For half a year already, the Donald Trump collapse market has featured active trading and steady, mounting losses. Every overreaching burst of wild rhetoric, every unpresidential put-down, every violation of conservative principles, every pronouncement of his superiority over one stupid person or another leads to a fresh round of predictions that Trump’s fiery march through the thickets of American politics has finally slammed into a dead end.
And then it doesn’t happen.
Trump’s rule-smashing romp may have no precedent in the annals of presidential campaigns, but the template for his remarkable rise — and the potential for a hard fall — was laid out in a little-known film masterwork half a century ago. “A Face in the Crowd,” a 1957 movie written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan — the same team that had already made the classic “On the Waterfront” — stars Andy Griffith as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a folksy, charming Arkansas traveler who soars from a filthy jail cell to the pinnacle of American celebrity and political power.
Unlike Trump, Rhodes has zero money before he captivates the public. But the rest of the story is a revealing and cautionary portrait of what happens when a non-politician captures the American imagination, expresses the frustrations and aspirations of the people, wins hearts and trust, and litters the landscape with choice reminders that beneath his truth-telling lies a surly streak of contempt.
Like Trump, Rhodes offers a reminder that one person’s demagoguery is another’s populism. Add a dose of arrogance, and the result looks to some like a dramatic fall waiting to happen.
“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?” Trump told an audience in Iowa about a week before the state’s caucuses. “It’s, like, incredible.”
“This whole country, just like my flock of sheep,” Rhodes exclaims at the height of his power. “They’re mine, I own them, they think like I do. Only they’re more stupid than I am, so I got to think for them.”
“A Face in the Crowd,” made in the shadow of the anticommunist witch hunts led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, was one of the first movies to take on the startling power of television, which had entered a majority of American homes just five years earlier.
Schulberg, son of a Hollywood producer, grew up on studio lots and had a brief and disillusioning flirt with the Communist Party. He was fascinated by larger-than-life characters who experience sudden upswings and devastating downfalls. He was also deeply allergic to demagogues.
In “A Face in the Crowd” and the short story it was based on, “Your Arkansas Traveler,” Schulberg created a character who dares to say what regular folks privately think; who has few, if any, filters; and who gets away with rogue behavior because he’s charming and, eventually, successful.
Rhodes is neither the first nor last movie character to rise and fall by appealing to the base anxieties of the American people. He is a model for Howard Beale, the TV news anchorman who rallies the nation to shout “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” in “Network” (1976). His lineage flows through Chauncey Gardiner, the dim gardener whose unwitting folk wisdom turns him into a possible presidential contender in “Being There” (1979), and on to the brutal truth-teller Sen. Jay Bulworth in the eponymous 1998 movie.
Lonesome Rhodes is coarser and blunter than the others. He goes through women like they’re cheap snacks. He calls minorities names. He makes big promises and then denies ever having made them. He tells it like it is — or at least like the people thought it had once been, back in the gauzy time when things were good. Like Trump, he calls people in power dumb and phony.
Rhodes is a drunk and a drifter when the story’s heroine, Marcia Jeffries, daughter of the local radio station owner, launches a radio show, “A Face in the Crowd,” in which ordinary people tell their stories. She wanders into the county jail to find one such person, and the inmates point her to Rhodes, who is out cold on the floor.
Rhodes comes to, sings Jeffries an affecting blues song, strums his beat-up guitar and charms her with his huge laugh and folksy tales. She’s so bowled over that she barely hears him when he asks, “What do I get out of this? Mr. Me, Myself and I?”
His ascent is shockingly swift. Jeffries gets him his own show, and his prankish experiments demonstrate the power that a winning, confident personality can wield when he connects with his audience’s gripes and hopes.
Rhodes learns that the local sheriff, now running for mayor, is widely loathed, so he asks listeners to show that the sheriff has “gone to the dogs” by bringing their hounds to the sheriff’s front yard — which they do, by the dozens.
The result: soaring trust among the little people, and a realization that the man behind the microphone can make things happen.
Jeffries notices that Rhodes now has the power to “say anything that comes into your head and be able to sway people.” A talent agent notices, too, and Rhodes is on his way — to his own TV show in Memphis, and then to New York and a coast-to-coast gig and a penthouse apartment, and then an introduction to a senator who’s running for president.
In a rare moment of self-doubt, Rhodes sees what’s happening: “All them millions of people doing what I tell them to — scares me.”
But he quickly returns to selling his sponsor’s dubious vitamin pills. Like Trump, Rhodes is given to reciting his ratings in response to unrelated questions. “53.7 this morning,” he says at one point. “I got another million.”
His sudden fame and fortune convince Rhodes that he is more than a millionaire entertainer: “I’m an influencer, a wielder of opinion, a force — a force!”
Last month, when I asked Trump what effect his TV show, “The Apprentice,” had on his decision to run for president, he reeled off his TV ratings, talked about his best-selling books, and then said that his reality show “was a different level of adulation, or respect, or celebrity. That really went to a different level. I’m running to really make America great again, but the celebrity helped — that’s true.”
Like Trump, Rhodes faces criticism that his populist appeals and his simple solutions amount to demagoguery. Rhodes and Trump respond similarly to such accusations: They attack their critics as bad people who are out to get them.
Rhodes, although married, has a public fling with an underage, baton-twirling cheerleader, and then marries her, to popular acclaim. (Trump, pre-campaign, was given to teases about his success with the opposite sex. As he wrote, “If I told the real stories of my experiences with women, often seemingly very happily married and important women, this book would be a guaranteed bestseller.”)
Rhodes connects with people even as he salivates over gaining power through them. He instinctively understands that in the media age, a traditional focus on policy is a loser’s approach: “Instead of long-winded public debates, the people want slogans,” he says. “‘Time for a change!’ ‘The mess in Washington!’ ”
Finally, Jeffries, played by Patricia Neal, can’t take it any longer. At the end of one of Rhodes’s shows, as the credits roll, she turns up the mic so the home audience can hear their hero privately unloading to cast members:
“Shucks, I sell them chicken fertilizer as caviar. I can make them eat dog food and think it’s steak. You know what the public’s like? A cage full of guinea pigs. Goodnight, you stupid idiots. Goodnight, you miserable slobs.”
The analogy to Trump only goes so far, of course. In some ways, Trump has tested the public’s fealty even more daringly than Rhodes ever did. After a graceful concession speech following the Iowa caucuses, Trump turned around and declared the process tainted, demanding a do-over. Earlier, Trump had questioned the intelligence of the voters: “How stupid are the people of Iowa? How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?” he asked during a verbal takedown of Ben Carson’s stories of his youthful violence and redemption.
Rhodes’s popularity immediately collapses once his followers hear what he really thinks of them; Trump, however, so far has weathered any backlash provoked by his outbursts.
The two populists’ endgames cannot yet be compared, of course. Once Rhodes realizes he has betrayed his base, he suffers a breakdown, begs a group of black waiters to love him, and then slaps them with a racial slur.
Trump, in contrast, continues to ride the magic carpet of confidence that has carried him through myriad crises.
When I was reporting a piece on “The Apprentice,” several network executives who worked closely with Trump told me that even at the height of the show’s popularity, the mogul never displayed contempt for his audience.
He genuinely loved the attention, they said, and never said a cynical word about his fans.
And then four of those executives, unprompted, offered the same suggestion: Watch “A Face in the Crowd.”