“All I gotta do is act naturally,” sang Buck Owens in 1963. Without knowing it, he was describing the Donald Trump "philosophy." The only thing needed is Fred Astaire’s 1946 advice to “look like Gary Cooper (super-duper).” As Charley Ryan sang in 1955, “That’s all there is and there ain’t no more.”
Trump is the product of his youth; he’s the logical extension of the baby boomer generation.
Trump is the bastard child of post-WWII American individualism as imagined in the popular-culture image of the Beat hipster, the cowboy loner and the motorcycle outlaw of the '50s and '60s. He arose out of Hollywood’s fascination with the star at the expense of the rest of the cast, of the belief, as expressed by Bob Dylan, that “you’re the one/That can do what’s never been done/That can win what’s never been won.”
Trump sees himself as the only thing in the world that matters. He is “Lonesome” Rhodes from Elia Kazan’s 1957 "A Face in the Crowd"—but without the satire. He’s John Wayne’s character in John Ford’s 1952 "The Quiet Man," but without any history, without anything but the fight and the belief that Victor McLaglen will love him once defeated. He’s James Dean, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and even Lee Marvin—he’s a legend in his own mind.
More than any other of the characters he encountered in his youth, Trump probably sees himself today as Yul Brynner’s Chris Adams in "The Magnificent Seven," John Sturges’ 1960 remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 "The Seven Samurai." His conceit is affirmed by the way Republican gunslingers are falling in behind him to defeat Eli Wallach’s Hillary Clinton: Chris Christie as Steve McQueen’s Vin and Sarah Palin as Horst Buchholz’s Chico. In their imagination, they’re all just the ones to save the poor villagers … Mexicans, ironically.
Or, perhaps, Trump is Ricky Nelson’s character Colorado in the 1959 Howard Hawks film "Rio Bravo," the one John Wayne’s character calls “a smart kid.” When Dude (Dean Martin) wonders if he’s as good as his reputation, Wayne’s John T. Chance replies, “I’d say he was. I’d say he was so good he doesn’t feel he has to prove it.” That’s Trump to a T, especially when saying his best advisor is himself. At least, that’s Trump as he wants the rest of us to see him.
The individualism of Trump is a phenomenon of the second half of the 20th century, one perhaps best expressed in film early on through László Benedek’s 1953 "The Wild One." In that movie, Brando and Marvin, heads of rival motorcycle gangs, terrorize a town—playing individuals of a type unlike anything imagined for earlier and responsible individualists like Natty Bumppo, Davy Crockett and Tom Swift.
A young woman asks Brando’s Johnny Strabler what he is rebelling against. He answers, “What have you got?” Trump’s ‘rebel without a cause’ doesn’t need reasons, just emotions and confidence.
In "The Wild One," reconciliation between the hero and the people is possible, as the last scene of the movie, where Johnny actually smiles, shows. Trump still believes he can bring this about, no matter how much he terrorizes the town in the meantime. Trump, however, also believes he is Wyatt in Dennis Hopper’s 1969 "Easy Rider." Though the two main characters are drug runners and drifters, they are the “good guys” of the movie. The two “rednecks” who do them in are, paradoxically, stereotypically evil in a way that many of today’s Trump supporters see in their imagined liberal establishment enemy. In their minds, there is no longer any possible reconciliation.
The disconnect between these two visions is shrugged off—we’ll all eventually get behind him, Trump believes.
Even so, most of the great heroes of the youth of the 1960s were figures who reject obligation to community, like Brando did as Strabler, as Dean almost does as Jim Stark, as does Jack Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty in the 1957 novel "On the Road." Kerouac’s character is based on Neal Cassady, who would later have intimate connection with 1960s counterculture just as he had with 1950s Beats—he became the driver of the bus named “Further” that Ken Kesey and his “Merry Pranksters” painted in bright colors and used for crossing the country in 1964, loyal only to themselves and their drugs.
These were all people who had given up “trying” in favor of “being.” To them, the ending of "Easy Rider," strangely enough, becomes not one of defeat but of triumph, for the characters die true to themselves, taking an unbending existential pose to their graves. Trump obviously admires that attitude. He feels that his “being” is sufficient justification for anything he wants to do.
In this, again, Trump is the ultimate baby boomer.
In the 1950s, American culture was rapidly emerging into a new configuration, sculpting the boomer personality—and Trump’s. The suburbs were suddenly growing at an astonishing rate, and the cities were experiencing a serious population shift as the upwardly mobile opted for that ranch house with its carport and deep backyard. Wealth, if it had ever been there, was beginning to seep away from the small towns and the rural economy. The inner cities were also deteriorating, but an America of the "metropolitan area" was newly invigorated. This change, in particular because the shift in wealth was so clear, also affected how different parts of America were viewed and viewed themselves.
The rural population now seemed even poorer, older and more quaint than it had in the period between the wars. Americans wanted to be part of the new sophisticated urbanite population that knew, as did Robert Mitchum’s character in "Thunder Road" (Arthur Ripley, 1958), how to order in a fancy restaurant and even could tell what a mobile sculpture is. More than ever before, they began to imagine themselves as deserving more than anyone ever before. They—Trump among them—wanted to be the manipulators and not the manipulated.
The political point behind "A Face in the Crowd" was to show how crass the manipulation of the public could be. The implied insult to that public for being so easily fooled may not have been consciously meant by director Elia Kazan or by writer Budd Schulberg, but it is there, nonetheless—and it was picked up by people like the young Trump. Schulberg famously complained that people had seen his 1941 novel "What Makes Sammy Run?" as a how-to book; Donald Trump did the same for the later movie, making “Lonesome” Rhodes his model for the movie he’s starring in today.
Unfortunately for the rest of us, he’s living it, too.
This article has been partially adapted from passages in Aaron Barlow’s The Cult of Individualism (Praeger, 2013).