Donald Trump is much less a businessman than a brand. Through personal wealth and bluster he achieved a marketing coup: His name itself came to signify success. He then leased that name to buildings, education scams, television shows, golf courses—and, finally, to the United States itself.
John Lee Hancock’s The Founder is the perfect movie for a country that has just chosen a brand for its chief executive. The film is a biopic of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), the founder of McDonald's—or, according to the film, not exactly the founder. Kroc didn’t invent the fast food restaurant’s speedy system, nor did he come up with the name. Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) created the first McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernadino in 1940. Kroc convinced them to create a franchise with their name and system—and then he shouldered them out of their own business.
Unlike Trump, Kroc was not born into wealth. The film doesn’t show them, but his parents were moderately well-off Czech immigrants; Kroc grew up in the suburb of Oak Park, Illinois. The beginning of The Founder presents him as that familiar figure: a sympathetic underdog with a dream. Before he “founded” McDonald’s, Kroc sold milkshake spindles to burger joints. The first thing on screen in The Founder is Michael Keaton’s giant face, begging, pleading, wheedling with bored proprietor after bored proprietor. Kroc is desperate, hard-working, charming. When he sees his first McDonald burger, it’s shot in erotic slow motion, as a satisfied female customer brings the sandwich to her mouth. You want him to win, like all those other Hollywood heroes who have a vision and a hunger.
The second half of the film suggests that that hunger isn’t so appealing. As he gets power, Kroc doesn’t so much lose his heart as reveal that he never had much of one to begin with.
The McDonald brothers are desperate to keep the quality of their stores. They object to letting Coke sponsor their menus and to using powder-derived milkshakes rather than real ones. They have quality standards because they have a commitment to quality. Kroc cares about keeping the restaurants clean and uniform, but only because that’s the way to reap profts. Dick and Mac had the ideas and the creativity. But as a Norman Vincent Peale record that Ray listens to says, paraphrasing Calvin Coolidge, there are tons of talented failures. (Peale, author of the self-help juggernaut The Power of Positive Thinking, exerted a massive influence on generations of Trumps and officiated Donald’s first wedding.)
What Ray has is persistence—or, more specifically, he has relentlessness born of amoral ambition. Ray is successful because he’s empty. He screws his business partners, discards his wife and plagiarizes his speeches about his own history. He’s a vindictive, narcissistic windbag with no inner life to speak of. When Kroc first bites into a McDonald’s hamburger, he says it’s the best burger he’s ever tasted. And from that platonic burger he creates a vast empire of empty consumerism and a chain of restaurants peddling bad food from coast to coast.
Kroc is a winner because he’s a philistine and an asshole. So the big question here is—does that discredit winners or does it vindicate philistines and assholes?
Kroc and Trump aren’t heroes despite their flaws. They’re heroes because of them.
Kroc is colorful, bigger than life, decisive—he’s awful, but the awfulness is entertaining. “If my competitor were drowning, I’d put a hose right in his mouth!” he hisses on the phone at Mac, who has a heart attack on the spot. Kroc dumps his wife over the dinner table with a cold, quiet and totally out-of-the-blue “I want a divorce.” Joan Smith, the future Joan Kroc, flirts with him over a shared powdered milkshake, then tells him that he is “bold.” Kroc may be awful, but the world is his stage. He’s the lead player; everyone else is there to help him and/or to fail. “We will never beat him, we will never be rid of him,” Mac moans. Ray destroys his enemies, and he bathes in their lamentations.
This is why Trump’s crass bullying and obvious selfishness is, for many Americans, not a bug but a feature. The modern Horatio Alger story doesn’t star a young innocent succeeding through virtue. It stars someone like Ray Kroc, succeeding through being a complete turd.
Capitalism is tough; to beat it, you need to be willing to stick that hose down your competitor’s throat. Many have argued that Trump’s slurs against women and his outrageous statements appeal to his voters because they hate political correctness and enjoy seeing Trump dispense with elite civility. Perhaps that’s true. But Trump’s crassness is also seen as evidence of his competence as a businessman. Successful people like Ray Kroc are awful human beings, Hollywood insists. If you want to find someone to successfully run the country, locate the most awful human being you can find. Kroc and Trump aren’t heroes despite their flaws. They’re heroes because of them.
Even Kroc’s vacuousness is presented as a kind of wisdom. At the end of the film, he tells the beaten Dick that the most important thing about his restaurant was not the method for making burgers. Rather, Kroc says, the real genius of the restaurant was the name. Nobody would want to visit a restaurant called Kroc’s, Ray muses. But, “McDonald’s,” he says, rolling the word around in his mouth. “It sounds like America.”
Kroc lacks authenticity—but that, somehow, makes him all the more authentic. The real McDonald brothers don’t understand the power of their own name and their own brand. They focus on the burgers, and in so doing they fail to see the power of what the burgers are called. The real America is “America,” the slogan: a word that conveys the essence of the country because it’s been hollowed out. Kroc’s a soulless man, and that soullessness allows him to understand what his country really wants: bad food with a familiar name. Or a bad president with one.