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How 20th-century Hollywood predicted the rise, and apparent fall, of Trump

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune
President Donald Trump returns to the White House in Washington, D.C., after golfing at Trump National Golf Club on Saturday.

The movies told us he'd be coming. And now, one way or the other, the most seemingly fictional authoritarian figure in American political history is going.

Donald Trump won't, however, go before attempting to write himself a stunning courtroom twist for a finale that makes him the winner again.

"This election is far from over," the Republican candidate said in a statement alleging widespread fraud at the polls, echoing the "FRAUD AT POLLS!" page one headline in "Citizen Kane." That's Trump favorite film, by the way.

This past weekend he declared the election far from over, amid every Electoral College and vote count indication that it was, in fact, over. In an earlier statement, as his challenger's victory became widely accepted, the one-term president promised to "pursue this process (of multistate legal challenges) through every aspect of the laws to guarantee that the American people have confidence in our government."

Throughout much of the 20th century, American pop culture warned us that something like the last four years could make the leap from cautionary fiction to all-consuming reality. In the early 1930s, the Great Depression led to a peculiar, pre-Roosevelt cycle of what became known as "the dictator craze" in American movies.

In the waning days of Herbert Hoover's presidency, American democracy appeared to be a losing battle. Film historian Thomas Doherty's book "Pre-Code Hollywood" notes that no less an emblem of mainstream American values than the American Legion, in 1932, passed a resolution declaring that "existing political methods" weren't up to the task of fixing things anymore.

So Hollywood entered a temporary Mussolini phase, spinning yarns driven by ruthless American strongmen in all walks of American life and business and politics. The story settings often were familiar and not especially threatening. In "Employee's Entrance" (1933), Warren William, a terrific pre-Code era snake, plays a department store executive who runs things the way Mussolini might.

"My code is: smash, or be smashed!" says the heartless soul of Depression-era capitalism on the ropes.

The craziest example of the dictator craze, "Gabriel Over the White House" (1933), remains Hollywood's most explicitly pro-fascist statement, according to author and journalist Jeff Greenfield. The publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst financed the picture; director Gregory La Cava's leading actor, Walter Huston (who'd played Lincoln on screen three years earlier) portrays a Hoover-like party hack who wins the White House, accomplishes little, nearly dies in an automobile crash, is visited by the angel Gabriel while he's in a coma — and comes out of it a new man.

This new man dismisses Congress. He declares martial law. He sets up firing squads, targeting underworld figures with high-priced lawyers.

And he's the hero.

In the early '30s, alternate political realities spun as fantasy ran rampant, though not always into profit. Roosevelt was in office by the time the Gershwin musical "Let 'Em Eat Cake" opened in 1933; a sequel to the sunnier musical satire "Of Thee I Sing" (1931), it imagined America plunging into full-on fascism, for laughs.

In another dimly remembered stage relic from 1932, "Napoleon: The Hundred Days," the French Emperor, exile and then again, briefly, emperor, issues dire warnings to his political enemies, in a pre-Twitter age.

"They will learn," says the disgraced leader, "that even now my authority is not safely to be disputed." Like so many subsequent sore losers of world history, the play's version of Bonaparte develops a fierce persecution complex after the Battle of Waterloo: "Suddenly I knew — defeat — inescapably. Everything conspired to destroy me."

The credited co-author of that play: Benito Mussolini.

In Robert Penn Warren's 1946 novel "All the King's Men," which became an Oscar-winning Robert Rossen film three years later, a brutally effective populist based on Louisiana governor Huey Long rises to the top of regional politics, mixing straight talk with crooked self-interest. "You're all hicks," he tells his potential voters early on. "And I alone understand you."

Huey Long's ghost re-emerged in the riveting form of Andy Griffith a decade later, in director Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd," written by Budd Schulberg. It flopped with the public, like the other two seminal 1950s explorations of American media and political corruption: Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole" (1951) and Alexander Mackendrick's "Sweet Smell of Success" (1957). Today, these films speak to us with new urgency.

In "A Face in the Crowd" Griffith's character, down-home, Will Rogers-styled entertainer and TV star Lonesome Rhodes, harbors political ambitions and becomes a player in national politics, quietly at first. Then he tastes blood, and the appeal, in his weirdly prescient words, of becoming "an influencer" — the "power behind the president."

Late in the film, Rhodes is told off by the story's conscience, played by Walter Matthau, who reassures Rhodes in the same way some are speculating this week about the current president's future.

Don't worry, Matthau says. "You're gonna be back in television. Only it won't be quite the same as it was before."

Our current president has been schooled by the movies in how to act like a tough guy, and how to behave as a wildly contradictory authoritarian ruler should, or at least could. Years before his political incarnation, Trump told documentary filmmaker Errol Morris that Charles Foster Kane was his favorite movie character. He said also that he realized the Hearst-inspired media mogul with political ambitions, played by Orson Welles, wasn't "necessarily all positive."

Money, Trump said on camera to Morris, "does in fact isolate you from other people." It's "a protective mechanism." It's how he worked before he was president, and for the last four years: smash, or be smashed.

American politics has forever jousted with the authoritarian impulse. Through it all, somehow, we've managed a peaceful transfer of power. We can revisit, in our mind's eye, the dawn of the 19th century for a reminder of that transfer, in a peculiarly cinematic image pre-dating cinema itself by nearly a century.

After losing his reelection bid to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams skipped the inaugural and, as the sun came up on March 5, 1801, he clopped away on an early morning stagecoach out of Washington, D.C., nursing a grudge as massive as the nation he served.

In defeat, Adams knew when to leave. The how of it, as it may now be dawning on Donald Trump, was up to him.