This guest post is published in conjunction with the annual conference of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies, taking place in Seattle on March 13–17, 2019.
By Giorgio Bertellini, author of The Divo and the Duce: Promoting Film Stardom and Political Leadership in 1920s America
Recurring comparisons between Donald J. Trump and strong men like Benito Mussolini have been illuminating only in part. They have largely relied on a similitude of histrionic personal traits, a nationalist and demagogic rhetoric, and an autocratic indifference to protocols, laws, and truth. Rather than looking at Mussolini in his Italian context, a more apt comparison would be with the Italian dictator’s popularity in 1920s America. Here Il Duce did not control the press and the film industry, as he did in Italy, but managed to have other individuals and institutions do his bidding. They did so not just out of obedience or deference, for their own interest. For decades historians have argued that the American actors and institutions who fostered Mussolini’s American popularity aimed to turn Italy into a bulwark against Communist influence and a privilege site of commercial investments. The red scare argument may be valid as a broad motivator, but the manner in which the goal was achieved was the Duce’s celebrity status, that is the assimilation of Mussolini’s fame to showmanship and film stardom.
References to motion pictures accompanied Mussolini’s rise to fame from the start. On November 3, 1922, just a few days after the King of Italy had appointed Mussolini as Prime Minister, the Birmingham Age-Herald (Alabama) wrote that Mussolini looked “like a movie star.” It was not exactly a traditional political assessment. Just a few years later, Picture-Play Magazine dwelled on Il Duce’s histrionic charisma and described him as “Italy’s pet fire eater” and “the star of the newsreel sections. (February 1924). In designing my recent book, The Divo and The Duce: Promoting Film Stardom in 1920s America, I paired Mussolini’s 1920s rise to fame in American popular culture with the emergence of another foreign film star—Rudolph Valentino. I compared the ways in which the Italian dictator came to be seen as a charming and romanticized master of anti-Bolshevik governance in America with the ways in which, in the very same period, Hollywood actor Rudolph Valentino rose to fame as an exemplar of forceful and romantic leadership.
One of my most surprising findings was that attributes of political and romantic leadership extensively overlapped and even constituted each other. Even before Mussolini took office, Valentino paired in a few interviews his negative views of the 19th Amendment with his enthusiasm for forceful, anti-democratic leadership. “There must be a leader for a nation, for a state, for a home,” he boasted, “There is no such thing as equality.” Similarly, the promotion of Mussolini in fictional autobiographies, newsreels, and fiction films stressed a convergence of chauvinistic and unapologetic male authority in both political and romantic affairs. In spite of their antidemocratic and misogynistic pronouncements, or rather by virtue of them, both the film star and the dictator succeeded in eliciting a degree of mass approbation for their seductive authority that bordered on the plebiscitary.
My most compelling discovery, however, was that rather than the result of a spontaneous and direct relationship between these iconic figures and their fans, Valentino and Mussolini’s American reputation were built up by scores of individuals operating on both sides of the Atlantic. Interested producers, publicists, journalists, financiers, and diplomats worked, sometimes overtly and sometimes clandestinely, in the service of comparable diverse set of interests—Hollywood profit, newspapers’ circulation, and Wall Street and US State Department’s geofinancial and geopolitical aims. These promoters knew with great lucidity that their publicity craft, or “ballyhoo,” as contemporary detractors called it, was most effective when masquerading as news. While the two stars’ foreignness might have constituted, in theory, an impediment to the American marketing of their authoritarian personae, it created, in fact, unique promotional opportunities.
I conclude The Divo and the Duce by arguing that celebrity culture in 20th-century America democracy grew out of the tension between expanded mass access to consumption, information, and civil rights and the well-promoted personal appeal of (male) leadership figures. The popular resonances between the two men’s carefully crafted public personae have underscored the paradox that a public with expanded civic and consumer opportunities is also a public primed to embrace a celebrity’s iconic authority.
In our own epoch of further expanded civic and consumer opportunities, Trump has relied on a comparable confusion of publicity as news coverage. For months before the election, Trump has not needed to hire a platoon of publicists or press-agents. His outrageous campaign rallies and personal tweeting, much more than his rare personal interventions in television news programs, have been difficult to resist for media organizations. Their 24-hr coverage has done the old trick: merge publicity and newsworthiness into a feedback loop.
Trump may have not personally realized all the mechanics of modern news media environment. But he has known how to play it by relying on the most exclusive yet impactful ballyhoo device—his tweets. Placing him alongside political strongmen and media tycoons, while it certainly calls attention to some similarities, in fact shows us how little the Trumpian candidate needed to rely on a direct or even remote control of the media. If you, like me, are on Twitter, let’s remind ourselves that Trump got his early ballyhoo-like wave of digital outrage-cum-promotion with just a few tweets that instantly ended up on our feed.
For more on the comparison between Trump and Mussolini, see Giorgio Bertellini’s Washington Post / Made by History blog, “When Americans loved Benito Mussolini — and what it tells us about Donald Trump’s rise,” February 28, 2019.