Trump's polarizing politics, through a Rizzo lens

RizzoTrump
Director Robert Mugge sees similarities between Frank Rizzo (left) and Donald Trump, but key differences, too.

Andrea Mitchell, the broadcast journalist, stood in front of Philadelphia's City Hall and described the candidate's news conferences this way:

"They became really great shows. Not much news was created. But [he] was a very colorful character and the repartee was usually . . . good entertainment."

Larry Kane, another well-known face from local television, characterized the same candidate like this: "He's a very alive, vital, emotional kind of person. On television, he becomes a spokesman for thousands and thousands of people and their frustrations."

Michael Pakenham, an editor at the Inquirer, cast the candidate's impact on supporters through a lens of fear:

"At the heart of political success and popularity is being able to make people feel that you share with them some mutual terror. And they, through a kind of projection of their own needs, they find a sense of relief from the anxiety of not being able to cope. They say, I'm scared but [he] isn't scared so there's a little less reason for me to be frightened."

Sounds like a typical day on the presidential campaign trail with Donald Trump.

But the trio of journalists had someone else in mind when they spoke on camera for Robert Mugge's eerily timeless 1978 documentary Amateur Night at City Hall: The Story of Frank L. Rizzo.

The rise of Trump has sparked renewed interest in Mugge's entertaining take on Rizzo, filmed during the first year of the bombastic and polarizing mayor's second term.

Mugge told me the film's rerelease - I watched it on Amazon Video, and it can be purchased on DVD - was delayed slightly due to the current presidential election.

"Because of the Trump campaign starting to gain momentum, we decided to schedule it for release this summer," he said.

Mugge sees parallels between two very different men: Rizzo, a South Philadelphian who made a name for himself climbing the ranks of the police department, and Trump, born wealthy with a father who set him up in the real estate business.

For Mugge, the two are linked across time by the notion that drove his Rizzo documentary: "Politics as show business."

"There's a lot of connections between the two of them," said Mugge, whose documentary was screened in Philadelphia during the recent Democratic National Convention. "And a lot of that stems from narcissism."

Mugge notes a few shared traits, a nod-and-wink attitude toward violence against non-supporters; a use of minorities as "scapegoats" for white voters who feel left behind; a willingness to exploit fear for votes.

But he also draws some key distinctions.

"Trump doesn't seem to know the differences between the truth and a falsehood," Mugge said. "He never stops lying. I don't think Rizzo was constantly lying. He did it when it served him."

Rizzo refused to cooperate with Mugge's documentary, so the director followed him around with a camera at public events and paid broadcast networks for previously aired footage. If Rizzo didn't care for the project, it still sounds as if Mugge has a soft spot for the mayor.

Not so much for Trump.

"He wasn't evil," Mugge said of Rizzo. "He wasn't a danger to our democracy, which to me Trump is. He is not a laughing matter, which Rizzo in our film was."

brennac@phillynews.com

215-854-5973

@ByChrisBrennan