I recently rewatched a classic cautionary tale about the dangers of populism and mass media, A Face in the Crowd (1957). It’s the story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a drifter with no moral center, a talent for playing the guitar, and the gift of gab. When he is given the opportunity to become a radio personality in a small market his new career takes off and before you know it he has his own national TV show and he is an important political figure. Lonesome is billed as the, “Voice of the Mid-South,” a man of the people, and he breaks all the rules of standard broadcasting while making people laugh and telling them what to think. He also attracts a host of unscrupulous people who want to use him for their own ends, from the office boy turned talent agent to the corporation peddling useless energy pills to the corporate boss and his isolationist Senator friend who dreams of the White House.
Lonesome’s arrogant lust for power, his general disrespect for the rest of the world, and his closeted insecurity are fueled by his alcoholism until *Spoiler* everything falls apart when the general public hears what he really thinks of them over an open mic during a seemingly private rant. In some ways the film is a bit dated and tame but overall it holds up well and the message will forever be true. There will always be charming, charismatic, and seemingly good individuals who step out from the crowd and attempt to direct it with simplistic slogans and self-serving motivations. Unfortunately, if the film’s cynical view of humanity is to be taken as fact, it is fairly easy for the masses to get swept up into a mindless mob when the right (or wrong) populist figure comes along. Sadly, my own reading of history, along with my own personal history (I voted for Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura), largely agrees with this assessment of human nature.
It’s easy to find parallels and make connections between the fictional Lonesome and many historical and contemporary American pundits, from Father Coughlin to Glenn Beck, along with American politicians, from Huey Long to John Edwards, and truly despotic international figures, like Mussolini and Hitler. The man that most viewers probably had in mind when A Face in the Crowd first come out was Joe McCarthy, despite that fact that the film’s director, Elia Kazan, claimed the story was not about McCarthy.
Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy was a World War II Veteran – Tail Gunner Joe – from Wisconsin, who gained national fame when he claimed he had a list of communist agents in the State Department. Just how many people were on the list and why he would not produce it was never clear but many people came to see McCarthy as a champion of the common man and the American Way of Life in the global struggle against the commies (including Bobby Kennedy, who worked as a McCarthy staff member for awhile and fellow Senator John Kennedy). When McCarthy turned his attention to hunting for communists in the Army, during live, televised hearings, his lack of substance and mean-spirited nature was finally made clear to most citizens watching along at home and his fellow Senators, who publicly repudiated him in 1954. He died nearly friendless in a hospital bed three years later, most likely from a lifetime of hard drinking, the same year that A Face in the Crowd hit theaters. Some people on the fanatical fringe of the conspiratorial-minded right wing (e.g. The John Birch Society) continued to pretend that McCarthy was a hero, brought down by communist forces in the U.S. Government, including President Eisenhower, who were too powerful for McCarthy to take on alone. There are even a few fanatics today who continue to back McCarthy, like Trump Super Fangirl Ann Coulter, who wrote a book attempting to defend McCarthy. Most reasonable people, however, have come to see “McCarthyism” (i.e. behaving like McCarthy) as a bad thing.
When I first saw that Donald Trump was running for President I thought it was a big joke and poked fun at the idea by imagining what his next Reality TV show might be like:
Trump has said some crazy and hateful things during this campaign, from labeling illegal Mexican immigrants as “rapists” to belittling women as unstable when they have blood coming out of their “wherever,” none of this seems to matter to his faithful fans, who miraculously fail to see these comments as revelation about his true character. His most loyal adherents even sound giddy when they explain how much they love the fact that Trump, “isn’t politically correct;” as if his racist, sexist, and otherwise deplorable behavior could be considered correct by any measure.
For me the straw that broke the camel’s back and showed the true heart of the man was when Trump attacked John McCain. I know that a lot of self-styled “real conservatives” think McCain is too liberal, or too unreliable, or too whatever, but to attack the man on his war record and suggest that he’s not a real hero is lower than low. While Trump was dodging the draft and living the life of an up and coming millionaire playboy, McCain spent five-and-half years, two in solitary confinement, in a North Vietnamese prison camp, ironically called the, “Hanoi Hilton.” Yet, in Trump’s worldview, McCain is, “not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Trump’s supporters claim that he loves the military because he has given money to veteran groups and told them what they want to hear. But the real truth is there for anyone willing to listen. “People who were captured,” that means all POWs throughout American History, are not some losers who failed to do their duty. They are, typically, men like McCain, who refused to give up even when all hope was lost. That kind of perseverance and sacrifice doesn’t register with a man like Trump, who speaks of “winning” in much the same way as Charlie Sheen.
Another canard popular among Trump supports is that he is a great businessman, which will magically make him a great President. Obviously, he has been more financially successful than most when it comes to his own, personal enrichment, but it’s not like he built the ladder from scratch himself and climbed his way out of the basement to the top of Trump Tower. He took the final steps to the top from where his daddy placed him, with a “small” million dollar loan and a network of connections. I don’t fault him, or anyone, for being born into wealth, but you’ve got to do something more impressive than real estate deals and sensationalistic TV to convince me that you are such a mega genius in business that you can solve all of America’s problems.
Trump is reminiscent of Lonesome Rhodes and Joe McCarthy, minus the alcohol problem. As one of the characters in A Face in the Crowd explains, “We’ve got to face it. Politics have entered a new stage, the television stage. Instead of long winded public debates, the people want capsule slogans. Time for a change. The mess in Washington. More bang for a buck. Punchlines and glamour.” That reality in many ways has only gotten worse with the birth of the Internet and Trump is the embodiment of populist politics at its worst in our 140 character attention span age, where fame comes without importance and everyone’s right to have an opinion is more significant than the facts. Like the fictional Rhodes and the real life McCarthy, I am confident that Trump will come to a very unglamorous end. The only question is: What damage will this self-centered braggart inflict on the rest of us before he goes down?
Back when McCarthy was riding high on the populist wave, almost none of his fellow Republicans would speak out against him. Even General Eisenhower, who privately told McCarthy in very blunt terms how much he disliked the Senator, stood beside the blowhard in public while running for the Presidency. Perhaps McCarthy could have been taken down much faster if Ike had acted differently, or perhaps it would have only inflamed the reflexively anti-establishment “patriots” to greater levels of madness? We’ll never know. What I can say is that there was one man who didn’t cower in the face of McCarthy’s one-hit-wonder popularity, Senator Prescott Bush (father of President George H. W. Bush). At a campaign appearance, with McCarthy seated behind him and a vehemence crowd in front of him, Bush said that he disapproved of his fellow Senator’s methods. His words went over no better than his grandsons’ warnings about Trump today but the similarities in both cases should give thinking people reason to pause.
I have never been so disappointed in my fellow citizens than I am now at the prospect of a President Trump. As the French philosopher Joseph de Maistre famously proclaimed two centuries ago, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” If the American people choose a bigoted, sexist, flip-flopping, conspiracy theorist, repeat adulterer, who studied at the feet of McCarthy’s attack dog, Roy Cohn, who thinks nothing of abusing eminent domain and throws out insults like candy, then they will have proved de Maistre correct.