminded of a brief one-two-punch of shots early in the film, in a montage following the famous Colorado sequence with Kane’s mother in the snowy boarding house, which glimpses the preadolescent Charlie ensconced in the banker Thatcher’s New York mansion, on Christmas morning, surrounding by looming servants with not a caring parent in sight, opening his presents (including a new sled—instead of “Rosebud” emblazoned across its panels, it reads “The Crusader”), and spitting “Merry Christmas” at his new guardian with open malice. Money has both blessed and crucified the boy, and you can see the hole in his life open up right there, holding an utterly meaningless sled. Is that the Kane Trump sees himself in?
Truth be told, for most of us this is an unsavory line of thinking, because in the real world Trump doesn’t measure up to it—comparing the two feels like trying to find equivalencies between Hamlet and the most amoral used car salesman in downtown Newark. I’d maintain that pairing up Trump and Kane as analogues is a false equivalency—and since it came from Trump himself, we might’ve guessed as much. As delineated in the film, as a man with an ambivalent relationship with wealth and the life it bought him, Kane is too conflicted, too doubtful, too questioning, too uncomfortable with the solipsism that extreme wealth brings. The movie’s faceless yet unflappable newsreel reporter (William Alland) says in the very end that Kane was “a man who got everything he wanted, and then lost it,” which is yet another summation of the man’s life that rings untrue—Kane didn’t get everything he wanted, and didn’t really lose anything (except his son, whose auto-crash death is entirely off-screen, and mentioned only once, in the opening newsreel). His inconclusive combat with meaning and happiness didn’t even entirely define him.
However invoked, the significance of Citizen Kane should be ours, not Trump’s, in the end. And so there may be a more significant interface between Trump and Kane, one that won’t jibe with Trump’s self-pitying ardor for the film but that may better characterize the forces at work. It may be that the avatar for Trump, for all practical purposes, isn’t Kane at all, but Thatcher, the film’s hidebound personification of mega-capitalism. In an early scene, Thompson sits down with Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), the avuncular, cartoonishly nebbishy “chairman of the board” of the Kane financial empire. Bernstein has had a lifetime of history with Kane, which we see will in the film’s kaleidoscopic flashbacks, but he remains always a spectator, a Horace to an all-American Augustus. The subject of Thatcher comes up, and Bernstein scoffs at the mention of the long-dead billionaire: “That man was the biggest darned fool I ever met.”
“He made an awful lot of money,” Thompson rejoins rather naively, as though under the impression that “making” money, making something from nothing, is an intrinsic value.
“It’s no trick,” Bernstein says with a measure of certain, calm wisdom in his rasp, “to make a lot of money... if all you want is to make a lot of money.”
There’s no telling who wrote that line, Orson Welles or co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz. But it may be the truest, most prescient and resonant line, sociopolitically speaking, ever uttered in an American film. What’s implied by it first is a critique of Thatcher himself, and by extension an entire generation of American-industry magnates just like him, men with names still emblazoned on corporations and foundations and office buildings, whose rampaging greed and monopolistic accumulation of assets defined them, tautologically, as men resolutely single-minded about money and therefore demonstrably unconcerned and uncommitted to anything else in life: love, family, comfort, fun, knowledge, art, piece of mind, destiny, the state of the nation, the nature of justice, the welfare of others. Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan et al. may have claimed to have had other concerns besides their fortunes, but for all intents and purposes the fortunes themselves told a different story. Thatcher was a monumental fool, in Bernstein’s eyes and Welles/Mankiewicz’s, because for him wealth was an end to itself, like a tree that sucks up sunlight for light energy’s own glory, not to fuel the organism’s other processes. Thatcher was a fool because he had no life except the amassment of wealth, and nothing to use money for—money being at best a vehicle for an idea, a tool—except to find more money. Divorced from most aspects of fragile human reality, Thatcher never asked the questions of himself that haunted, and ruined, Kane—the questions about happiness and fulfillment and meaning and love. Money made these mysteries unsolvable for Kane, but for Thatcher, the hungers never arose to challenge the primacy of accumulation. No existential quandaries vexed his conscience. As far as Bernstein was concerned, this made Thatcher the lesser of the two men—not the one pitiably lost on a hopeless, lonesome soul-search through the junkyard of modern American consumerism and ownership, but the one who never went on a pilgrimage at all, the troll who sat fat in the brokerage pit and never took his eye off the ticker-tape. The one who went home late every night to a silent mansion, and never second-guessed his choices.
There’s an American archetype here, an insight into the ghost rusting and tarnishing the insides of the machine of the modern age, right up to this winter and its arrival of the Huns.
It could be an inevitability, for a self-created nation self-defined as “in pursuit” of “liberty.” Indeed, what’s implied secondly by Bernstein’s remonstration, and his practical-philosophical calculus between life and money, is a cultural catastrophe – a society spending a century and a half dedicating itself to Thatcherism, to the priority of profit and the end-all of ownership and the urgency of consumerism, without scruple or hindrance, and convincing itself that the attendant accumulation and triumphalism is a kind of bliss, satisfaction, piece of mind, and meaning, when it is in fact no such thing.
We’ve seen it arrive in fresh and virulent form since the ‘80s, and if anything the 2007-2008 worldwide financial crisis, with its suddenness, its human costs, and its stunning non-drama of legal non-culpability—that is to say, the cascade of destruction inflicting no shame or regret upon the money “makers,” only silent relief that the costs were being incurred much farther downstream—gave Bernstein’s line the cast of a Jeremainic prophecy. This, if anything, was the spectacle of Thatcherism (American Thatcherism being the larger, longer tidal drift that contributed to British Thatcherism, among other things): mini-Thatchers in their glory, not wanting anything or caring for much except the mitotic growth of their portfolios, mistaking ownership for love and gain for self-esteem, emptying out American life of intangibles and unmonetizable mysteries, bleeding the underclasses of their chance to balance the desire for financial stability with other wants and human needs, becoming only mouths and stomachs instead of hands and hearts.
Strip away the huckster bullshit and showbiz affectations, and this is the Trump paradigm in its aboriginal form. In many ways it may seem to be a kind of miracle that it took until now for this national verity to seize the reins of power with its fangs and rampant genitalia proudly exposed, unencumbered by the need to appear sane or responsible. Up to 2016, America had managed to temper its native toxicity with myths about fairness and justice—literally, we had a tether on the spike-collared dog. But now, the dog is free. If this sounds too simple—far simpler than any rudimentary reading of Citizen Kane—then consider for a moment what there is about Trump, his words and his actions, that is not simple: primitive, mercenary, predatory, characterized by a grade-school playground-bully level of insight and desire. Kane is too complex a character, with too many conflicting traits. The mono-minded Thatcher, who measured everything human by its market valuation, is a more telling model. It’s unsurprising, then, that Trump would fail to extract this awareness from Welles’ movie, given his Thatcherist tunnelvision and his deficit of ideas about being human.
Easily the most prescient and prophetic film ever fashioned about this texture in the American grain, Citizen Kane tells a story about many things. But mostly, it’s a story about money, because America itself is also a story about money—which may be the problem in a teaspoon. However the nomenclature was originally intended, glittering generalities like “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” have, over the last century and a half at least, been financialized, and have come to mean different things: the liberty to acquire and become rich, and the pursuit of material wealth. (Really, what other variation on pursuing “happiness” could the state hope to ensure?) Other nations have created themselves around stories of money—the Soviet Union pressed on for eight decades in a conflicted fog of lies about profit, economic ideals, and property, while Israel has had from 1947 on, at the core of the Zionist mythology, an unshakable tale told about the ownership of land, and therefore material power, as conferred by divine providence. But the US alone, seemingly, is and has been self-defined as a nation built for success, and rhetorically devised for the pursuit of individual prosperity. Like the stories that the Soviets and Israelis have told themselves, the American story is half rosy-cheeked propaganda, half exceptionalist daydream, and all national religion. It has the mob-think allure and golden-pasture wish fulfillment of a cult theology, regardless of how rarely actual individual prosperity is ever attained.
The other tales we’ve told ourselves, about democratic ideals and equality and the common good and so on, were like the ocean bacteria that eats the oil spill—slowly, but steadily enough to keep the ecosystem alive. They’re gone now, and the pollution of our national romance with self-focused gain is unchecked, personified by a man with the moral aptitude of a hammerhead. Yellow journalist and glib politician that he may have been, Kane, I’d venture, would’ve been at least as disgusted with the national situation in 2017 as he was by Thatcher back in the day. At one point in Welles’ film, amid a life-summary moment, an elderly Thatcher asks a middle-aged Kane, “What would you have liked to have been?” Kane levels a glower at his erstwhile guardian, and ends the scene by answering, “Everything you hate.” We know how he feels. Trump can claim Kane-ness all he wants, but it’s clear that, at least in regards to those for whom profit supplants life, Kane is us.
Michael Atkinson's latest book is the novel Hemingway Cutthroat. He writes regularly for The Village Voice, Sight & Sound, In These Times and RollingStone.com.