Once upon a time I heard about a movie starring Andy Griffith (yes, that Andy Griffith) as a character who could only be described as Elvis meets Joseph McCarthy. I sought it out mostly for the weirdness factor, and discovered instead an endlessly relevant look at what happens when mass media meets a demagogue. The film I am speaking of is 1957's A Face In The Crowd, which also starred the great Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau. It's a film I keep going back to again and again, especially this election year.
The main character is a vagrant named Lonesome Rhodes, who parlays an interview from jail on the local radio to his own radio show, then regional TV show, then national television superstardom. Along the way he learns that he has a powerful ability to manipulate people. That's exploited by a reactionary senator, who uses Rhodes to present himself as a man of the people. Soon Rhodes is planning on becoming a propaganda minister in Fuller's administration, only to be derailed by letting his real feelings for his audience get out on the air.
The film came out right after the worst of the Red Scare, and in the midst of television's rise as a medium, especially for politics. Back in 1952, Nixon saved his political career with the "Checkers" speech. Joseph McCarthy met his undoing during the televised hearings on the army, where McCarthy's sweaty, drunken rants were there for everyone to see. Although the good guys win in the end, it's a dark message about the potential for political manipulation lurking in everyone's living room.
There has perhaps never been a candidate for president before this year who was a pure product of television -except maybe Pat Robertson- like Donald Trump. After first taking the print media of New York City by storm he catapulted into television, where he has been a mainstay since the late 1980s. While Trump's use of ethno-nationalism has brought him the votes of the Republican Party, his use of television made it possible to get his message heard and his legitimacy established in ways that other candidates could only dream about.
Already last summer the news networks were covering his campaign speeches live, something I'd never seen before with another candidate. Recently networks were showing an empty podium at his rally rather than a speech that Clinton was giving at the exact same time. Trump calls in constantly to the networks, putting them on the defensive and keeping him in the news. His ratings boost means that they won't go too hard on him, lest he decide to throw a tantrum and not speak with them. Even when he says horrible and outrageous things the anchors still talk about him with a smug smile and a chuckle on their lips, as if this is all just a big game.
For years people have been noting that our political press had lost the ability or even the desire to be a tribune of the public. Now we have reaped that bitter harvest with a news media that cares about rating and clicks, the public good be hanged. That media has helped elevate Trump, and since his presumptive nomination has allowed him a great deal of legitimacy.
Both Lonesome Rhodes and Trump are vulgar, misogynistic, lying sociopaths using television to advance a radically reactionary agenda. Sadly for us, one of them is living today in the flesh, with a news media much less independent than it was sixty years ago. The recent affair over Trump's attack on a judge's Mexican heritage reminds me of Rhodes' downfall. For men like these, the media will not tear them down, but only their own words. I only hope that Trump continues on his self-destructive path.