Trump’s name came up once in a Constitutional Law class I was taking back in 2007, for no reason pertinent to the subject matter: It was the end of the semester and people were sort of bullshitting. Discussion turned to The Apprentice, and one woman in class rhapsodized about how sexy he was. This was the same class where our professor brought up the show To Catch a Predator, the one where they entrapped alleged pedophiles and aired the whole thing on TV. I said it was a crass collusion between the police state and the media to entrap people.
“WHAT IF IT WAS YOUR KID [that these suspected pedophiles were preying upon online]??” my classmates asked in all caps, and I said, “Then I wouldn’t be on the jury?”
Trump has been inexplicably attractive to some people for transparently incorrect and stupid reasons for a long time, and a lot of these same people won’t hear a word about why the law and the enforcement of it should be impartial. Justice should be vengeful and swift and not interested in a whole lot of flowery talk. If this is scary or alarming to you, consider that there have been other times in history, in America, when people openly called for a strongman dictator with the explicit mandate of God. And then maybe sit down with 1933’s Gabriel Over the White House and consider how familiar it all sounds.
Set in the contemporary America of 1933, Gabriel Over the White House casts Walter Huston as Judd Hammond, the newly elected President of the United States. A smooth-talking dandy who has no interest in going on the record with the press, Hammond is happily corrupt and disinterested in lifting a finger to better the circumstances of a nation in the grip of the Great Depression. His own hubris and carelessness cause him to swerve off the road and land himself in a coma. When he snaps out of it, he’s a completely changed man: Taking charge, delivering fiery speeches to unite the country and cavalierly firing any of his cabinet who rub him the wrong way.
Hammond’s special assistant, Miss Molloy (Karen Morley), stops being his implied side piece and starts taking part in an administration that kickstarts a massive infrastructure program to put the poor back to work. At the same time, the president seizes control of the government in a demand for autocratic control so that he can “declare war” on a sleazy criminal kingpin who pretty clearly is supposed to stand in for Al Capone (C. Henry Gordon).
The poor and starving are marching in the streets a million strong, singing “John Brown’s Body” after their charismatic leader is slain. Hammond defuses their agitation with a speech promising work and prosperity again. Before long, he’s railing at Congress to put his plan through. (He’s met with accusations of dictatorship, and then the scene transitions to a newspaper headline that says Congress apparently just gave him what he wanted, with no explanation for how on Earth he strong-armed them into it.) Hammond invites the Capone-analog into the White House and all but assures him if he doesn’t knock it off with all the bootlegging and gunrunning that he’ll just have him killed.
He does: When the gangster orchestrates an attack on the White House itself, Hammond is justified in sending in his newly formed national police force. They roll in with tanks and show those (foreign) gangsters what’s what. The kingpin is dragged before a court martial (because as we’ve established, this is war, and so twelve jurors aren’t called for). The court martial’s judge is actually the president’s right-hand man (Franchot Tone), who sneers at his defendant about how he won’t be able to manipulate a jury this time.
Through it all, Hammond’s inner circle marvels at how unlike himself he’s become. At one point, Hammond doesn’t recognize the words he himself wrote, and a stunned Molloy watches as an otherworldly light surrounds him and he looks up, as if called by some higher power. She is convinced that the angel Gabriel is working through him, which in her defense is the only logical explanation.
Hammond, as a puppet of the Lord, defeats all domestic problems and then turns his attention to a new world order. The film takes a full detour as Hammond calls European dignitaries aboard a Navy battleship to demand they pay back war debts and then executes war games right in front of them to drive the point home. This is literally demanding a loan back at gunpoint. It all leads, eventually, to a world peace treaty. Hammond affixes his signature to it and then, the Lord having no more use for him, he falls dead, too sainted to live in the pacified world he brought about through his own strength of will.
If the film seems as if it espouses some socialist economic policies wedded to some nationalist tendencies, consider that it came out in 1933, the same year Adolf Hitler would come to power in Germany. Consider also that it was a pet project of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for Citizen Kane and a man who, by the ’30s, had gone from a leftist political sensibility to a raging, vitriolic, literally written-in-all-caps conservatism. He would publicly renounce his support for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt by 1935 over the New Deal, railing all the time against workers’ rights. The newspapers he owned at times ran editorials by actual leaders of Nazi Germany.
Hearst produced and advised on the content of the movie, which is to say he threw his money around to get it made. It’s fairly easy to draw parallels between basically any astronomically rich and politically active media magnate and any other astronomically rich and politically active media magnate, but some similarities between Trump and Hearst do stand out: Hearst was deeply connected to old New York politics. He several times tried and failed to be elected President and at one point, governor of New York. He was famous for being rich and infamous for being broke. And his politics might have been said to be left of center right up until they weren’t.
When things are bad and desperate, the thinking goes, all we need is a strong man with a unity of vision who doesn’t need to be constrained by petty things like laws and courts. The mechanisms of justice and remedy that come to us through centuries of sitting down together and puzzling over how we can give aid to the meek and constrain the brutal are suddenly made to seem like burdens. There is, inexplicably, a vocal minority of the nation that insists not just that the President’s flagrant disrespect for the rule of law is good, but that he is literally divine. Gabriel Over the White House is a movie that is 100% in earnest about all of those things, and I don’t know how on Earth it was, and I don’t know what in the world is going to happen.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.