What do a 15th-century French soothsayer, a 19th-century Russian novelist, and a 1980s horror auteur have in common?
As our headline might have suggested, all three of them created works that appear to forecast the political rise of Donald Trump decades—in some cases centuries!—before the real-estate magnate first expressed his political ambitions as a candidate for the Reform Party in 1999 (remember that?).
That is, at least, according to the many news and entertainment sites that have proliferated the “[Insert Cultural Work Here] Predicted the Rise of Donald Trump” story format this year. Call it a product of a particularly paranoid election: We’ve seen stories claiming books, movies, television shows, and, even in one case, a music video foresaw not only Trump’s major presidential candidacy, but also several characteristics of his campaign—including violent protests at rallies, the demographics of his supporter base, and the way he’s been parlaying his reality-TV fame to grasp America’s highest office. (Here’s a rogue theory: Inferno tanked at the box office because 1. we Americans are perfectly capable of entertaining ourselves with our own conspiracy theories and 2. reading up on Trump University and Clinton’s emails in bed is way cheaper than IMAX.)
Of course, many such stories aren’t using the word “predict” in its most literal sense; they’re often selecting a funny or ominous coincidence from canonical works, and seizing the opportunity to suggest readers check out an Elia Kazan or Sydney Lumet movie—an entirely noble task that no one here at Pacific Standard would criticize.
Determine for yourself with the list below, but, as for us, we gleaned a few insights: Books, TV shows, and a cartoon all had some predictive powers, but movies—well, they win the prize for presaging. (As it became quickly apparent, there are a lot of movies featuring Faustian, rough-spoken, entertaining first-time politicians.) Also, journalists love Doonesbury and The Simpsons, which got the most prophecy points this season. And the overwhelming number of these stories suggests something more serious as well: This election’s has tapped into a lot of older Orwellian storylines that center on a dimmer future for America. On the brighter side, there are several (dark) comedies represented too.
The Prophecies: What hasn’t Nostradamus (birth name: Michele de Nostradame) been credited with predicting? The 16th-century seer famously foresaw the rise of such not good guys as Adolf Hitler and Charles de Gaulle, along with actual good guy Barack Obama, plus the French Revolution, 9/11 (the list goes on). Did he predict Trump as well? Boing Boing, BuzzFeed, and an army of Twitter users suggested he may have. (The extent to which you believe this will likely depend on how highly you think of him: One popular theory holds that Trump is Nostradamus’ “third Antichrist,” coming in the shadow of Napoleon Bonaparte and Hitler.)
Then again, Nostradamus also predicted the world would end in 1999 and the pope would be assassinated in 2011. So maybe the dude was just crazy.
Demons: Given the contentious tone of this election, does it come as any surprise that someone would draw a connection between Trump and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the guy who wrote The Idiot? The Conversation suggested as much when it noted his 1872 novel Demons foresaw “the destructive force of demagoguery and unchecked rhetoric” of this year’s election cycle. The novel is about a village that falls into civic chaos when a man attempts to start a revolution. Hm—remains to be seen.
It Can’t Happen Here: Oh, but perhaps it can, according to the Guardian, which described the 2016 presidential campaign’s uncanny resemblance to Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 book. In this post-New Deal bestseller, a Senator named Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip ascends to the presidency by promising major economic reform, a return to old-fashioned patriotic values, and telling a lot of lies to a core base of enraged, lower-class, white male voters. It’s pretty easy to see why left-leaning journalists would want to see some parallels—the novel’s hero is a newspaper editor and total Bernie Bro (he edits the Vermont Vigilance, after all) who becomes a spy to take Windrip down. Fulfill the prophecy, Jorge Ramos.
Citizen Kane: In addition to a few American cinematic classics, Orson Welles can now add “media-approved soothsayer” to his LinkedIn. No less than—you guessed it—the Guardian called media-mogul-turned-political-candidate main character Charles Foster Kane “Trump-esque” due to his flair for showmanship and need for attention. Citizen Kane didn’t get it all right—Kane’s political ambitions die due to a sex scandal, whereas the Trump campaign is still chugging along despite its own (!). Nevertheless, at one point, Kane tells his friend, “You’re fired!” We imagine Kane would also get a tad too personally invested in the Emmys.
A Face in the Crowd: Starring a former drifter and drunkard who rises to fame as a radio and TV star then pursues political ambitions, A Face in the Crowd was one of the first films to make a connection between TV stardom and political success, as CNN, Deadline, and the Washington Post have all pointed out this year. Though not the first to make that connection a reality (looking at you, Ronald Reagan), Trump has certainly capitalized on his celebrity status in his bid for the White House. The movie also depicts Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes as a ladies’ man, hooking up with an underaged cheerleader while he is still married, then marrying the cheerleader. Social mores among politicians, how they change!
Network: Network is one of media outlets’ favorite go-to cinematic crystal balls, so it’s no surprise it made our list. The movie’s about a news anchor who spikes ratings (and gains in power and influence) once he has an angry meltdown on TV. Many journalists have pointed out that that premise foresaw today’s modern media landscape and reality TV; but if you’ve seen any one of the debates between Trump and Hillary Clinton, you may agree that the “mad as hell” scene is pretty on the ball for this election too.
The Dead Zone: Given the apocalyptic tone of this year’s election coverage, there had to be a horror movie comparison somewhere on this list. That said, this one’s a stretch: The Guardian notes a similarity between the vision Christopher Walken has in the film while shaking the hand of a senator and Trump’s GOP-candidate acceptance speech. Walken sees the senator defending his decision to launch a nuclear attack by saying “I am the voice of the people!” Trump, his hands nowhere near the nuclear codes, once declared to his followers: “I am your voice.”
Back to the Future II: Back to the Future II may have muddled its Chicago Cubs World Series win prediction, but screenwriter Bob Gale can at least console himself that another one of his forecasts was spot-on: In October, Gale told The Daily Beast that the series’ bad guy, Biff Tannen, a casino owner who leverages his money and power to run for political office as a Republican, was based on Trump. When he wins, Tannen turns Hill Valley, California, into a Wild West-like town and encourages his constituents to call him “America’s greatest living folk hero.” Whether or not you think that outcome would occur if Trump becomes president, it’s hard to deny that Tannen and Trump don’t have similar views on plastic surgery and women (they both support their family members having work done). Back to the future, indeed!
Bob Roberts: If there’s anything to be gleaned from this list, it is that there are a lot of movies floating around the ether about people gaining power by playing dress-up as folk heroes. That said, few of those films prophesied that an Ivy League graduate could pull off the “man of the people” act like Bob Roberts. So we’ll give some points to Ozy for identifying that the rise of the movie’s Yale University-educated folk-singer millionaire Roberts “sounds uncannily like the narrative behind Donald Trump’s 2016 run for the U.S. presidency.”
You will note this is the second political film on this list (the first: A Face in the Crowd) featuring a musical presidential candidate. Could Trump have improved his chances by belting out “Born in the U.S.A.” at rallies? Hollywood seems to think so.
Doonesbury: In September, The Daily Kos wrote that Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau “must be able to see in the future” based off of a 1999 strip that imagined Trump manipulating the media while running for president. Trudeau was responding to an imminent future in 1999: In October of that year, Trump announced on Larry King Live that he was forming an “exploratory committee” for the 2000 presidential contest. Though that campaign didn’t last long, Trudeau nails Trump’s brusque cadence and difficult relationship with journalists: “Now I know some of you guys choke on the fact that people love me—love me!” Trump says at a press conference, “Well. Guess what—I could care less what you think!”
As a side note, my editor is asking if the following occurred in Doonesbury, or in real life. Case in point: You just can’t tell the difference between the two anymore.
“Sleep Now in the Fire” music video: In Rage Against the Machine’s music video for “Sleep Now in the Fire”—a satirical riff on American capitalism featuring the band shutting down the New York Stock Exchange—a man can be glimpsed carrying a “Trump for President” sign. Consequence of Sound and Pajiba have both highlighted the moment as evidence of the band’s “foreknowledge.” Rage Against the Machine was probably aware that, between 1999 and 2000, Trump briefly ran a presidential campaign as a candidate for the Reform Party.
Alas: The video, so edgy and dystopian in 2000, now has the flavor of B-reel Occupy Wall Street and Trump campaign footage, or one of those grainy fsociety videos from Mr. Robot.
The Simpsons: In the episode “Bart to the Future,” airing in March that year, Bart sees a vision of his future life in which he has grown up to become a slob, but his sister has become the first female president. In one scene, she says to her aides, “As you know, we’ve inherited quite a budget crunch from President Trump.” You’ll note this is the second “vision” on our list; funny how Trump keeps on popping up on all these dystopian nightmare scenarios.
Gangs of New York: In August, the Guardian compared Trump to Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill “the Butcher,” a gang leader who cloaks his racism and penchant for violence under the guise of a patriot. The Guardian explains the connection by citing encouraging remarks Trump has made to supporters about using force against protestors. The Guardian also nodded to Trump’s statement in July that he would “hit a number of [Democratic National Convention] speakers so hard, their heads would spin.”
But, fact-check: As CNN notes, Trump often uses the word “hit” to mean verbally, rather than physically, assault. And though Trump often makes reference to violence in his remarks, there’s no evidence he acts on them. That said, the “Butcher” comparison isn’t a total stretch. Ever heard of “Trump Steaks”? The guy has a thing for meat too. (No word on Day Lewis’ feelings about ground beef—for, say, taco bowls.)
The Reactionary Mind:In this 2012 book, political scientist Corey Robin argues that conservatism has a fundamentally reactionary and counter-revolutionary spirit—that, in his words, the movement’s core ethos is that “some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others.” While the New York Times and the New York Review of Books dismissed the argument in early reviews as undercooked and over-exaggerated, this year TheNew Yorker’s Matt Feeney praised it for its foresight. “From Robin’s argument, we could predict that a conservative party would be unlikely to nominate the idealized conservative as its standard-bearer, but that it would absolutely yoke itself to a populist nut job like Donald Trump,” he writes—in other words, that a letter-leaning populist like Trump would triumph over more traditional Republican opponents like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Fennel’s critical of the book overall (it’s “a little too sweeping at times,” he says) but he makes a decent point—perhaps it’s time media outlets give The Reactionary Mind another shot.
Black Mirror: Black Mirror is like the Nostradamus of TV’s golden age—critics keep noting that its futuristic storylines have come to pass, or are about to. This year, several highlighted the season two episode “The Waldo Moment,” which follows the unlikely political rise of a cartoon character (played by a comedian using motion capture) who runs for office to entertain his viewers.
“The Waldo Moment” isn’t the most original Black Mirror setup to ever grace your Netflix queue: Like Network or A Face in the Crowd, the show foreshadowed a politician who lobs insults and gets angry and wins a loyal base for it. But the episode gets points for its suggestive title, which also brings to mind every ’90s kid’s favorite Martin Handford-penned adventure book. If you really read into it (and really, which journalist on this list isn’t?) it suggests that Waldo, and therefore the prophecy, is gong to keep popping up again and again.
Look Who’s Back:This year, scores of writers have battledover the question: What if Trump is the next Hitler? Whether or not you take that query seriously, in May, Indiewire persuasively argued that Look Who’s Back, a 2015 German film based on a 2012 novel, cast its portrayal of a Hitler time-transported to 2016 in a presciently Trump-like light. When Hitler wakes up in modern-day Berlin, and doesn’t like the way his country has turned out, he becomes a TV star while preparing his return to politics. “On air, Hitler plainly states his plan for world domination, but the audience thinks it’s hysterical,” Indiewire’s David Ehrlich writes. “People love him, and he’s made unstoppable by the fact that pushing boundaries is part of his brand.” If that doesn’t sound familiar, perhaps one of Hitler’s statements in the movie does — “Make Germany great again.” As Ehrlich reminds readers, Look Who’s Back was shot two years ago. Uncanny!