‘A Face in the Crowd’ Predicted Rise of Donald Trump 60 Years Ago (Commentary)

Andy Griffith’s charismatic but hollow TV personality uses his camera-friendliness to rise to the corridors of power. Sound familiar?

A Face in the Crowd

TCM will re-broadcast “A Face in the Crowd” on Friday, January 20 at 5:45 p.m. ET.

It was supposed to be a cautionary tale, but as usual, we didn’t listen. All the way back in 1957, when TV was black-and-white and served up in an unwieldy box, writer Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan (fresh off their collaboration for “On the Waterfront”) tried to warn us about the power of the small screen to create personalities who would lead us to places we didn’t want to go.

And now we have President-elect Donald Trump.

A film that stands alongside “Network” as an eerily prescient case study in television and its sinister powers, “A Face in the Crowd” stars Andy Griffith, giving one of the best to-type/against-type performances in cinema history. Griffith plays “Lonesome” Rhodes, a guitar-playing drifter we first meet in a small-town Arkansas drunk tank when radio reporter Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) drops in with her tape recorder, looking for some local color.

She hits the jackpot with Rhodes, who’s as folksy and charming on the mic as he is petty and bilious away from it. Her listeners immediately take a shine to him, and before long, Rhodes is appearing regularly on her show, where he quickly discovers his ability to inspire his audience to action, whether it’s invading a local big-wig’s swimming pool or setting them against a sponsor who tries to pull out.

It’s not long before Rhodes starts climbing the showbiz ladder, to bigger markets and eventually to television. The money people soon realize that Rhodes can sell anything from patent medicine (he turns spots for a worthless pep pill called Vitajex into innuendo-laden celebrations of sexual energy) to politicians (he takes a stuffed-shirt conservative congressman and makes him look like a good ol’ boy — think the “Duck Dynasty” guys sharing a blind with Ted Cruz).

Realizing that she’s created a monster, Marcia decides she has to destroy Rhodes, so she turns up the microphone during the closing credits of one of his shows, allowing America to hear him talk about his audience as idiots, morons and guinea pigs. Viewers abandon him en masse, and the republic is saved.

Who knew a movie with such a dark perspective on the media and the gullibility of the masses would turn out to be overly optimistic? Once Rhodes makes his on-mic gaffe, he’s told that, eventually, he’ll come back with another show but he’ll never be quite the big deal he became the first time around. For Donald Trump, however, even the infamous Billy Bush recording wasn’t enough to keep a near-majority of the American voting populace from putting him in the White House.

“Lonesome” Rhodes wasn’t a nice guy, but he played one on TV. Similarly, Trump isn’t a good businessman — his bankruptcies, frauds, and charitable malfeasances speak to that as much as his career’s reliance on his father’s money — but he played one for so long in the media that the public bought his shtick. He turned himself into a walking manifestation of Rich Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly, loudly touting his acumen in books and on TV while other, quieter billionaires were far better at their jobs. The mantle of “Successful Rich Guy” stuck, and it won him election to an office he’s singularly unqualified to occupy.

It’s the triumph of “Lonesome” Rhodes. No one cares anymore how fake you might be or what you say when you don’t realize you’re being recorded. This is not a happy ending, but thankfully, it’s also not an ending.