Citizen Trump, and the hope of renewal
Chris Hawke

Editor's note: Chris Hawke is a graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a journalist who has reported for over two decades from Beijing, New York, the United Nations, Tokyo, Bangkok, Islamabad, and Kabul for AP, UPI, and CBS. The article reflects the author's views and not necessarily those of CGTN.

While the arrival of U.S. President Donald Trump on the political scene often seems unprecedented, shocking, and perhaps apocalyptic, it is worth remembering that in many ways he and his kind are nothing new.

Plato's Socrates warns that democracies are susceptible to choosing people who care nothing for the public and are only motivated by their own selfish desires.

I was reminded of this when a friend slyly screened Citizen Kane at our weekly movie night. The 1941 masterpiece by Orson Welles often tops the lists of best films of all time. The film is perhaps best known for its technical and storytelling innovations, but the themes running through the film are strikingly relevant today.

The movie starts in the 1870s, as industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and political corruption are starting to spark major social disruptions in the United States. It's an age of monopolists taking control of all the key new technologies that are crucial to modern life.

The protagonist of the film, Charles Foster Kane, is raised by a wealthy banker. He comes of age in the Progressive Era, and turns a fading newspaper into a booming media empire, becoming a pioneer in yellow journalism, or what we would today call fake news.

He cares little for the truth, and bends or makes up facts simply to sell newspapers.

His tries to parlay his success as a publisher into a political career, promising to fix a system rigged against the common man, and jail his opponent in a governor's race for corruption if he wins.

Damaged by his childhood, his outsized ego wrecks everything it touches.

As the story develops, we realize Kane does not really care about the public, and simply seeks people's love. Yet, he is incapable of loving them, or even his closest friends, in return.

This all sounds familiar today.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has left behind millions of blue-collar workers across the United States. The American heartland is being hollowed out by this shift in employment patterns and urbanization. Anti-immigration sentiment is strong. Politicians on the left and right are declaring the U.S. system rigged, and Washington is widely seen as corrupt. Rather than railroad and oil barons, the public is contending with power concentrated in the hands of the few Silicon Valley giants that control the information revolution.

A view of Silicon Valley of the United States. /VCG Photo

A view of Silicon Valley of the United States. /VCG Photo

The rise of social media has made the U.S. political system vulnerable to fake news, although in our era it benefits hostile foreign actors more than domestic newspaper barons.

Perhaps most strikingly, the U.S. is now being led by a man who, in some people's eye, manipulated the media throughout his career and made his biggest mark as a master tweeter and host of a reality television show.

Trump, like Kane, is seen by some an isolationist, who admires and closely associates with dictators.

Kane's political ambitions are crushed by a machine politician. Trump claims that the deep state is trying to destroy his presidency.

Trump is hardly unique as a psychological type, and leaders like him are thriving around the world – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is an obvious example.

To me, the most striking thing about Kane is the rather nuanced portrait of him as a man acting out the demons of past trauma on a public stage. The adoration he receives can never be enough — he is a bottomless pit of neediness and will do anything to get attention and love he so craves.

Kane has no close personal friends, and desperately seeks the adoration of crowds, even as his policies do nothing to help the common people.

Many commentators have described Trump in these very terms.

If Trump is simply a type, and the U.S. has been in a similar situation in the past, history might give us some clues about our future.

Author Lee Drutman argues that the United States goes through eras of political reform every 60 years or so. The Progressive Era, depicted in Citizen Kane, was one of those eras. Others include the Revolutionary War, the civil rights movement, and the Age of Jackson. 

President Andrew Jackson, by no coincidence, saw himself as a fighter for the common man against a corrupt aristocracy. Trump installed a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office within days of taking the presidency, and is flattered by comparisons, even if they are not always meant as a compliment.

Drutmen, in an op-ed piece is the New York Times, writes, "Eras of reform follow a general pattern. First, a mood of impending crisis prevails. Unfairness and inequality feel overwhelming, and national politics feels stuck and unresponsive to growing demands. But beneath the shattered yet still stubborn national stasis, new social movements organize. Politics becomes exciting and full of moral energy. New writers, empowered by new forms of media, invent new narratives."

Drutmen points out that the U.S. electorate is energized, engaged and turning out in high numbers. He sees this as a sign that changes are underway that will lead to a bright future for America. Let's hope the current problems in the United States can push the nation to renew itself, as it has in the past.

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