Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), which turns 75 this month, is Donald Trump’s favorite movie. It’s not hard to see why. The film tells the story of an American tycoon, the inheritor of a great fortune, who spends his life vainly pursuing the love he lost in childhood. His historic career takes him right to the cusp of great political power—the governorship of New York—but he falls short thanks to his own hubris.
Something in Charles Foster Kane’s relentless pursuit of more—more wealth, more possessions, more influence—strikes a very definite chord with Trump, as he himself admits. “I think you learn in Kane that maybe wealth isn’t everything,” Trump told documentary filmmaker Errol Morris “because he had the wealth, but he didn’t have the happiness.” Or, as Kane puts it early on in the film, “You know … if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”
But Kane is about more than just the damaging, isolating power of wealth—or “accumulation,” as Trump puts it. Welles didn’t simply make his protagonist a rich man; he made Kane a media baron, whose influence extends far beyond his riches because he controls the press. And that, more than anything else, is why Citizen Kane remains essential viewing three-quarters of a century after its initial release. Few films offer such a perceptive view of the media’s role in shaping American politics and thought. Even though Kane depicts an era dominated by the newspaper and the telegraph, and emerged when radio and newsreels held sway, its lessons have only become truer in the age of television and the Internet.
When he made Kane, Welles already knew a thing or two about the media’s power to bend reality. On October 30, 1938, at the tender age of 23, he achieved international fame with his radio adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds. The broadcast told the story of a Martian invasion through a series of fake news bulletins, which were realistic enough to briefly frighten as many as one million people scattered across the United States. That, in and of itself, was a startling revelation of the radio’s influence on the American mass mind, and arguably the first viral media event in history. But it paled in comparison with the hysteria created the next day, when American newspapers assaulted the nation with huge headlines about a nationwide mass panic allegedly caused by Welles’s radio play.
The stories under those headlines were ++grossly exaggerated ++ [/content/dailybeast/articles/2015/07/03/the-war-of-the-worlds-panic-is-a-myth.html]. Reporters, with no way of telling the true extent of the show’s impact, stitched together a few scattered reports of panic into a “tidal wave of terror” that hadn’t actually existed. And these acts of journalistic malpractice forever distorted the reality of that night, creating a mutually agreed upon fiction that the War of the Worlds broadcast really had sent tens of thousands—if not millions—of listeners fleeing into the hills on that Halloween Eve. This powerful, long-lasting narrative continues to shape how we understand the power of the media, even though it has been consistently and thoroughly debunked. There is a certain irony in the fact that the legitimate press in 1938 turned out to be much more successful at spreading “fake news” than the man behind the Martians.
Welles understood the media’s role in hyping his broadcast. He later told director Peter Bogdanovich that the reported lawsuits he faced, supposedly from angered listeners, in truth “existed in the fevered imagination of the newspapers … But people were laughing much too hard, thank God—and pretty soon the papers had to quit.” Welles also recognized that this false narrative was the springboard that sent him to Hollywood. If he hadn’t been world-famous as “the man from Mars,” he never would have received the remarkable offer from RKO Radio Pictures—to write, produce, direct, and star in two films entirely of his own conception—that led to Citizen Kane. His film career, then, had as its foundation a myth, even a lie—one that Welles didn’t create, but nevertheless exploited masterfully. And when it suited his purposes, he gleefully added his own brushstrokes to the canvas, stretching the truth about the broadcast even further.
This awareness filtered into the script of Kane—a screenplay that, despite recent claims to the contrary, Welles actually did co-write with Herman J. Mankiewicz. The film is structured around a reporter seeking to complete a newsreel obituary of Kane, searching for the one piece of evidence—the meaning of Kane’s last word, “Rosebud”—that he hopes will solve the “jigsaw puzzle” of this man’s character. But everything he discovers only deepens the mystery further. In faux archival footage at the start of the film, one man calls Kane a communist; another brands him a fascist. The reporter’s interviews with people who knew Kane paint an equally contradictory portrait. In their shifting memories, Kane is by turns idealistic and cynical, admirable and arrogant. It is easy to say what he’s done in his life; the whole world evidently knows that. But it’s impossible to say exactly who he was.
Welles based his fictitious reporter and his equally fictitious newsreel, “News on the March,” on The March of Time—an immensely popular radio show and later film series in the ’30s and ’40s, which helped inspire the War of the Worlds broadcast. Founded as an advertisement for Time magazine, The March of Time delivered dramatic reenactments of news stories—restaging real events in a studio with actors impersonating real people, adding realistic sound effects and stirring music as need be. The founder of Time Inc. called this practice “fakery in allegiance to the truth.”
Today, The March of Time might “seem wildly irresponsible and even illegal,” as historian Erik Barnouw observes in his mammoth History of Broadcasting in the United States. But its underlying premise—that audiences want news that’s more entertaining, and more comprehensible, than reality itself—has never gone away, and in fact has only gathered steam. The legion of pundits who populate today’s news channels and blogs are, each in his or her own way, searching for Rosebud—something that would make sense of a chaotic, at times disturbing, and often nonsensical world. Citizen Kane begins with a straightly factual newsreel account of Kane’s life, but that’s not good enough for the producers of “News on the March.” They want an “angle,” a good story—something dramatic, shocking, even touching. In short, they want Rosebud, even if, as the reporter realizes at the end of the film, no single word holds the key to a person’s life. The brilliance of Welles’s film is that it invites viewers to make up their own minds about its protagonist—an opportunity the newsreel producers, like their modern counterparts, seem determined to deny their own audience.
Kane’s media empire is built on “fakery in allegiance to the truth.” Like the real historical figure that inspired him (the great yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst), Kane willingly reshapes the facts in service of his own beliefs, heedless of the real-life damage he might cause. As the brash young publisher of the New York Inquirer, he tackles the “money-mad pirates” making fortunes on the backs of the underprivileged—even though his own finances are tied in with theirs. In the same scene, he gleefully seeks to spur a conflict between the U.S. and Spain, cabling a reporter in Cuba (in an echo of Hearst): “[Y]ou provide the prose poems, I’ll provide the war.” He promotes himself as a truth-teller, a righteous defender of the downtrodden, but he always puts his own interests first and foremost. “Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio,” Kane declares early in the film, perhaps in a sly reference to War of the Worlds. As an alternative, he promotes his own paper: “Read the Inquirer.”
This media monopoly creates, in essence, a bubble, which Kane zealously defends at great cost. He uses his wealth and influence to try and bend reality to his will, but he continually fails. The truth keeps reasserting itself. To prove that his second wife is truly a great singer, Kane builds a $3 million opera house in Chicago and forces her to perform against her will, pushing her to the point of suicide. But all the forceful clapping in the world can’t hide the simple truth that Welles, in one of the great visual flourishes in the film, so clearly reveals—she stinks. After meeting with Adolf Hitler and other European heads of state in 1935, Kane scoffs at the idea of a second great war. “You can take my word for it,” Kane tells the press, four years before the German invasion of Poland, “there will be no war.” And as his empire falls apart, Kane retreats to the only world he can truly control—Xanadu, his opulent Florida estate, where he dies lonely and ignored.
The apex of Kane’s self-delusion is his 1916 run for governor. At an iconic rally in Madison Square Garden, Kane gives a speech that would not seem out of place coming from Donald Trump (or, for that matter, Bernie Sanders). He proudly cites his yuge poll numbers, rails against the corrupt political establishment, and promises to “do everything in my power to protect the underprivileged, the underpaid, and the underfed.” But his campaign collapses when his nemesis leaks word of his extramarital affair to rival newspapers. For once, Kane’s own trusty weapon, the tabloid press, gets turned against him. And he tries to fight back the only way he knows how—by using his empire to deny the painful truth. On election night, his paper prepares two headlines: one, “KANE ELECTED,” and the other, “FRAUD AT POLLS!”
But even though a scandal proves Kane’s immediate undoing, the film makes clear that his political aspirations were ill fated from the start. After the returns come in, Kane receives a visit from Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten), his old friend and surrogate conscience. In spite (or perhaps because of) being plastered, Leland cuts to the heart of Kane’s misplaced ambition:
“You talk about the people as though you owned them … As long as I can remember, you’ve talked about giving the people their rights, as if you could make them a present of liberty… When your precious underprivileged really get together… oh, boy. That’s going to add up to something bigger than your privilege, then I don’t know what you’ll do. Sail away to a desert island, probably, and lord it over the monkeys.”
Leland recognizes the absurdity of a man who’s never had to work a day in his life appointing himself the defender of “the workingman.” With all the power at his command, Kane has crafted a compelling narrative, in which the people are victims and he’s their savior. But he can’t save them, because they’re not his to save. Sooner or later, Leland predicts, they’ll figure out they don’t need him. And then they’ll turn on him.
In this, at least, Donald Trump might agree. “You can’t con people, at least not for long,” Trump explains in The Art of the Deal. “You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.” Kane couldn’t deliver the goods. And if the manifest unfeasibility of Trump’s signature campaign promise—the border wall—is any indication, he can’t either.
In the 75 years since Kane’s release, the media have only gotten louder, more persuasive, and all enveloping. Americans can now choose between many different versions of Kane’s media empire, each offering their own Rosebuds, their own versions of reality. “Fakery in allegiance to the truth” has given way to fakery with no resemblance to the truth—falsehoods perpetuated, repeated, and reinforced until they become almost indistinguishable from facts. This makes it ever easier to retreat, like Kane, into your own private Xanadu. If you don’t like the outcome of an election, you’ll have no trouble finding some reassuring headline that declares, “FRAUD AT POLLS!” But if Welles’s film teaches anything, it’s that a painful reality check is always waiting in the wings. A campaign (or an administration) based on “outrageous untruth” can only go so far. The question that remains is whether the rest of us will emulate Kane’s descent into destructive self-delusion.
Brad Schwartz is the author of Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News, the paperback edition of which will be released on May 17.