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Joseph Serwach

New 'Citizen Trump' Concludes, 'It's the Media, Stupid'

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Joseph Serwach
Joseph Serwach

New Robert Orlando book: How the media made Trumpism possible and (unintentionally) keeps it growing
Above: Scenes from Citizen Trump: A One Man Show.Images courtesy of Nexus Media, Princeton, New Jersey.

Robert Orlando made his mark studying transformational characters, explaining their stories with a fascination for lovedand loathed larger-than-life men.

“As an author and filmmaker, I spend many hours competing for airtime and require the stage as a place where we remind ourselves we are not alone,” Orlando explains. “Maybe that’s why we read books, even our holy ones, to know we’re not alone.”

The Princeton, New Jersey author and film director has a particular fascination for “the anti-hero,” often tragic, full of flaws (both reviled and adored), all unlikeanyone else. His latest book details how Trump modeled himself after the anti-hero in the 1941 film classic Citizen Kane.

In Citizen Trump: A One Man Show, Orlando’s new Simon & Schuster book expanding upon his companion 2020 documentary shows how Donald Trump, like Charles Foster Kane (media mogul turned political candidate), inspired the character who stole the oxygen every other story since 2015.

Some key differences between the 2021 book and the 2020 film

Traditionally, authors write books and films “adapt” shortened versions. Orlando, as a filmmaker, makes his films first (I reviewed the original movie here) and then fleshes out the story with more details and nuance in a book.

Because he completed the book after the 2020 election and its aftermath, I preferred the text for its greater perspective and ability to teach me things journalists (and the voters) didn’t learn in five years of watching Trump dominate the news.

Orlando is also preparing a lengthier, updated “director’s cut” of the film that will be released later this year.

Typically, when an author writes or speaks about Donald Trump, you know within 30 seconds whether the speaker loves or loathes Trump (few are anywhere in between). Because Trump grabs our emotions, most reports on Trump tend to either be positive gushing (like an adoring school girl in love) or negative emotional venom (like the complaints of a bitter, angry ex).

Orlando, always the movie maker in pursuit of truth, offers something both Trump lovers and Trump haters can appreciate: a better, truth-filled explanation of the “Trump method” of chasing media and using it to advance his goals.

Orlando masterfully shows Trump as a lion chasing, battling, and dining on a media pack of wolves. Orlando’s book reveals:

  • Film and television teach us to explore and understand “the archetypes of personality, what Swiss psychologist Carl Jung would describe as a persona.”
  • More than a century of watching film/TV has conditioned us to quickly recognize and identify character “types” from the bully to the damsel in distress to the hero and the trickster.
  • Orlando’s most famous film, The Divine Plan, examined how two former actors, Ronald Reagan and St. John Paul the Great, flipped the narrative on the Cold War. Orlando’s 2020 book looked at another kind of showman shaping the dawn of the Cold War, General George Patton.
  • Jung taught “everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” The repressed never gets corrected, driving emotions “underground” until they explode.
  • Media setting itself up as “referee, the audience and the judge” only enables an intense showman, unfiltered media avatar, and anti-hero to flip the tables on the establishment.
  • Trump details Jung’s persona theories in his 2004 book, How to Get Rich, how we use masks to create personas, to “provide a way to perform in the world. We have a public mask and a private mask.” Yet, Trump quickly recognized that a man could delude himself into becoming the character behind the mask if he’s not careful.

Pride is such a foolish mask? All publicity is good PR

Trump, like Citizen Kane, “mastered the mask,” Orlando argues.

Kane, he explains, was a media baron who manipulated the American people (getting the nation into a war) by “changing the narrative” the government was following.

Trump, he shows, chased media, TV, and film, most of his life, studying Citizen Kane and replicating it with his understanding of media, becoming a showman. He asks:

“How is it that audiences still think the show is about political bad guys and good guys but miss the scripted story behind the surface presentation? Trump created a distinctive persona. For that matter, so did Obama as a community organizer. (Yes, we can!) Hillary? Not so much. She came across as angry. Biden’s persona shaped him as the moral man with vision, but he lacks stage presence or presidential rank. A complex reality once the stage is the thing.”

As Citizen Kane creator Orson Welles learned, the buzz was all-important: “What Trump understood beyond all things is that, despite setbacks and rejections, you have to keep your name in lights. From his mentor, famed and later disgraced attorney and New York power broker Roy Cohn, he learned that even bad media is good media.”

More common themes

Both Trump and Kane:

  • Mastered the agitating headline calling us to action or outrage: “Both Trump and Kane set off media earthquakes.”
  • Mastered “the showdown” and “the takedown,” taking on the opponents who seemed to be the most powerful of their day (according to the media, anyway).
  • Defiantly mocked pre-election media scandals designed to “unmask’ them.
  • They appeared to be “nothing without the big (and small) screen; this was his stage to win a war. A war that had been raging for decades and was now about to reach a crescendo.”
  • Knew lives of acquiring everything from fame to the luxurious property to beautiful wives: “fame-seeking, broken relationships, and self-isolation,’’ learning Solomon’s wisdom that “All is vanity.”
  • Uttered words that perplexed journalists, launching media quests to nowhere: For Kane, it was “Rosebud.” For Trump, a Tweet saying “covfefe.” Orlando explains, “We are fixated on this spectacle, on the man’s lashing out, misdirecting or his need for affirmation.”
  • Proved, “The obsession with every syllable also says something about the character of the media,” adding the more information we produce, the less we seem to see any real meaning.
  • Gave the media what it craved, laughing as they fed and whipped media addictions: “many historians trace the origins of fake news to the beginnings of the Spanish-American War,” how the media stoked hatred of Spain to plunge America into war, a scene detailed in Citizen Kane.

The endless media feedback loop continues:

“Trump is a Nazi. He’s Hitler. He colluded with Russia. Add two impeachments, attacks from members of his party, a non-stop fight with the media, COVID-19, an insurrection, then a resurrection at CPAC… so how did Trump survive? Hint: it had nothing to do with politics — it’s the media, stupid!”

Orlando reveals that Adolf Hitler watched Citizen Kane and concluded it “exposed everything wrong with America”; how the mass media makes them susceptible to demagogues.

“The media virus feeds on fear and anger and human conflict, as it eats away at our civility in the name of entertainment and power,” Orlando concludes. “Trump was in the white noise fighting a war with the only army he had: himself.”