Forty years ago, the movie “Network” created a sensation, eventually winning four Academy Awards. Etched on the American consciousness is the image of the demented lead character, news-anchor Howard Beale, striding to an open window, leaning out into the rain, and shouting, “we’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore.” Now Donald Trump has brought Howard Beale to life.
“Network” has a captivating plot line: Howard Beale, a long-time evening news anchor, is told that because of falling ratings he will be fired in two weeks. Beale immediately goes on the air and announces that he plans to kill himself on live TV. However, as Beale descends into madness, his ratings go up and he postpones his suicide. And the distinction blurs between real news and reality television.
There are three parallels between the political ascent of Donald Trump and the disintegration of Howard Beale:
1. Descent into madness: Beale breaks down after he’s told he will be fired.
It’s not clear when Trump’s decline started – perhaps when he was fired from “The Apprentice.” Nonetheless, recent observers believe Trump is mentally ill. This group includes his one-time stalwart supporter, Fox News, who declared: “Donald Trump’s vitriolic attacks against Megyn Kelly and his extreme, sick obsession with her is beneath the dignity of a presidential candidate who wants to occupy the highest office in the land.”
In November,”Psychology Today” queried clinicians about Trump’s behavior. The psychiatrists and psychologists concluded that Trump suffers from a form of Narcissistic Personality Disorder:
”[Involving] arrogant behavior, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration… People who are narcissistic are frequently described as cocky, self-centered, manipulative, and demanding. Narcissists may concentrate on unlikely personal outcomes (e.g., fame) and may be convinced that they deserve special treatment. Related Personality Disorders: Antisocial, Borderline, [and] Histrionic.”
2. Insanity bolsters ratings: After Howard Beale promises to kill himself, his TV ratings go up; his nightly news commentary deteriorates into a rant.
Once Donald Trump declared his candidacy, his increasingly bizarre statements fueled his campaign, bolstering his ratings. In July, Trump promised to build a high wall along the entire US-Mexico border, claiming that it would keep out illegal immigrants whom he described as, “criminals, drug dealers, [and] rapists.” Nonetheless, Trump insisted, “Latinos love me.” (A recent Washington Post poll found that only 16 percent of Hispanics would vote for Trump).
In November, Trump suggested keeping a national registry of Muslims. In December, he proposed banning all Muslims from traveling to the US. Once again, Trump insisted he has Muslim friends and they are “happy” he is discussing this.
The fact-checking website “Politifact" declared Trump’s collective campaign misstatements the “2015 Lie of the Year.” They determined that 76 percent of his claims were lies.
While it’s not unusual for someone suffering from Narcissist Personality Disorder to lie, the extent to which Trump lies – and the fact that he will not back down when confronted with his lies – is characteristic of a related pathology, Borderline Personality Disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, Borderline Personality Disorder: “includes a pattern of unstable intense relationships, distorted self-image, extreme emotions and impulsiveness.”
3. Blurs the line between legitimate news and reality television: In the movie “Network,” to capitalize on Howard Beale’s strong ratings, TV executives transfer him from the news division to the entertainment division. Beale gets his own 30-minute live show, where the audience chants, “we’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”
Indeed, over the past forty years we’ve seen TV news descend into entertainment. The hard news content of the typical network news program has steadily declined and been replaced by reality television. Now, with Donald Trump, we’ve seen a reality TV personality enter mainstream politics.
Political commentators have noted that, despite the absence of specific political policies, Donald Trump’s approval ratings, among Republicans, have been consistent: since January he has been the GOP front runner commanding 30-38 percent of the vote. Trump supporters don’t seem to care about his specific views – or whether or not he changes his position.
Why do Republican voters support Donald Trump? A recent CNN study found that they feel he speaks from the heart, “tells it like it is.” According to the CNN interviews: Trump supporters feel the American dream slipping away from them; they blame corrupt politicians, immigrants, and people-of-color, in general. In other words, they’re “mad as hell;” and they’re “not going to take it anymore.”
Today, most movie fans remember “Network” for Peter Finch’s searing portrayal of Howard Beale. Nonetheless, critics – who rate “Network” as one of America’s classic movies – note the prophetic depiction of the descent of mainstream media from hard news into entertainment.
Certainly, that trend helps explain the political emergence of Donald Trump, who is an entertainer, a narcissist consumed by his own interests and not those of the US.