The 1957 Sidney Lumet classic Twelve Angry Men is a fable about how control of a small tribe shifts from one faction to another.
The “tribe” is actually a jury of twelve men, assembled to rule on the question of guilt of a teenager. But quite apart from the arguments, one can see how one faction (the “Not Guilty” one) starts off powerless, and through moral suasion, ends up snatching the majority from the “Guilty” faction. At the end of the film, the “Guilty” faction ends up where the “Not Guilty” faction had begun: composed of just one man, eyes of the crowd on him, asking him to explain himself.
Now I may be obsessive and I may be a fool—after all, this film was made in 1957—but in it I saw an allegory for contemporary Trumpist America. I saw how xenophobic and authoritarian viewpoints can score early victories and appear invincible. I saw how the smallest crack in that facade can permit moral arguments through. I saw how opening of that smallest crack can find adherents and grow into a movement.
Now come the spoilers.
A midnight murder has been committed in the slums of New York city. An old man is dead and his eighteen-year-old delinquent son is accused of the crime. The case rests on two witnesses: a downstairs neighbor—a man recovering from a stroke—who heard the body thump down on the floor and saw the boy running down the stairs. And a woman in an apartment across the tracks who saw the stabbing through the cars of a rushing train.
Twelve jurors are asked to come up with a unanimous verdict of either guilty or not. A guilty verdict will certainly send the boy to the electric chair. The twelve men are locked into a sweltering room, with a non-functional fan, in a hurry to get home or to a game or just out of the heat. The case appears to be slam-dunk. Two people swore on the stand that they saw the boy, either in the process of killing or right after. His alibi of having been at a movie at the time of the murder appears flimsy, as he can’t remember the name of the feature or who was in it.
All twelve jurors seem convinced that the boy is most likely the one who did it.
All twelve—and this is important—including Henry Fonda (Juror No. 8); however, only Fonda thinks they owe it to the boy to at least discuss the case, and unearth any doubts anyone might have about his guilt, however small.
This makes Juror No. 8 very unpopular. A conscience is an uncomfortable thing to have in the heat. The rest of them were hoping to all vote “Guilty” and get out of there double-fast.
Ed Begley (Juror No. 10) and Lee J Cobb (Juror No. 3) emerge as early leaders of the “Guilty” faction. In them, I saw reflections of Trump and the cult that surrounds him.
Ed Begley plays a gray-haired garage owner, an Archie Bunker-style casual bigot. He is convinced the accused boy is lying, based simply on the fact that he is from the slums. “I know the type,” he says, “people like that lie all the time.”
Lee J Cobb is impatient with the niceties that the rule-of-law imposes on people like himself, who habitually sit in juries in judgment over others. “If it were up to me, I’d slap those tough kids down before they started any trouble.” In the words of Fonda, he is a “self-appointed public executioner.”
He claims to heavily rely on “facts” to come to his “Guilty” verdict. “Now here are the facts,” he says, counting them on his hand, reciting the prosecution’s case. But after only about three items, he pounces to the guilt. “The boy is guilty! Now that’s a fact!”
It’s clear that he seethes with personal resentment against young men who have turned, ungratefully, against their fathers. This slum-dwelling boy had had a fight with his father and threatened to kill him hours before the killing took place. His own son, by his own telling, tired of his father’s constant berating, has not been heard from in two years. Personal injury, resentment, bitterness, all gather into a “Guilty” verdict in his mind, held on to with great vehemence. He doesn’t just want to make sure that the guilty do not go unpunished—rather, as he says, he wants to put this boy in the chair “where he belongs”.
Similarities with Trump
In too many instances to mention, these two Jurors combined essentially form Trump’s personality. There was the time he said that he didn’t want immigrants from shithole countries. The time he, much like Lee J Cobb, condemned the Central Park Five as guilty of rape despite sketchy evidence (and it turned out that they were innocent). There are the many rallies where he waxes eloquent about protesters being carried out in stretchers and promises to pay the legal fees of his supporters if they beat a protester up. There’s the demogoguery about families from across the border as being rapists, murderers, and gang-members, because he “knows the type”.
There’s the fact that his personal resentments, for example towards Obama, appear to have shaped his policies when it comes to killing the Iran Deal (JCPOA) or leaving the Paris Accord against climate change, rather than some more cold-blooded analysis.
Sadly, much like Ed Begley and Lee J Cobb in the film, he is also a fomenter and a leader. Most other Jurors follow the lead of these two to reach an easy “Guilty” verdict. These viewpoints, proclaimed loudly and and with confidence, come through as eminently obvious. Of course the slum-dwelling boy killed his belligerent father! They’re all like that, what more need be said?
Cut to real-life: Trump’s easy condemnation of immigrants and other disadvantaged have actually led to a large uptick in hate crimes and racial violence as tracked by numerous hate watch groups.
Trump Supporter Archetype
Somehow, this film from 1957 (based on a play from 1954) uncannily represents some other archetypes that Trump’s supporters fall into.
Henry Fonda implores the group to stay in the room and debate the case for at least an hour, notwithstanding the heat, pleading that it isn’t easy for him to send the boy to his death in just five minutes. Jack Warden (Juror No. 7), a Yankees fan impatient to get to a game, turns to him testily at this implied rebuke: “so what if it takes me only five minutes to decide he’s guilty? Who says it was easy for me?”
Isn’t this testiness at an implied moral rebuke what the entire rebellion against being “politically correct” is about? And isn’t the permission to be politically incorrect in large part what Trump’s popularity is about? “Yes, you can decide the boy’s guilt in five minutes,” Trump is saying to his followers, in a certain sense. “Look at him, look at what he is. Of course he’s guilty!” No wonder they adore him.
In fact this Juror, played by Jack Warden, is masterfully portrayed as someone with a sort of moral blindness. In contemporary terms, he might decry Fonda’s stance as political correctness; in the film, he directly asks him, “what are you getting out of it? Did someone bonk you on the head?”
That Fonda might take this stand out of ethics simply does not occur to him.
The “Guilty” faction runs the gamut. Like many Trump voters, they came to this verdict in good faith. One by one, they see the wisdom in the “Not Guilty” platform and shift their allegiance.
Jack Klugman (Juror No. 5) was raised in the same sort of slums as the accused. Although he is convinced of the boy’s guilt, he is not comfortable with the aspersions cast on slum-dwellers by the others on his team. Ed Begley, the casual bigot, is the most egregious, regularly using the language of infestation, asserting that kids raised in slums “crawl” out of there and are “trash”. When Klugman (Juror No. 5) finally switches his vote to “Not Guilty”, it isn’t clear whether it is out of conviction, or whether he was driven out by the constant othering he faced on his side.
This reminded me of a recent story in the news: the man who Trump called “my African American“, a Trump supporter, leaving the party because, in his words, he finds that Trump has a “white superiority complex”. Despite being initially convinced of Trump’s platform, he had begun to feel like an outsider who was merely accepted in the circle as a political pawn.
The anti-social belligerence of the ringleaders (Ed Begley and Lee J Cobb) drives away some of their other teammates as well, while Fonda’s calm demeanor wins their respect. An older Juror is the first to cross over to the “Not Guilty” side explicitly in order to give this courageous man his support. An immigrant who respects the American justice system more than some Americans in the room is inspired by Fonda to work through a doubt he has about the prosecution’s case on the notepaper in front of him, and he stands up ceremoniously to present it. He, too, faces othering on his side. “How do you like that,” says Jack Warden (Juror No. 7), “they run for their lives and come over here and then tell us how to run the show, huh?”
A coldly rational stock broker, E. G. Marshall (Juror No. 4) has been convinced by the logic of the prosecution. Although he finds himself on the same side as the bigoted Ed Begley and the belligerent Lee J Cobb, it is clear that he disdains them. While he is not given to emotional outbursts, he does appear to agree with Lee J Cobb that the “Not Guilty” faction is allowing their bleeding-heart sympathy for slum-dwellers to make them believe in fairy-tales and blind them to logic and facts.
But he possesses one thing that they lack: integrity.
When the first cracks of doubt appear in his certainty, that’s the first time in the film that he starts to sweat. But like many Never-Trump Republicans—I’m thinking of some in particular, like David Frum and Max Boot—when the break with the “Guilty” faction comes, it is decisive.
It is impossible to watch a film like this dispassionately. Every sentence and expression is placed in order to inflame one’s moral instincts. The casual bigots, the belligerents, shouters and the rabble-rousers are easy to abhor. The narrative practically forces you to look in their direction.
But whether intended by the filmmakers or not, the one person who aroused most of my ire was neither Ed Begley (the casual bigot), nor Lee J Cobb (the belligerent sadist), nor Jack Warden (the morally blind Yankees fan)—it was Robert Webber (Juror No. 12), an ad executive who seems incapable of treating his task with the seriousness it deserves. As the Sobchak character says in The Big Lebowski about nihilists: “I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos“. That’s how the Juror No. 12 is portrayed: as a nihilist, focused on the entertainment value of the proceedings above all else.
He expresses his relief that since they were given a murder trial, not assault or burglary, there were no “dead spots” during the proceedings. At another time he is found to be playing tic-tac-toe with Lee J Cobb while others are deliberating. When directly asked about what he thinks about the arguments, he cannot muster up anything beyond a shrug.
The entire time, his pulse is on one thing—where the power dynamic lies. In fact, he is supremely sensitive to the shifting tides of conventional wisdom. When he switches his vote to “Not Guilty”, it clear he does so because he feels like this is the winning side now. Then he senses some shakiness in the “Not Guilty” faction and switches his vote back. This is a man who loves winners and is simply unable to process the rightness or wrongness of arguments.
There will always be bigots and there will always be despots. But I find that we are in our current Trumpist predicament because some in the media who are supposed to inform us lost sight of the rightness and wrongness of arguments, and focused entirely on who’s up, who’s down. Juror No. 12’s, all of them, they are masters of conventional wisdom. They report on whose arguments are winning the day, not on what those arguments mean. Looking at you, Juror No. 12 Mark Halperin. Looking at you, Juror No. 12 Chuck Todd. And you, the dumbest pundit in America, the man who plays tic-tac-toe while governments are flailing, Juror No. 12 Chris Cillizza.
Update 10/5/19: I was interviewed on Slate’s podcast Real Trumpcast about this article: check it out!