Illustration by Roei Regev. The Kobal Collection / AFP

Latter-day, Larger-than-life Citizen Kane

What is Trump’s 'rosebud'? What childhood difficulty helped make him what he is today? Whoever can figure that out will hold the key to his presidency.



NEW YORK – It’s a sunny day in early November and in an old movie house a few locals and a tourist have gathered to watch the film “Citizen Kane.” Someone who lives in the Middle East doesn’t have that many opportunities to watch such classics on the big screen, and a visit to the Big Apple is an opportunity to share a screening hall with a few other putzes, and be swept into the original cinematic experience that director Orson Welles intended in 1941.

At a certain point in the film, Kane, a media tycoon who is addicted to accumulating wealth and influence, decides that he’s had enough of merely being a kingmaker and he runs for governor of New York. At an election rally at Madison Square Garden, he promises supporters that the first move he’ll make after being elected will be to appoint a special prosecutor and put his political rival on trial. The audience in the theater chuckles, presumably remembering the presidential debate in which Donald Trump promised to appoint a special prosecutor to prosecute Hillary Clinton.

Later on, after Kane is trounced at the polls because of a sex scandal, the newspaper he owns refuses to accept the voting results and it declares that the election was rigged. The audience giggles again, perhaps because of a gut feeling that even if reality seems to be so similar to the fictional narrative, the frighteningly real scenario will also remain on screen in the end.

Donald Trump knows his “Citizen Kane.” In an interview for an aborted film project by Errol Morris in the early 2000s, Trump spoke openly about the film. “You learn in ‘Kane’ that maybe wealth isn’t everything, because he had the wealth but he didn’t have the happiness,” Trump said.

He specifically discusses a scene in which the camera pulls back to reveal a long table with Kane on one end and his wife on the other. Trump said he saw, “the table getting larger and larger, with he and his wife getting further and further apart as he got wealthier and wealthier.” And then he added, “Perhaps I can understand that.”

The Kobal Collection / AFP

In that short clip, Trump looks and sounds more honest and open than in all the thousands of video minutes we’ve seen of him in recent years, especially this year. His little smile is not at all smug, as if he is admitting that he’s revealed more than he intended. He says very little but his words speak volumes, and his appearance before Morris’ camera is almost as mesmerizing as the soundtrack playing in the background.

“In real life I believe wealth does, in fact, isolate you from other people,” he tells Morris. “It’s a protective mechanism; you have your guard up, much more so than if you didn’t have wealth.”

The Javitz Center on Manhattan’s West Side has a glass ceiling. Someone with a sense of lyric symbolism chose this site as the right place to host the victory celebrations of the first woman to be chosen president of the United States. They thought that at the moment of truth, when the results from Florida and Pennsylvania would come in and it emerged that the entire nation had voted blue, the thousands of supporters would look at the ceiling and imagine it being smashed to smithereens.

The Clinton organizing committee had a lot of creative ideas, like having a fireworks display over the Hudson River after Clinton won the vote. Someone else on the team, someone with a stronger sense of humility, superstition, and perhaps fiscal responsibility, understood that it was a stupid idea and the fireworks were canceled.

While there were a lot of creative minds there, however, there were very few logistical minds. Clinton fans and activists, who had worked hard to get a ticket to the historic event, were kept waiting for six hours in a large, airless waiting area before they could enter. No one really knew what was going on, but, being Americans, they trusted that the system was working as it should. Occasionally there was concern that they would not be allowed into the main hall to watch Clinton give her victory speech.

That she wouldn’t win didn’t occur to them.

So it was that after hours of physical and mental torture, they left the waiting area, where they learned that the tickets they had didn’t grant them entry to the main hall, but rather to a lobby from which they could watch the proceedings on a large screen. As a consolation prize, they could watch Sen. Chuck Schumer waving at them from the VIP balcony.

Now all of this seems like a fog of bland and nave memories. John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager, stepped up to the podium at the end of the night and sent everyone home to watch the president-elect’s victory address. Clinton wasn’t coming to give a concession speech.

It was time for the 45th president to take the stage and complete this dystopian vision. On MSNBC, the left-wing and less successful counterpart of Fox News, they were still counting votes and refusing to declare a winner, keeping Clinton’s hopes on artificial respiration. But it didn’t matter, the losing candidate had already called the winner to concede, and now he was giving his speech – an event more powerful and binding than any relevant clause in the Constitution.

On stage were the jubilant wicked ones. Rudy Giuliani, the evil twin of Nosferatu, was smiling like a lawyer who had managed to steal pensions from Holocaust survivors. He now has a chance to be named attorney general or perhaps Supreme Court judge, although it’s not certain he has a head for that.

Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg

“Rosebud” was the last word that Charles Foster Kane utters before his death in “Citizen Kane,” a film that follows the effort to understand what the word meant in order to find exactly what made Kane tick.

“The word ‘rosebud’ is maybe the most significant word in film,” Trump told Morris. “A lot of people don’t understand the significance of it; I’m not sure if anyone understands the significance of it, but I think the significance is bringing a lonely and rather sad figure back into his childhood. The word ‘rosebud,’ for whatever reason, has captivated moviegoers and movie watchers for so many years and perhaps if they came up with a word that meant the same thing, it wouldn’t have worked. Rosebud works.”

Rosebud, as movie enthusiasts know, was the sled that Kane played with as a child, before he became rich and powerful. What is Trump’s rosebud? What childhood difficulty helped make him what he is today? Whoever can figure that out will hold the key to his presidency.

Meanwhile, on news channel screens, the data showed that the Dow Jones industrial average was expected to plummet in the morning, and that the website for registering to immigrate to Canada had crashed. There’s no need to overreact: U.S. President Barack Obama assured the American people that, one way or the other, the sun would still rise and the forecast on the Iphone confirms this.

Still, the smug and evil face on the screen, that of the bully, the kind of guy who loses in every good movie, whether it be “Back to the Future 2,” or “Revenge of the Nerds,” offers no respite. His speech, of course, was moderate and sweet, an effort to convey to the nation and the world that the campaign was over and now he would be a good boy. But the picture on the screen will remain etched on everyone’s personal and historic memory. When the world comes to an end one day, in the hope that this will happen many years from now, that picture will be part of the film of its life.

This film didn’t end well. I want to go home.

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