Nine Ways the Film 'Network' Predicted the Donald Trump Circus

NetworkMGM
Network, 1976. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

We have a suggestion for anyone who still thinks there was no way we could have foreseen Donald Trump's ascension to the top of the Republican Party: Watch Network. If you've already seen it, watch it again. The Oscar-winning film, about a nightly newscaster who loses his mind only to be kept on the air by his ratings-hungry network, turns 40 this month. The timing of the anniversary is fitting. With Trump on the precipice of the White House, the Sidney Lumet–directed, Paddy Chayefsky–written satire of the television news industry has never seemed so prescient.

Though it was considered a far-fetched satire at the time, there isn't much in the Network that feels implausible in 2016. There's something in nearly every scene that brings to mind the sordid threesome currently playing out between Trump, the media and the American people. Here are nine examples.

1. The latent rage of the American people

"The American people want someone to articulate their rage for them," says UBS network programmer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), who sees a clear path to ratings, one that is paved with violence, anger and fear. She is gifted with an enraged Howard Beale, who was set to retire before his unhinged parting address drove ratings through the roof. She pitches a show centered on his rants as the answer to the network's plummeting numbers. It works. Trump, of course, has used the same strategy to build his voter base. So have CNN, Fox News and MSNBC to fill air time and grow their own ratings.

2. The allure of anti-establishment rhetoric

Chayefsky wrote Network in 1972, drawing his inspiration from how television news covered Vietnam and Watergate. He noticed something seething beneath the surface of the American people and imagined what it would be like if television news abandoned its principles in an effort to tap directly into what consumers wanted to see, which was anything that ran counter to the insidious forces responsible for war and corruption. "I want angry shows," Christensen demands in a production meeting. "I don't want conventional programming on this network. I want counterculture. I want anti-establishment."

3. The decline of journalistic integrity

There has been no bigger smash in television history than Trump over the last 18 months. As ratings for Howard Beale–style infotainment have risen, basic journalist integrity has declined.

4. The raving madman as savior

For the silent majority, Trump's message is beyond reproach because of the way he has positioned himself as a savior. It isn't really about his message at all; it's about him. Barack Obama played a similar role in 2008 as the candidate of hope, but Trump's appeal is rooted not in a gleaming future but in a fear of what could become of the country should he lose the election. Trump (and Trump alone) is the man that will save America—and the world—from complete and total ruin. Trump is a messianic figure supposedly exposing the corruption of the system.

6. Obscene catchphrases of the silent majority

Network:

"We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore!"

Now:

"Make America great again!"

"Lock her up!"

"Trump that bitch!"

7. We are living in a circus

"Television is not the truth," says Beale. "Television is a goddamn amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats. Storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers and football players. We're in the boredom-killing business. So if you want the truth, go to God, go to your gurus, go to yourselves. Because that's the only place you're going to find any real truth. You're never going to get any truth from us. We'll tell you anything you want to hear. We'll lie like hell."

A circus full of storytellers, eh? Sounds like Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, Scott Baio, Rudy Giuliani, David Clarke and every other Trump surrogate to bloviate on TV as the election draws near. They are not dispensing truth. They are dispensing amusement. They are the boredom killers. They are not truth dispensers, as Beale warns, but it doesn't matter. If it's on TV—or, in the case of the 2016 election, the internet—people are going to believe it.

"Less than 3 percent of you people read books. Less than 15 percent of you read newspapers," he says. "The only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now there is an entire generation that never knew anything that didn't come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers. This tube is the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people."

Perhaps one reason Trump is so easily able to appeal to the uneducated masses is because he part of the non-reading, TV-dependent majority Beale castigates. Trump has repeatedly failed to elaborate on his reading habits when pressed by reporters, and in July Art of the Deal ghostwriter Tony Schwartz told The New Yorker that he "doubts that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life."

8. Grassroots mobilization

Beale's audience is so loyal to him that he can command them to do practically anything. He can instruct them to open their windows and yell into the night, or to send telegrams to the White House expressing their frustration. Trump has exercised similar control over his base, most notably in the form of telling his supporters to patrol the polls come Election Day. This is far more dangerous than sending letters to the White House, of course. Beale's followers listened to his call, and the White House was flooded with telegrams. Trump's faithful are likely to heed their savior's words as well. We can only hope they don't take up arms should Clinton win the presidency, as Trump implied might be a good idea in August.

9. It's all about money and power

To Trump, the election is nothing more than another of his business ventures. There are no morals or principles to uphold. All that matters is Trump's bottom line, his own accumulation of power.

In Network, Beale is ultimately convinced of the cold truth that "we no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies" by Arthur Jensen, the head of the Communications Corporation of America, which owns the network. "The world is a business," he adds. "It has been since man crawled out of the slime."

Beale ultimately embraces Jensen's corporate worldview—one which has informed Trump's entire career, including his current campaign—and preaches it to his audience. His ratings plummet, and he winds up dead. Trump has couched the same beliefs in populist ideology. He might end up president of the United States. In other words, we could find ourselves living in a dystopia not even Paddy Chayefsky could have imagined.