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Did this movie predict Trump’s rise?

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Lewis Beale: Donald Trump's campaign uncannily recalls rise of fictional character Lonesome Rhodes in 1957 film "A Face in the Crowd"

He says insulting voters was Rhodes' undoing; it's frightening that Trump's popularity continues when he does the same

Editor’s Note: Lewis Beale writes about culture and film for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and other publications. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN —  

Donald Trump certainly isn’t the first media personality to have political ambitions – lest we forget, Ronald Reagan was initially a film star. But thanks to his bombast and apparent megalomania, Trump is certainly the first such personality to eerily echo Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, the character played by Andy Griffith in the 1957 film “A Face in the Crowd.” Watch it and you’ll be amazed.

Lewis Beale
Courtesy of Lewis Beale
Lewis Beale

Director Elia Kazan’s picture is one of the first to trace the relationship between TV stardom and politics.

It features Griffith, best known for his TV role as Mayberry sheriff Andy Taylor, as a drunken drifter plucked out of an Arkansas jail to sing on a local radio program. Folksy and charismatic, playing his straight-talking, good-old-boy shtick to the hilt, Rhodes soon lands his own Memphis TV show and then works his way up the ladder to a nationally syndicated program based in New York.

Rhodes soon becomes so powerful that a faltering presidential candidate comes to him for media advice, and with Rhodes’ help takes a lead in the national polls. With the candidate’s victory almost certain, Rhodes believes he will be appointed “Secretary for National Morale,” a position he assumes will make him the power behind the throne.

Imagine, say, a leering Blake Shelton with political ambition and a solar system-sized ego, and you get the drift here. But Rhodes’ messy personal life – he has wed a 17-year old cheerleader, despite being married to someone else – soon catches up with him. And after one of his rants, during which he mocks his audience by calling them “idiots, morons and pigs,” is inadvertently broadcast live over national TV, his life as a national celebrity is effectively over.

Sound a bit like a full-of-himself New York real estate mogul? Messy personal life. Check. Trophy wife. Check. Huge ego. Check. Calling his audience dummies. Check (Trump calling Iowa voters “stupid” for favoring Ben Carson fits in here).

Sure, there are significant differences. Trump is a child of privilege, and Rhodes most certainly isn’t. And there is no question that the media scene in 1957, when there were only three TV networks and no such things as the Internet, cable TV, Twitter and cell phones, was a lot different than it is today.

There is also this: Rhodes never appeals to racist or nativist sentiments, something which Trump has been wallowing in almost since the beginning of his candidacy. He has called Mexican immigrants “drug dealers,” “rapists” and “killers” and said that if elected president, he would “absolutely” require all Muslims in America to register in a database.

Trump has also tweeted false statistics about black murder rates whose original source appeared to be a neo-Nazi fan of Adolf Hitler and claimed that thousands of Muslims in Jersey City cheered the 9/11 attacks, a charge that was denied by police and religious leaders then and for which no evidence exists now.

But both men have the same the lust for power and use the mass media to get at it. Rhodes, whose bellowing soundbites have about as much substance as Trump’s, has the same apparent disdain for the intelligence of his audience as the billionaire financier.

In one blistering scene in the film, for example, Rhodes says that when it comes to his fans, “I could take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as caviar. I could make them eat dog food and think it was steak.” In another rant, he declares his audience is “mine. I own ‘em. They think like I do. Only they’re even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for ‘em.”

In this sense, Trump’s simplistic solutions to almost everything – building a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border, bombing ISIS into submission and then taking its oil, vague policy proposals involving jobs creation and health care – make it obvious he, like Rhodes, is appealing to the lowest common denominator voter, the one who thinks that over-the-top self-confidence substitutes for thought.

But Trump is a whole lot scarier than Rhodes, since his supporters don’t seem to mind his racist pronouncements, lies, bullying and dangerous pomposity.

In fact, in “A Face in the Crowd,” it’s one open mic moment that destroys Lonesome Rhodes’ career. But even after Trump’s epic 95-minute tirade in Iowa earlier this month, in which he went off on everyone from Marco Rubio to Hillary Clinton to Iowa voters, his poll numbers have improved.

But he’s no shoe-in, not matter how much he’d like Americans to think he is.

Reality check: A new Quinnipiac poll shows that 75% of Republican voters likely to participate in Iowa’s February 1 caucuses would vote for someone besides Trump. And to slice Trump’s Rhodes-like bravado even further down to size, consider, too, that nationally only about 25% of the electorate identify as Republicans.

It’s very early to predict what will happen. “A Face in the Crowd” seems to be saying that the American public has the sense to turn away from a charlatan when they see one.

But so far, Donald Trump’s success clashes with the truth of that fictional story. And that’s a very scary thought.

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