For its evening programming on January 20, 2017, Turner Classic Movies, a network known for its commitment to the cinematic canon, not its politics, made a pointed scheduling decision. The channel would be airing A Face in the Crowd.
On any other Friday evening, it would have been an unremarkable choice. Though not a critical success in its own time, the 1957 film, written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, has since been heralded as a masterpiece, praised by François Truffaut and preserved by the National Film Registry. The movie tells the story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a charismatic, populist entertainer with a dark side, who uses the new medium of television to rise to the pinnacle of American power. TCM swore it had chosen the airdate simply to mark the birthday of Patricia Neal, who co-starred in the film. The fact that it was also Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day had nothing to do with it.
The network would hardly have been the first to make the connection between Rhodes and Trump. Cinephiles and politicos alike saw Trump’s political career foretold in Schulberg and Kazan’s fable. Just a few months after Trump entered the race, the conservative writer Cal Thomas devoted an entire syndicated column to the resemblance between Griffith’s demagogue and candidate Trump.
There’s no denying that A Face in the Crowd captures aspects of Trump’s character—Rhodes’s vulgarity, his volatile mixture of ego and insecurity, and his instinctive mastery of mass media are all eerily familiar. Yet the similarities go only so far. Like Trump’s, Rhodes’s populism is a means to an end, but at least he comes by it more credibly, having walked the dusty byways of northeastern Arkansas and spent long nights in its drunk tanks.
Schulberg and Kazan’s real achievement wasn’t anticipating Trump. It was appreciating, at the dawn of the television era, how susceptible the American public would be to his pitch. As Trump’s first term comes to a close, A Face in the Crowd is worth revisiting—less for what it reveals about the president than for what it says about the rest of us.