The Movie Version of Donald Trump Was Way More Fun - Pacific Standard

The Movie Version of Donald Trump Was Way More Fun

The apolitical politician has been a recurring character—and hero—in many films.
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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. (Photo: Columbia Pictures)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. (Photo: Columbia Pictures)

Donald Trump's rise has been treated by many political observers as something radically new and extraordinary. But if you've been paying attention to political films over the decades, you'll notice something very familiar about it. Trump is basically the film hero we've been taught to love, only in real life.

A familiar character in mainstream political films is the apolitical politician. This goes back at least to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), in which Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart), a good-natured, naive idealist who somehow can quote from the Constitution while knowing nothing about the actual functioning of the federal government, is appointed to the United States Senate. With a bit of coaching from his sole legislative aide (with whom he's in love), he stages a filibuster that roots out the corruption at the heart of the Senate and destroys an evil political machine in the process. His instincts and his strength of character prevail over entrenched political power.

We see this trope occur in many political films, repeating the theme that politics is a corrupting agent. Robert Redford's character in The Candidate (1972) is a principled reformer at the beginning of the film but becomes a soulless hack through the process of running for office. Dave (1993) gives us a vision of the ideal president: one who looks and sounds like an accomplished politician, but actually has the soul of a naive person with a good heart who hasn't been corrupted by running for office. Dave (Kevin Kline) is so innocent of politics that he has to be briefed on the number of branches of the federal government, yet he, and none of the other experienced politicians in the executive branch, is able to balance the federal budget through common sense and sheer will.

We hear this same theme at the beginning of Gladiator (2000), when Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) seeks to make his favorite general, Maximus (Russell Crowe), his successor as emperor.

Marcus Aurelius: Will you accept this great honor I have offered you.

Maximus: With all my heart, no.

Marcus Aurelius: Maximus, that is why it must be you.

Maximus: But surely a prefect, a senator, somebody who knows the city, who understands her politics?

Marcus Aurelius: But you have not been corrupted by her politics.

As with the other films, this is fundamentally a silly concept. The idea that someone would be perfect for a job precisely because they have absolutely no experience with it is perverse. It represents a profound misunderstanding of how government functions, assuming that budgets would be balanced, wars would be ended, and the people's needs would be met if we could just get politics out of the equation. It also displays a serious misunderstanding of what corruption is, seemingly suggesting that the normal logrolling that keeps a legislature functioning is inherently evil. Someone who doesn't understand politics would be far more at risk of being corrupted of course—they wouldn't know whom to trust.

Now, perhaps we shouldn't take these films' political messages too seriously. They weren't necessarily trying to make deep statements about government; politics was simply the setting for good human drama.

But we can see elements of such characters in the rise of Trump. Here is a candidate whose chief selling points are that he is an outsider, untainted by actual government service, and that he gets things done through instinct and character. What's more, as he explains it, the problems facing the country, whether due to a slow economy or a shadowy foreign army, are easy to fix once you get rid of the stupid, corrupt people in government.

One other political film that sees echoes in today's events is Bulworth (1998), in which a Senator (Warren Beatty) frees himself from a corrupt system by speaking, and rapping, inconvenient truths. Using coarse, provocative language, Bulworth exposes the corrupt campaign finance system and the cynical special interest pandering at the heart of American politics. And the people love him for it.

What we have today is some combination of all these characters. Trump is what a politician free of political concerns looks like in real life. In many ways, this is the moment we've been waiting for.

This will make a great film someday. But it's already been made several times.

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