Skip To Content

    How Donald Trump Totally Missed The Point Of "Citizen Kane" — And Won

    No one has ever misread a movie with as much enthusiasm as the President-elect.

    Donald Trump has said that his favorite movie is Citizen Kane, which is the kind of pick that would tell you nothing about an average person. Orson Welles’ 1941 directorial debut is as close as the world has come to agreeing on a film’s greatness and influence. It gets used as shorthand for “stone cold classic” by people who haven’t actually seen it. Citizen Kane is the Citizen Kane of movies, and announcing it’s your favorite is about as telling an opinion as suggesting the Beatles made some decent music.

    But that's for the average person. And while the president-elect may be many things, he sure as hell is not average. Trump is one of the few people for whom Citizen Kane — a movie about a man who comes into a fortune, builds it up and blows it, and runs for office — is directly relatable. For most audiences, the movie plays like a fable about the hollowness of the American dream and our country’s fetishization of success.

    It’s the story of a charismatic, ego-driven man (based in part on yellow journalism king William Randolph Hearst) who manages to have everything and nothing, who yearns to be loved while being unable to love in return. Beneath his outsize exterior, Charles Foster Kane, as played by Welles, is empty inside, a fact his various successes can’t obscure. He ends up embittered and alone, rattling around his cavernous, half-finished mansion, having isolated himself from everyone he was once close to. He’s a tragic, hubristic figure — for the average person.

    For Trump, though, the movie seems to come across instead as a cautionary tale, one about how money isn’t everything, one starring a character he related to deeply. This isn't entirely a surprise. Watching the film, it’s impossible to dismiss the eerie number of things that he and Kane have in common. They both rose to wealth with the benefit of an inheritance, Trump from his developer father, Kane from a gold mine discovered on property left to his mother by a customer unable to settle a boarding house tab.

    They both carved out their own empires with the help of that money, Trump in real estate and Kane in newspapers. They both divorced twice, though Trump, unlike Kane, would marry a third time. They both own cavernous Florida estates with fanciful names, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago and Kane’s Xanadu. And they both look yearningly to some mythical, happier past — Kane to his childhood and “Rosebud,” and Trump to his darker ideas about the “good old days.”

    And when both run for office, it’s on a platform that stresses personality and pugnaciousness over policy. In the speech Kane gives while running for governor, Welles looms larger and larger in the frame as the camera closes in on him. The character denounces the corruption and dishonesty of his opponent (whom he vows to have convicted after he’s elected) while positioning himself as the disruptive, fight-for-the-underdog outsider — the guy who isn’t of the working class, but who’s going to speak for it. What that fight will consist of is an open question. “I made no campaign promises,” he admits, though he insists he’ll protect “decent, ordinary citizens” and that he’d “make [his] promises now if [he] weren’t too busy arranging to keep them.”

    It is, according to Kane, a tactic that’s working, and it's on the verge of making him the winner. “Every straw vote, every independent poll shows that I’ll be elected,” he insists.

    It all sounds spookily familiar, right up to the point in which Kane loses, undone by revelations that he’s been keeping a paramour secret from his wife, the woman who in addition to being the mother of their son is also the president’s niece. He’s given the option to drop out and shield his wife and child by ensuring his affair will remain a secret, but chooses not to. At Kane’s paper, always a mouthpiece for his personal stances, we learn that two different front pages have been prepared, one announcing Kane’s win, the other declaring “Fraud at the Polls!”

    Unlike Kane (for whom governor was supposed to be a stepping-stone on the way to the presidency), and to the continuing shock of swaths of the nation, Trump didn’t lose. He will make it to the White House.

    At 75 years old, Citizen Kane remains knife-sharp and resonant in so many ways, but not in the one in which a personal scandal immediately torpedoes its main character’s career, news of his infidelity effortlessly undoing him as the public turns against him. Trump’s first marriage ended in a Kane-style high-profile affair with his eventual second wife, which happened years before his most recent run for office and didn’t make a difference during his campaign. He’s since been accused of groping, assaulting, and making unwanted sexual advances toward multiple women. This election cycle has taught us that in 2016, a man can do worse by a woman than cheating and it won’t matter, or it can be rationalized away, if people like what he represents enough.

    There’s a fascinating interview about Citizen Kane that Trump did with documentarian Errol Morris in 2002 that surfaced on YouTube, though the project it was meant to be part of was never finished. In the clip, he talks about why he loves the movie and shares the advice he’d offer to Kane — namely, “get yourself a different woman.”

    Talking about the sequence in which the initial happiness and growing estrangement between Kane and his first wife, Emily, is shown over a series of breakfasts, Trump is passionate and personal: “The table getting larger and larger and larger, with he and his wife getting further and further apart as he got wealthier and wealthier — perhaps I can understand that. The relationship that he had was not a good one for him, probably not a great one for her, although there were benefits for her, but in the end she was certainly not a happy camper.”

    Trump aligning himself with Kane’s megalomania, his unending hunger for more, and interpreting his unhappiness as a problem with his choice of partner and her inability to reconcile herself with being the wife of a wealthy man (rather than his brushing her aside in favor of his work) is an incredible and illuminating misreading of the movie. Morris did a Q&A about it, noting that the ability to participate in this degree of bad fandom, to so boldly misunderstand authorial intent, was “one of the great mysteries of self-deception.” Morris wondered, "Is that really the message that Welles was trying to convey? … Somehow he identifies clearly with Kane. Kane is Trump. And it’s not the kind of identification that I would make if I were Trump.”

    It’s the kind of identification Trump’s had no trouble making for himself, though — Kane as thwarted hero, undone by the inadequacy of his women, their failure be compliant, appreciative companions, and the public’s insistence on caring.

    William Randolph Hearst hated Citizen Kane when it came out, wielding his considerable power in an attempt to intimidate the film out of existence and using his papers to expose details about Welles' personal life and make intimations about his political leanings. Three-quarters of a century later, Trump sees the film not as a scathing portrait but as one of a great man misunderstood, someone whose failures he has now effectively avoided or remedied.

    In 2002, when Trump did that interview with Morris, he’d already taken his own advice and gotten himself a different woman — his future third spouse, Melania Knauss, she of the model looks and smiling silence. Rather than get into the then-shrinking newspaper business, he’d make himself a reality star two years later with The Apprentice, providing himself with a different kind of media platform from which to bellow. And, eventually, he’d go right for the presidency, no fiddling with a governorship first, leveraging Kane-style rhetoric on a national level. No one may have ever missed the point of a movie quite so stubbornly and spectacularly as Trump, but then no one has ever gone on to live a life that underscores their skewed interpretation so epically either. Charles Foster Kane is no hero, but then neither is Donald Trump. He’s just our future president.