Last night I started my film class at Sacramento State by saying, “we’ve seen how new films can shed light on the past. Tonight we’ll see how old films can shed light on the present.”

The class’s scheduled movie was Citizen Kane (1941).

It’s a picture I often teach. My students watched it last semester. At the time, I noticed some parallels to our current events, but I didn’t make them part of the lesson plan. At the time, it looked like Donald Trump would lose the Republican nomination to Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. Even Nate Silver thought so.

Things have changed. At this point, opening up class with, “so, what do you know about Donald Trump?” doesn’t feel unfair to the considerable percentage of my students who are trying to sleepwalk through my class by saying and doing as little as possible. In fact, my somnabulist students, ever so slightly more than my better students, should consider it their civic obligation to understand Donald Trump.

Their future is at stake.

Speaking of the future, scholars will be writing about this election for years. Many prominent ones have already incorporated Trump into this semester’s syllabi. No doubt, many want to hear what the next generation thinks of The Donald. I’m no different.

We are currently at Maximum Trumpiness. Cthulhu be praised, hopefully by this time next semester the Cheeto Jesus will seem like a bad dream. If I bring up Trump then, it would be like making a big deal out of Psy and “Gangnam Style.”

But right now? Yeah, they better have an opinion.

So, what did my students say? Here’s what I wrote on the board, from their input:




Worried about his hand size



New Yorker


Avid Twitter user

Running for President

Reality-TV star


No filter


Silver spoon

Actor (?)


Racist (?)

Has own brand of steaks

Rich, part of 1%




Writes own speeches


Now’s where I have to admit…my class didn’t really take the bait. They didn’t want to talk Trump. I don’t know if they’re afraid of offending people, or what. So it was left to me to explain why I claim the film is relevant.

Citizen Kane isn’t a perfect comparison to Trump, of course. Newspapers and real estate are different businesses. But there are obvious parallels. One of my students pointed out that Citizen Kane is based on William Randolph Hearst. True, but the big change that screenwriters Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles made to Hearst’s life was Kane’s constant, desperate search for love. Leland says to the film’s reporter, “That’s all he ever wanted out of life… was love. That’s the tragedy of Charles Foster Kane. You see, he just didn’t have any to give.” He also tells Kane, “You don’t care about anything except you. You just want to persuade people that you love ’em so much that they ought to love you back. Only you want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way, according to your rules.” In this sense, Kane is more relevant to Trump than Hearst is.

I enjoyed today’s David Brooks’ column about the difference between being a taxpayer and a citizen. In that sense, the “citizen” in Citizen Kane brings up a supple irony.


Clearly, Kane and Trump are both ostensible populists…subverting populism to their own ego. In the best-known image from Kane, the lead character stands at a podium in front of a 20-foot-tall image of his face, saying, “the common, working, decent people know they can expect my best efforts in their interests.” The non-specificity of Kane’s plans also reminds one of Trump.

In the movie, Kane is running for office as a sort of traitor to his own class, the kind of guy who knows the system so well that only he can fix it. Prior to 2016, the candidate who most embodied this sort of thing was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who happened to be President when Citizen Kane came out. He welcomed banker enmity.

But to me, the most telling comparison of Kane and Trump is also the most surprising. If you’ve been reading the news for the last year – my students made it clear that many of them haven’t – you know that Trump gets compared most often to Hitler and Mussolini. (What about Leopold, why does he always get off the hook?) We hear that the rise of Trump is something that until this year only happened in European countries like France and Austria, which have proud nationalist right-wing parties. We hear that Trump will practice the sort of diplomacy that will remind us of tinpot dictators from around the Third World.

Yeah, to me a lot of that sounds like denial. Trump is nothing if not peculiarly American. The original name of the screenplay for Citizen Kane was “The American.” In the film’s first ten minutes, one person calls Kane a Fascist, another calls him a Communist, and he calls himself an American.

America is supposed to be the place where anyone can make himself (usually him, not her, sadly) into whatever he wants. America is where we revere the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (both are mentioned during Citizen Kane). America is supposed to mean self-made pioneers. And yet, our leaders and role models don’t always come to that standard, do they?

Citizen Kane is nothing if not a disquisition on the American Dream. What is America if not a place where materialism replaces morality? Kane both believes in the greatness of ordinary people and that he should collect as much stuff as he can and build palaces of conspicuous wealth. In some ways, his tragedy is that he can’t resolve these contradictions. He throws everything at the wall – as does the film, stylistically – but nothing sticks. He can’t buy the people’s love, not quite.

I worried about one thing: would my Kane-Trump lecture convince my students that Trump is just a poor misunderstood soul, that his own “Rosebud” is lying tucked away in one of his mansions somewhere?

I needn’t have worried. I don’t think they were listening anyway.