citizenkane

Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

November 8, 2016

STANTON | Trump’s Rosebud

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Despite being an acknowledged and well-researched psychiatric phenomenon, panic attacks remain a tricky beast — treatable only by pinpointing their underlying causes. According to Wikipedia, approximately 11 percent of the U.S. population experiences them, putting Europeans to shame at their measly 3 percent and inviting any number of cultural critiques.  In the absence of a Nate Silver-esque trend line documenting day-to-day stress levels of the average American, one need only consult their Facebook feed to identify Election Day 2016 as a stress point of apocalyptic magnitude — the moment in which we collectively confront the bed we’ve made for ourselves.

Suppressing my personal nightmare of waking up next to the GOP’s spray-tanned Frankenstein monster has proven itself a time-consuming effort, and one that shirks the comforting assurance of historical precedence. Whom can we consult to contextualize the first true reality TV election? By repeatedly identifying Citizen Kane as his all-time favorite film, Donald Trump seems to have done the work for us.

Plenty of journalists and academics have noted parallels between Donald J. Trump and Charles Foster Kane in recent months, but on the eve of the election, the comparison seems more apt than ever. Originally released in 1941, Orson Welles’ directorial debut is perhaps best known (alongside The Godfather) as that classic film you pretend to have seen without ever making any real effort to do so. Critics often list the film amongst the best that Hollywood has to offer, citing its nonlinear storytelling, innovative camerawork and quintessentially American narrative as irrefutable justification for its spot in the canon. Allegedly based upon the life of William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane follows a young man (Welles) who inherits a small fortune, which he then builds into a media empire before arrogantly attempting to launch a career in politics. All of this is told in flashback after Kane’s death, as a reporter interviews the mogul’s estranged loved ones in an attempt to decipher his final words: “Rosebud.”

“The word ‘Rosebud’, for whatever reason, has captivated moviegoers and movie watchers for so many years,” Donald Trump said in an interview from the early 2000s. “And, to this day, is perhaps the single word. And perhaps if they came up with another word that meant the same thing, it wouldn’t have worked. But ‘Rosebud’ works.” Amazingly, that recently unearthed video comes from an aborted Errol Morris project, in which the documentarian aimed to film iconic figures (including Trump and Mikhail Gorbachev) reenacting scenes from their favorite movies. Trump gives surprisingly academic — if obvious — insight into the tale of Charlie Kane, admitting that “Rosebud” signifies a sad, lonely figure’s attempt at returning to the innocence of his childhood. And yet, much like his own name, Trump sees the value of “Rosebud” in its marketing potential — a simple, legacy-preserving word that has colloquially transcended the confines of Citizen Kane while remaining tied to it. “Rosebud” works.

It’s not a stretch to assume that Trump envisions Mr. Kane as a fictional counterpart to that great American tradition of hallowed corporate innovators like Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller or Andrew Mellon — or to assume that he would add his own name to that list. In Kane, Trump sees only a man’s rise into the ranks of history, while ironically (and I wouldn’t doubt, purposefully) overlooking the point of the film itself. “[Citizen Kane] was an attack on property,” Welles said in a 1960 interview. “And on acquisition of property… And on the corruption of an acquisitive society where a man of real gifts, and real charm, and real humanity destroys himself and everything near him.”

Following Welles’ lead, most viewers have interpreted the images of Charles Kane alone in his extravagant estate as critical of material pursuits, and also reminiscent of William Hearst’s own retreat behind castle walls. Trump, meanwhile, sees the grandeur of Greek tragedy in the film but plays down the significance of the fall. “There is a great rise in Citizen Kane, and there was a modest fall,” he said. “The fall wasn’t a financial fall, it was a personal fall. But it was a fall, nevertheless.” This coping mechanism may prove itself useful come Tuesday.

In the end, Hearst and Kane’s political careers failed spectacularly, imploding in scandal and landslide defeats. To his credit, Trump’s toxic vacuum of narcissism has carried him farther than either of those men went, and he currently sits within reach of the country’s highest office. If and when he loses, the real estate mogul seems likely to retain the limelight rather than retreat behind the walls of Mar-a-Lago. The “fall,” after all, is only a matter of perspective. When asked what advice he would give to Charlie Kane, Trump had a simple answer: “Get yourself a different woman.”

Chris Stanton is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at cms459@cornell.edu. Really Terrible! And Such Small Portions appears alternate Tuesdays this semester. 

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