Exploring Citizen Trump | The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Exploring Citizen Trump
Paul Kengor
by
Screenshot from “Citizen Trump” website

Coming soon to a screen near you is an intriguing and creative new film documentary on Donald Trump, and yours truly and The American Spectator is here offering the first glimpse, courtesy of the talented filmmaker, Robert Orlando. The film is called Citizen Trump, inspired, yes, by Citizen Kane.

Here’s the parallel that Orlando plays out:

In 1941, the story of a powerful, larger-than-life, media-driven business tycoon would emerge on the silver screen in a groundbreaking film. The film was a morality tale of the mogul’s bid for high office. The story was Citizen Kane, and the real-life portrait captured in the film was that of William Randolph Hearst. Seventy-five years later, another business tycoon would emerge to also run for president, only this time, unlike Hearst/Kane, he would win the presidency. That man’s name, of course, is Donald Trump.

The film is remarkable — truly in the literal sense. I think it will evoke a strong dislike from those who either hate Trump or love Trump.

What was similar, and what was different? As Orlando sees it, both Citizen Trump and Citizen Kane sought enormous power, though with motives that were questioned, perhaps not entirely clear. Why would one win and one lose? How has Donald Trump accomplished what even a historical-fictional, first-rate Hollywood film subject could not?

Told by the pesky boy genius, Orson Welles, Kane/Hearst would be exposed as a well-intentioned hypocrite, seeking to ride his self-aggrandizing ambition to fame. He would use the megaphone of his newspaper machine to win public opinion. As Orlando sees it, the Hearst/Kane bravado conveyed by Welles doesn’t seem vastly different from the Trump bravado. Hearst/Kane made headlines with their newspapers; Trump does so via his mere Twitter account. Both can set off a veritable earthquake, as Trump did even with his strange “covfefe” tweet back in May 2017. The world — especially the press, the establishment — waits with bated breath for the next utterance. As Orlando sees it, the world’s frazzled, frenetic search for meaning in the characters of Trump’s tweets reveals something about the character of the rest of us. We are fixed on this Trump drama, on the man’s lashing out, on his insecurities; he’s intriguing to us, and we rubberneck him like a car accident.

In Orlando’s eyes, the obsession with Trump’s every syllable also says something about the character of the so-called establishment. It’s that very same establishment — the media, the Beltway, the “Swamp,” the “Deep State” — that Trump has taken on with fist-in-the-air swagger, not unlike Kane’s adversaries.

As Orlando perceives it, Donald Trump’s choice of enemies are not without irony, given his background. Trump comes from the establishment himself. Nonetheless, the brash, cocky New Yorker has brilliantly pitted himself against the establishment. He would overcome the political system in 2016. That first included the Republican establishment. How could one man, with no political resume, overcome a field of 16 highly credentialed Republicans also vying for the job? Once he won the GOP primary, how could he persevere when being out-funded by the Democratic Party establishment, or when out-strategized by one of the most corrupt political machines in the history of the presidency, the Clintons? Once in the Oval Office, could he survive an unprecedented blitzkrieg of media attacks still going on today?

As Orlando notes, Trump played the “America First” card (a term also used by Hearst, accused of fascist sympathies, which sent his critics into more fits). He was accused of Russian collusion. A flawed figure like Hearst, Trump too had his Marion Davies, his Xanadu, a Trump Tower. In Citizen Kane, Xanadu, the unfinished Gulf Coast palace built by Kane, is described as having 100,000 trees, 20,000 tons of marble, “paintings, pictures, statues, the very stones of many another palace — a collection of everything so big it can never be cataloged or appraised; enough for 10 museums; the loot of the world.” Trump in Florida has his $200 million Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. One paper describes Mar-a-Lago as “126 rooms on 17 acres bound by the Atlantic and Intracoastal waterway, liberally graced with glittering chandeliers, oriental rugs, and 16th century Flemish tapestries” — complete with rivers of marble, carved stone, and gold leaf.

As Orlando sees it, Trump would be exposed, in scandal after scandal. He would be scathed, renounced, and reviled. Nonetheless, after nearly three years of investigation and accusations, the media outcry ricocheted against itself in the echo chambers of newsrooms — dismissed as purveyors of “fake news” by the tycoon-turned-president and his followers. To his devoted supporters, the objections to their leader’s vulgarity fell on deaf ears, as they were numbed after years of contempt from Barack Obama and the Clintons. Many of these “bitter-clingers” and “deplorables” were white, blue-collar, Rust Belt voters who felt like the Democrats’ forever Forgotten Man.

“He has enormous popularity among ignorant and unthinking people,” Franklin Roosevelt sniffed, insulting Hearst and his deplorable supporters. “He preaches the gospel of envy, hate and unrest.… He is the most potent single influence for evil we have in our life.”

It is worth recalling that in Citizen Kane, political boss Jim Gettys destroys Kane’s political aspirations by leaking a sex scandal involving Kane in the final stretch of the campaign. Before leaking the story, Gettys warned Kane he would not be able to be elected dogcatcher — a phrase that Donald Trump has used against rivals. The same efforts were tried against Trump, and yet he (unlike Kane) prevailed.

This is the fascinating parallel that inspired Robert Orlando.

The film is remarkable — truly in the literal sense. It’s visually engaging, if not riveting. That, of course, doesn’t mean everyone will like it. I think it will evoke a strong dislike from those who either hate Trump or love Trump.

If you’re a liberal here hoping for a Michael Moore-style documentary aimed at the Left, forget it, and if you’re a conservative looking for something that Dinesh D’Souza would create, you’re likewise out of luck. For Trump-loathing liberals, Orlando taking Trump seriously and exploring him honestly will itself be judged intolerable and unacceptable. Even a mere unbiased exploration will be viewed as lending too much dignity to the villain’s cretinous rise. For liberals or for Never Trumpers looking for a film portraying Trump as an unfit maniac, this film isn’t that.

As for Trump devotees, be forewarned as well: this film does not, by any stretch, portray Donald J. Trump positively. My take is that it’s quite negative toward Trump. And you can’t blame this on a hack left-wing filmmaker. Orlando has credentials as a filmmaker very comfortable with traditional (conservative) subject matters like General George S. Patton, Silence Patton, and Reagan and John Paul II, The Divine Plan (a film in which I was heavily involved). Both of those films are terrific, and conservatives and liberals alike would enjoy them.

So, how and why is Citizen Trump so remarkable? It’s remarkable because Robert Orlando has looked at Trump through a unique lens that no one else has. And to Orlando, the vantage is personal and theatrical as well as political and historical.

The film starts with the voice and face of the filmmaker and writer, an Orson Welles aficionado and expert. “Locked down by corona in 2020 and thinking I had the virus myself,” Orlando opens, he sat back and re-watched anew his favorite film, Citizen Kane, “but this time through a new set of eyes — the eyes of Donald Trump.” And here, Donald Trump, in Orlando’s view, began to morph into the Citizen Kane role. Now Orlando looked at Welles and his opus, Citizen Kane, in a brand new way, through the eyes of “Citizen Trump.”

For decades, critics praised Welles, who wrote and filmed and starred in Citizen Kane, and Orlando performs all those roles in this film, Citizen Trump. “What Welles didn’t know 80 years ago,” says Orlando, “is that another eccentric man would take his cues from Kane, and that man is Donald Trump.”

Orlando has watched Kane countless times and studied Welles and his storytelling. Well, Trump had something in common with Orlando: Citizen Kane was his favorite movie, too. An interviewer years back asked several famous people to choose their favorite film. One of them was Donald Trump. Trump picked Citizen Kane. That fascinating choice certainly struck Orlando. “Is Donald Trump our modern-day Charles Foster Kane?” asks and explores Orlando.

That exploration constitutes the most powerful part of the documentary. It is visually captivating — the snow-globe, the RKO Radio Picture intro, shots of Xanadu and Mar-a-Lago, “Rosebud,” a modernized “News on the March.”

Then comes a biographical timeline of Trump:

In 1970, just out of Wharton, Trump invested in a play titled “Paris Is Out.” Trump lost his shirt on the play, a loss in more than one way because he wanted to learn the operation of the theater/stage. He then went out West. He tried to buy the Beverly Hills Hotel, but wasn’t even considered a contender. He eventually followed his father into real estate. When asked what makes Trump tick, his wife Marla Maples had said simply, “He needs attention.” The film then goes to Trump on TV, running beauty pageants, and even “Trump” the board game. Trump ultimately finds big success with The Apprentice, the final episode ending exactly four months before he started his presidential campaign.

“He needed a new gig,” says the film. “The campaign was it.”

Alas, then the “News on the March” on Orlando’s screen announces that “Trump Goes to Washington.” Therein, the critical scene with President Barack Obama calling out and making fun of Donald Trump for the birth certificate issue at the White House Correspondents Dinner is striking.

Up to this point in the film, the big-picture parallels to Citizen Kane are captivating. Robert Orlando nails it. This is the strength of the film. Thereafter, as we get into Trump entering politics and the Trump presidency, the politics and the positioning are bound to provoke objections. This is where dividing lines over Trump will divide most viewers over Citizen Trump. This portion of the documentary is a political roller coaster.

The narration picks up:

“Trump, like Kane, wanted to be a star,” says the film, and politics would be his biggest and most successful role yet.

Trump, the New York liberal who had changed parties seven times, would now take on the Washington establishment and “Crooked Hillary.” Years before Hillary had accepted Trump’s donations and even attended his wedding. Now, he would take on the “Clinton smear machine.” He did, and he won.

Trump, once president, would need the “performance of a lifetime.”

Here, the film credits various Trump accomplishments: By early 2020, he had kept his promises, he enforced border laws, he brought jobs back from China, and presided over what the film calls the greatest economy in history. He defeated all his enemies and was ready to glide into a second term in a landslide. Then came COVID-19. The film claims that Trump turned the COVID “press conferences into a talk show for more self-promotion,” which is a view that I disagree with emphatically. It was clear, the film narrator continues, that the presidential skills needed for crisis leadership amid the pandemic couldn’t come from a mere reality TV star: “America didn’t need a reality TV star; it needed a moral leader.” This was a role Trump had never had.

In COVID-19, the film avers, “Trump had met his match.” Here was an enemy he couldn’t defeat. Was this the moment to give him the prestige of a wartime president and leader to be admired for years to come? Trump’s success had been his ability to play the “trickster,” but this new role required a sophistication, a skill he didn’t have.

“As the virus took center stage,” Trump’s popularity sank, notes the film. “Though the virus was not his fault.” Trump thus found a new enemy to pivot against, though this one was real: China. “The China virus.”

And then, in the midst of the pandemic, came George Floyd. With that, we see stark images of riots and chaos.

In my view, the major flaw of the film comes in its final five minutes, which needs to wrap up the theme powerfully, putting a big, tidy bow on the message. Instead, the concluding words from Orlando himself seem muddled and heavy on moralizing, even as Orlando struggles to do his best in dealing with his subjectivities toward Trump (as Welles was subjective with Kane). I personally was not really sure of his message, or how Trump’s mysterious tweet “covfefe” equates to a Charles Foster Kane “Rosebud” moment, which the film suggests. Like the close of Citizen Kane, the close of Citizen Trump, in my view, needs to end with viewers understanding his Rosebud.

Moreover, as the credits begin to roll, there is a strange Oliver Stone-ish “White Christmas” ending, as Bing Crosby’s song hums viewers to an odd close. What does it mean? What’s the link between Bing’s snow for Citizen Trump and the snows of Rosebud for Citizen Kane?

But alas, that ambiguity may well be, in part, the filmmaker’s intention. Is he being too clever upon too clever? The entire presentation is very cinematic, artsy, dramatic, and HBO-ish. The film is really ideal for HBO or Netflix.

Alas, Robert Orlando told me this: “This is a filmmaker-first film, and not a political cause. So, it could be very disruptive, which is what film does. When film starts with the political cause, and not the human story, to me, its propaganda. It’s not my job to tell people how to vote but to provoke feelings and thought.”

And that’s abundantly clear. You leave this film, or at least I left it, with a certainty that Orlando isn’t telling you how to vote or feel or even think. But you are left thinking. In the finest form of a true filmmaker, that’s really what Orlando achieves. This is a filmmaker-first film.

The conservative who is less committed to Trump (albeit not a Never Trumper) can probably watch this documentary and find it interesting. That person still might object to some of the positioning, but without a passionate anger. Orlando wants this to be a discussion provoker, not ender. And this film certainly does that.

Don’t prejudge or put up any filters, just watch the film!” urges Orlando. “In the end, this is my exploration of power and media through the lens of Kane, I already know it will start a lot of conversations.”

Consider this review the first such conversation.

Paul Kengor
Paul Kengor
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Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pa., and senior academic fellow at the Center for Vision & Values. Dr. Kengor is author of over a dozen books, including A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism, and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.
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