Thanks to Donald Trump, Citizen Kane Is More Relevant Than Ever

Donald Trump's presidential candidacy proves that Orson Welles' 1941 film 'Citizen Kane' is still relevant.

What American movie character does Donald Trump most resemble?
JOSH EDELSON / AFP / RKO / The Kobal Collection

What American movie character does Donald Trump most resemble? The protagonist who comes to mind every time I see the Republican presidential candidate on the television screen is Charles Foster Kane, from Orson Welles’ 1941 film “Citizen Kane” — who despite Welles’ frequent denials was modeled on the nearly omnipotent newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst.

That’s not to say that Trump and Kane are identical. They aren’t. The fact that my mind often turns to Kane as I watch Trump stems mainly from a suggestive context that links the two figures, one of them real and the other a fictionalized version of someone real.

In “Citizen Kane,” Welles drew the most sweeping American portrait of ambition operating within a lawless world that overflows its banks, actually and metaphorically, as a result of an unbounded lust for power. Greed is a secondary cause for Kane; it is his appetite for power that motivates and eventually destroys him. That hunger for power is also seen in his relation to women. He seeks to control them, to hoard them as he does his vast collection of artworks and antiquities.

Kane’s dimensions, as shaped by Welles as actor and director according to the screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz, are what connect him in my mind to Trump and makes Kane the only cinematic character in which I can discern a reflection of Trump. This magnitude, which bursts all the usual bounds, arouses a measure of wonder but also steers the character of Kane in the direction of the grotesque and even the pathetic.

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at an campaign rally in front of his personal helicopter, Hagerstown, Maryland, April 24, 2016.
Jim Bourg, Reuters

The aspiration for media power that is translated into political and even historical power motivates the protagonist of Welles’ film, and the issue of war and peace inevitably accompanies it.

Kane believes journalism has moral boundaries, but he is prepared to cross them for his own profit. Above all, he believes the press creates history. When he discovers that a rival newspaper has printed a headline across three columns, he asks the editor of his own paper, “Why hasn’t the Inquirer a three-column headline?”

“The news wasn’t big enough,” replies his editor. To which Kane says: “[I]f the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.”

And when a reporter in Cuba sends him a telegram saying there’s no war in the country and he could submit “prose poems about scenery,” Kane responds: “you provide the prose poems. I’ll provide the war.”

A scene from 'Citizen Kane.'
Everett Collection

Kane believes that his motives are positive. He even admits to being two people: Charles Foster Kane the wealthy shareholder, “a scoundrel” whose paper should be boycotted and run out of town, and the publisher of the Inquirer, who has a duty “ to see to it that decent, hard-working people in this community aren’t robbed blind by a pack of money-mad pirates just because — they haven’t anybody to look after their interests.”

This duality is challenged by the search of the reporter Jerry Thompson in the movie for the meaning of “Rosebud,” uttered by Kane on his deathbed.

There is no other movie protagonist like Kane, in whose character such a strong conflict takes place between a single word, spoken just before the individual’s death, and a duality — far more than a duality, a wealth of dualities –— characteristic of the life of that individual. Does Trump have a duality of his own? Will we discover what his “Rosebud” is?

Trump’s character and story are swept into Kane’s character and story; no other movie protagonist has the massive proportions needed to contain Trump, 75 years after Orson Welles brought this character into the cinematic pantheon.

I am sometimes asked, with a measure of befuddlement, to explain why “Citizen Kane” is held in such tremendous esteem: It figures in every survey as one of the best movies of all time. People tell me that it is even exhausting. And now along comes Donald Trump, once again bringing into sharp focus the value and importance of this film in a reality that is seemingly so different but indeed also so similar to the one in which Welles made his film.

Whether or not Trump makes it to the White House, Welles’ film will always remain nearly the ultimate measure of America’s potential for becoming engulfed into its enthusiasm for power with many populist, brutal and violent tentacles and from within this power to barricade itself, like Kane toward the end of his life, into its own Xanadu — the fortress where Kane barricaded himself in before his death with all his treasures that were thrown away and burned after his demise.