President Donald Trump is about to have a big night. As he takes over screens nationwide, we look at some screen characters he resembles.
You hear that? Listen closely for a second. Just put your ear faintly to the social media ground that entwines the internet like a spider web, and you too will be able to pick up the slow, steady hum of vitriolic insults, ad hominem attacks, and excessively vile uses of innuendo.
When coupled with the fever-pitch bombast of cable news today, it can mean only one thing: President Donald J. Trump is going to dominate our news cycle again, whether we want him to or not. Yep, the 45th President of the United States is going to make his first State of the Union address tonight, and right now folks are just praying he stays on the message fed to him by the teleprompter, and that he avoids ever bringing up crowd sizes, Russia, or Hillary Clinton. That is what passes for “presidential” in the modern era. Feel like you’re in an episode of The Twilight Zone, yet?
That’s okay, so do we! In fact, much of Trump’s bizarre rise to political prominence has felt like something out of fiction. And for that very reason, now is probably the best time to round up 11 movie and TV show characters whom Trump most resembles. Heck, for all we know, he could have been inspired by a few of these guys, which makes modern American politics all the more surreal—life is quite uncomfortably imitating art.
Biff Tannen (Back to the Future)
The most obvious place to start is the one that most folks have already noticed: did Donald Trump model his abrasive media personality on Hill Valley’s once and future King of the Bullies? Even in the very first Back to the Future from 1985, when any similarities might have been unintentional, it is striking how many traits Trump shares with this vulgar, coarse, and all around mean-spirited big man on a little hill. After all, we all know deep down that if Biff Tannen had access to Twitter in 1955, he’d be calling Lorraine Baines a “dog,” and then would be dialing up Don Lemon every other night to then accuse her of bleeding “out of her wherever” too.
But the similarities become even more overt in Back to the Future Part II where in an alternate timeline, Biff Tannen makes himself a billionaire by cheating at gambling. While we’d never accuse the president of time travel-based deception, he certainly shares Biff’s interior (and exterior) design choices as a walking-talking parody of 1980s excess, slapping his last name on every building, shop, ballroom, and presumably gold-plated toilet seat to ever grace his line of vision.
It is also clear that the filmmakers of the sequel were having some fun at the New York billionaire’s expense, who by 1989 was already a big enough multimedia ego to have his own board game. I imagine he isn’t above calling his opponents “buttheads” either, but that’s purely speculation.
Mr. Potter (It’s A Wonderful Life)
Here we have a cinematic businessman and real estate mogul who aggrandizes his own self-worth largely based on achievement in finance. Mr. Potter is a crotchety, bitter, scurvy little spider. But he’ll be damned if he isn’t proud of it. Like Trump, Potter views anybody in his way as envious or a loser. In fact, Trump believes that so fervently, he’ll make up quotes from the Bible to justify his life philosophy.
Similarly when Mr. Potter capitalizes from a run on the local bank by obtaining half the wealth in his community, he immediately dismisses any negative criticism by stating, “The envious ones say that, George. The suckers.”
And to be fair, Trump and Potter both have highly positive self-esteem. To the haters, like George Bailey, Potter has a message: “George, I am an old man and most people hate me. But I don’t like them either, so that makes it all even.” While Trump, with the same flippancy, scoffs off most derision unless there is political or media gain to be had. Otherwise, he can offer a curt smile and a shrug when President Barack Obama criticized him in all but name during his final State of the Union. Then again, one imagines if he could find a way to see Obama thrown in jail, he would consider that the greatest Christmas gift of all.
Harry Ellis (Die Hard)
Almost a pitch perfect realization of Trump’s earliest disciples, Harry Ellis represents every cliché of 1980s businessmen imaginable in Die Hard. One imagines that Ellis went to bed every night praying to a temple of money and reading from Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal, a New York Times best-seller and nightstand bible for douchebags everywhere circa 1987. Also, these are both Masters of the Universe who have an astounding ability to confuse the boardroom with the war room.
When confronting an international terrorist who has taken him and a few dozen other people hostage on Christmas Eve, Ellis conflates with maximum slime that politics and business are more or less the same thing, “Well, I’ve watched 60 Minutes, and I’m saying to myself, they’re motivated, they’re happening, i.e. they want something… Hey business is business. You use a gun, I use a fountain pen. What’s the difference?”
Ellis was one utterance of “I’m going to make a huge deal, a great deal” away from surmising point-by-point Donald Trump’s entire foreign policy platform. After all, this is another highly confident ‘80s stiff with a taste for suspenders and allegedly married women who, after running for president for three months, didn’t know the difference between Hamas in Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Yet he can smugly dismiss any sort of nuance: “It will [matter] when it’s appropriate. I will know more about it than you know, and believe me, it won’t take me long…. I will know far more than you know in 24 hours after I get the job.”
So according to the Donald, just chill out; he caught up on his 60 Minutes sometime after Inauguration Day, bubby.
Frank Hackett (Network)
Network is an obvious film to bring up whenever talking about any overblown self-parodies in the media or politics. Paddy Chayefsky’s prophetic screenplay acts today like a Cassandra warning of the advent of cable news and blowhard opinion shows everywhere. Ergo, there are a number of salient comparisons that could be made here to any of the talking heads or GOP political candidates, be it the wildly infuriated (and impotent) populism embodied by Peter Finch’s crazed Howard Beale or the corporate oligarchic dystopia represented by Ned Beatty’s Arthur Jensen.
Yet for me, Trump is neither man since both represent a rigid, if disquieting, ideology. No, Trump is more Robert Duvall’s Frank Hackett. Like the name might suggest, Frank is a media hack who is more corporate suit (he came from Ford) than newsman when he takes over a fictional network’s programming responsibilities—and he is also a brilliant opportunist. He sees how people react to the aforementioned Beale’s hilariously vague ravings about “being mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore,” and he co-opts it for his network, turning “Mad as Hell” into an empty bumper sticker slogan.
Trump likewise has no problem standing next to a potentially disturbed person speaking in circles that he is convinced is probably a lunatic, but hey if they help in the ratings (or the polls) who cares? For Donald J. Trump during the election, Howard Beale was Sarah Palin and the millions like her, who speak with the knowledge and grace of a seventh grader trying to wing a classroom report about why their parents are voting for the Donald. “Hopey-changey?” “Donald Trump’s trumpeters?” Whatever. Just keep watching. A more recent comparison would be Trump’s support for Alabama senate candidate, Roy Moore. Despite Moore being accused of alleged sexual misconduct and predatory behavior with minors during the 1970s and ’80s, Trump still rallied around Moore until the bitter end. Also like Hackett, he left this proverbial Beale behind after there was nothing left to gain.
Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood)
Also like Hackett, Trump will do whatever it takes to close a deal. Indeed, therein lies an overlap with one of the best big screen businessmen in movie history: Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview. Plainview, like Trump, is a master at convincing large groups of people to give him money or support. And like Trump, he has no issue finding religion when it suits that purpose. Trump, who until very recently was pro-choice, anti-DOMA, and has been married three times, never seemed to be the most religious of fellows. But like Daniel Plainview going to Eli Sunday’s (Paul Dano) church, Trump will allow his personal failings and indiscretions to be dredged up and put on display for judging Christian eyes while having the proverbial sin slapped out of him.
Indeed, Trump went down to Liberty University during the election. And while at that Southern Baptist campus, which was founded by Jerry Falwell, Trump fawned over the “nice religious people,” promising them that if he were president, department stores will say “Merry Christmas” again; he then waxed poetic about his belief in a quote from “Two Corinthians” (oblivious that it’s pronounced “Second Corinthians”).
It’s still not bad for a man who didn’t care about the evangelical position on abortion until 2011. Hell, he got a standing ovation from the Liberty attendants. Nonetheless, I imagine even if it were Paul Dano and Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. slapping him in the face, Trump would still prefer that over standing next to Sarah Palin again.
Bill the Butcher (Gangs of New York)
But when talking about Trump comparisons, the most apropos character played by Daniel Day-Lewis is of course William Cutting, aka Bill the Butcher, in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. The cinematic face of 19th century Nativism and the Know Nothing Party, Day-Lewis’ personification of a specifically American flavored brand of xenophobia is as timely today as it was in its 1863 setting.
Unlike Trump, Bill the Butcher is actually quite loquacious for a self-educated man living in the slums of New York. A bit of a dandy who’s as proud of his patterned, velvet suits as he is of his use of fifty-cent words, Bill is quite the charmer until he transitions into open bloodlust and mob-stirring bigotry against foreigners and immigrants. Granted, it is primarily the Irish for whom Bill reserves his public disdain, gleefully stating, “If only I had the guns, Mr. Tweed, I’d shoot every one of them before they set foot on American soil.”
Yet since the Irish were among the biggest waves of immigrants crossing into New York’s harbor during the mid-1800s, it is no different than a loudmouthed New Yorker raging today against our current influx of undocumented immigrants..
“We’re going to round them up in a very humane way; in a nice way, and they’re going to be happy,” Trump said in 2015. So far there has been little humanity present in how his administration has treated the Dreamers, but maybe a new deal can include them wearing stars too?
Juror #10 (12 Angry Men)
With a title like 12 Angry Men, it is easy to say Trump could be all of them. But there is genuinely only one who mirrors Trump’s main platform—from building a wall to keep Mexican immigrants out to his constitutionally dubious travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries. In fact, Juror #10 has a whole speech prepared about “them.” He might be talking about an Italian-American, but listen to his words in the above video:
“Look, you know how these people LIE! It’s born in them… They don’t need any big reason to kill someone either. No sir…. Oh sure, there are some good things about ‘em too. Look, I’m the first one to say that! I’ve known a couple of them who were OK, but that’s the exception, y’know what I mean?”
We do know. Just imagine for a second he was talking about Muslims or Hispanic people, and it could be a Trump speech. Oh wait, it already is.
Peter Vollmer (The Twilight Zone, “He’s Alive”)
Peter Vollmer is one of the more prescient character creations by Rod Serling. For starters, he was played by a very young Dennis Hopper, who showcased an impressive acting talent before becoming the star of Easy Rider a few years later. But more importantly, the character himself is so passionate in his pro-white America xenophobia that he can even raise the dead from their sleep with his speeches, inspiring their words to become his own.
Most disturbingly, this occurs early in the episode when Vollmer is visited by the ghost of a mysterious benefactor that educates Vollmer about how best to gain and maintain power: by inciting and infuriating a mob to action.
“When you speak to them, speak to them as if you were a member of the mob. Speak to them in their language on their level, make their hate your hate. If they are poor, talk to them of poverty. If they are afraid, talk to them of fear. And if they are angry, Mr. Vollmer, if they are angry, give them objects for their anger! But most of all… make this mob an extension of yourself!”
The episode ends with Vollmer failing to live up to this spirit’s long shadow, but this spectral visitor still walks among us. As intones Serling during the hour’s closing moments, “Where there’s hate, where there’s prejudice, where there’s bigotry, he’s alive. Remember that when he comes to your town, remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others.”
And his voice isn’t merely speaking through Trump—it is rejuvenated with a shiny red, white, and blue finish as the American candidate embodies the ravings of a mob by calling most Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “criminals,” by stating that African-American protestors “should have been roughed up,” and by suggesting that he would “absolutely” implement a database for American Muslims. Trump is a master of the lessons Peter Vollmer failed to entirely grasp, and he’s only getting started.
Supreme Chancellor Adam Sutler (V For Vendetta)
V For Vendetta might have begun as an Alan Moore graphic novel, but its 2006 film adaptation was wholly the Wachowski siblings’ thinly veiled indictment of the Bush administration. However, as biting as the film was—as well as inspirational for college kids across the U.S. to buy Guy Fawkes masks before the next election—it nevertheless seems more fitting for today’s political conversation.
Once you cut through all of the paranoid conspiracy theory murmurings in the Vendetta film, there still remains a simplified but accurate portrayal of how demagoguery can create leaders as short-sighted and authoritarian as John Hurt’s shrill, bellicose British chancellor. Set in a dystopic future where Qurans are outlawed, citizens are spied on (which seems to be a bipartisan issue of acquiescence these days), and all the Muslims and “degenerates” were rounded up years ago and shipped to mysterious camps, V For Vendetta’s landscape seems more possible than ever when one listens to the president’s rhetoric.
Indeed, Hugo Weaving’s titular “V” recites for audiences how such a world could exist. “Our story begins, as these stories often do, with a young and up-and-coming politician. He’s a deeply religious man and a member of the conservative party. He’s completely single-minded and has no regard for political process. The more power he obtains, the more obvious is his zealotry, and the more aggressive his supporters become.”
If you scratch out the words “young” and “deeply religious,” all of the above should sound reminiscent of headlines and tweets made during the campaign—the kind from a politician who, much like Sutler, wished this country to realize that we stood on the edge of oblivion. Of course, he had no problem taking credit for a robust economy as soon as he was sworn in.
Adenoid Hynkel (The Great Dictator)
The Great Dictator is one of the finest pieces of political satire ever put to celluloid or any other form of art. As Charlie Chaplin’s clarion call for justice and the better angels in all men’s souls, this film was a daring bit of comedy and anti-fascist rhetoric in 1940, a period where the U.S. was still at peace with Nazi Germany and when most Hollywood studios were terrified to make any film that spoke out about the war in Europe.
By using all of his clout to write and direct this film, Chaplin created a “prince and the pauper” yarn where the prince was a German-sounding fascist dictator from the land of Tomania, and the pauper was a Jewish barber living in one of Hynkel’s ghettos.
At this point, this list has drawn enough parallels between President Trump’s vitriol and the fictional characters it mirrors. So rather, I’d like to end this with a few of the final lines from The Great Dictator where Chaplin’s barber has been mistaken as his lookalike, the great dictator Adenoid Hynkel, and given a microphone where he can finally speak his mind. It’s the antithesis of everything Hynkel and his real-life counterpart represented—it also is pretty diametrically opposed to Trump’s rhetoric, as well.
“You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power and let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give man a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power but they lie, they do not fulfill that promise and they never will.”
Gabby Johnson (Blazing Saddles)
I had originally intended to end this list on The Great Dictator, but upon watching Blazing Saddles again, I was reminded of Trump’s earliest “political” movement. In 2011, while U.S. President Barack Obama was focused on the economy, finding Osama bin Laden, and a number of other priorities (both ones with positive and negative consequences), Donald Trump was rallying crowds by demanding the president’s birth certificate.
In his first attempt to reach out toward a sea of white faces, Trump spent the spring of 2011 promising he had sent a team of investigators to Hawaii to prove Obama was not born in the U.S. “They cannot believe what they’re finding,” Trump said with a proverbial dog whistle mere weeks before Obama was forced to produce his long-form birth certificate.
He might as well have been telling his future supporters, “The sheriff is ‘near!’”
A version of this article originally ran on Jan. 29, 2016.