Watching Bob Roberts in the Trump Era

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In 1992, Tim Robbins wrote, directed, and starred in Bob Roberts, a mockumentary about a hard-right folk singer who runs as a Republican for the Senate seat in Pennsylvania. Roberts is ruthless, out-of-touch, and has no end game. But, more than anything, he is a celebrity. While watching this movie, I recognized lots of great jokes. It’s a great film but instead of laughter, I felt tense and uneasy. There are countless political satires that are both hysterical and intelligent, including In The Loop, Election, Citizen Ruth, and, of course, Dr. Strangelove. However, in hindsight, no movie seems more prophetic.

Bob Roberts is just as one would expect: arrogant, racist, sexist, nationalistic, greedy, impulsive, vindictive, and stupid. No, it’s not impartial, but many of these assertions made about the Right are based on its fundamental ideals. He is a folk singer, but almost an anti-Bob Dylan. He’s a John Birch-style conservative. There are many references to Dylan in the movie, such as a parody of his “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” but this time for a song airing disgust for government assistance. In total opposition to the origins of the folk music, Roberts targets the struggling and attacks those saying they’re a victim. Sound familiar?

The Democratic incumbent, Brickley Paiste, is portrayed by the late liberal icon Gore Vidal. Vidal could be a bully too but Paiste is the straight-man; an honest politician trying to address serious issues as his election becomes a circus. While Hillary Clinton had a fair-share of indiscretions, she, too, tried to run a stable campaign against a backdrop of lunacy. How does Roberts break Paiste’s lead? He pushes a “scandal” of Paiste in a car with a teenage girl. In reality, he was dropping off his granddaughter’s friend at her house, but the damage is done and the race is neck-and-neck. This is an insultingly bogus accusation on par with, say, deflecting one’s own racist birther claims onto their opponent.

How does he handle the media? Well, if he is pressed on his checkered past, he just fires back, “Are you a Communist?” Such is the case with Good Morning, Philadelphia interviewer Kelly Noble (the late Lynne Thigpen), before using the fact that she is black to push his agenda.

Just like President Trump, Bob Roberts even got to be on a live variety show during his campaign. Despite the fury of Cutting Edge Live host (John Cusack) and several crew members, particularly an assistant named Carol (June Stein). The show’s producer, Michael Janes (Bob Balaban), is an amoral, ratings-hungry ass. When he lets Bob go off script and perform an unheard song, Carol, in fury tells him off. His response? “Are you on your period?”

This is a thinly-veiled take on Saturday Night Live and Lorne Michaels, obviously. Michaels saw all the attention Trump was getting with his racist and sexist B.S. and saw a goldmine. Michaels, despite high-praise from cast members, is known to be pretty sleazy himself.

There seems to be only one person on Roberts’ case. John “Bugs” Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito) is trying to expose the connection of Roberts’ anti-drug charity Broken Dove with drug-trafficking. He’s seen as more than an annoyance to the campaign––He’s dangerous. The campaign staff lash out at the documentarian for filming him and are afraid when they cross Raplin’s path. Raplin’s evidence is hard to dispute. However, Roberts’ supporters are rabid. Protesters are attacked and fans at rallies become vicious mobs. These supporters are obsessed with Roberts. Led by Jack Black in his first film role, they don’t trust the media or the news. Outlets are just out to get Bob Roberts. Sound familiar?

Of course, Raplin is doomed. The campaign frames him for an assassination attempt (that never actually happens; the gun is shot into the ground). His determination ruins him. While I’m not aware of any muckraker or reporter meeting as grim a fate as Raplin, Trump surely ruined a lot of careers. There was a plethora of scandals involving Trump. Look what good that did?

While I hate to spoil the film, it should come as no surprise that Roberts wins the election. This is in no small part due to the Machiavellian, Lee Atwood-style stunts pulled by his campaign, led by Chet MacGregor (Ray Wise) and Lukas Hart III (the late Alan Rickman). While these men are far more skilled and intelligent than Kellyanne Conway, the message remains the same: if you want to win, you must be mercilessly barbaric with any obstacle.

This film may have been released in 1992, but the similarities between it and the horrific rise of Donald J. Trump are uncanny. I watched it over spring break on Netflix and, while I recognized the sophisticated, clever humor on screen, I just felt more and more disturbed and distressed as the film progressed. Just like Bob Roberts, Trump went from an outrageous celebrity everyone had a laugh at to a dangerous man holding political office. Only, Trump is the President and this is reality.