Jun 11, 2020
Movies that Predicted Trump: Bob Roberts (1992)
This is part of a series of reviews we’re calling Movies that Predicted Trump, where we discuss the films that foretold (in ways both large and small) the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. (Read our review of Bulworth!)
Bob Roberts is a film that could never be made today. This is the kind of stock phrase you see applied to anything made more than a decade ago, usually as a segue into a rant about how much more sensitive our modern society is. Whether this is an indictment of modernity or lambasting an ignorant past is up to whoever’s writing the article, but that’s not the reason Bob Roberts could never be made today. No, it could never be made today because it would be derided as a paper-thin roman à clef of the 2016 election.
Except it isn’t. It’s a mockumentary written, starring, and directed by Tim Robbins, which was released in 1992 and takes place in 1990. Featuring the likes of Giancarlo Esposito, Gore Vidal, James Spader, Jack Black, Helen Hunt, Susan Sarandon, Lynne Thigpen, and (familiar face to the Agony Booth) Ray Wise, it’s a movie that will leave you scratching your head as to how the hell it isn’t as well-known as Primary Colors or Wag the Dog.
(It’s also a movie I will confuse with Tanner ’88 until the day I die, despite the fact that I’ve never seen Tanner ’88.)
The story follows corporate raider turned conservative folk singer Bob Roberts as he runs for US Senate in Pennsylvania. Despite having no political experience, he’s able to re-appropriate the language of liberal outrage and activism and ride the conservative backlash to success. Even though Roberts is shown to have ties to shady businesses and government types (to say nothing of the fact that his campaign seems like a thinly-veiled ad for his music career), he generates a cult-like following, including Jack Black in one of his earliest (and creepiest) roles. He’s hounded by a journalist (Esposito) looking for an explanation for his crooked dealings, but not only does this have no effect on his success, said journalist is later framed and ultimately murdered during a failed assassination attempt on Roberts that the film hints may have been a hoax.
Perhaps the most disturbing element of the film (both in context and in hindsight) is the absolutely ludicrous lengths the media is willing to go to in order to gloss over Roberts’ faults out of some perverted devotion to objectivity, even when their journalistic ethics would otherwise oblige them to address them.
The movie really takes advantage of the mockumentary format by showing the backroom hatchet work that goes into running a political campaign, as well as the unguarded moments when people think the cameras are turned off. Roberts himself is almost the definition of an empty suit, and given that his rallies are devoid of content except for his songs, one could view this film as a Bizarro World version of This is Spinal Tap. There are certainly enough mishaps on their tour, and the supporting cast (including Alan Rickman doing the worst American accent since Van Damme in Street Fighter) certainly wouldn’t feel out of place in Best in Show.
Seriously, I can’t tell if Rickman is trying to do an impression of Classy Freddie Blassie or Bobby Heenan, but it freaks me out, man!
The music is another strong suit of the film. Roberts’ songs (co-written by Robbins himself) are essentially what Bob Dylan would sound like if he’d written “The Dawn of Correction” instead of “Mr. Tambourine Man”. People sometimes forget that in order to make a comedy about music or musicians, the music itself has to be good. Even if the performers are supposed to be terrible, we in the audience still have to listen to them. I don’t know of many movies about bad musicians that have bad music (none that spring to mind, anyway), but it’s still a facet that goes underappreciated among film buffs.
The parallels to Trump are fairly concrete: at a time when America is debating war in the Middle East, a conservative entertainer becomes a political powerhouse based solely on the fact that he’s famous and he tells people what they want to hear. Anyone who criticizes him is dismissed because of the color of their skin or gender, and the opposition to him consists mostly of liberals staring in disbelief and deluding themselves that this can’t possibly happen. I’m not well-versed enough to know if Trump was surrounded by the same kind of shady cabal Roberts is during his campaign, but he sure as hell is now. If you want to get even more on the nose, one of Roberts’ aides is being indicted by the government, only to have the case dismissed before the election!
After that, it starts to get a little scary: Roberts attended military school, his critics refer to him as a “crypto-fascist clown”, he’s involved with a highly questionable “charity”, he appears on a Saturday Night Live-like show over the objections of the cast, his dissenters are violently expelled from his rallies, his followers have no problem committing hate crimes, and because the universe is clearly fucking with us at this point, Roberts even takes time to stress the importance of mobile phones!
In the case of the racism parallel, that gets a bit trickier. Trump definitely mirrors some of the racial attitudes of the Roberts campaign, which itself was a reflection of the prevailing sentiment of the 1980s: white people are doing alright, so what the hell is everyone else complaining about? However, Roberts never overtly race-baits. This may be a matter of time period; in the early ’90s, it was entirely possible for white people to ignore racial issues without being accused of racism, which meant that attempts to bring attention to economic and social disparity were often met with bemused derision rather than outright opposition. It does deal briefly with the cultural limbo black conservatives have to deal with, i.e. hated for being race traitors, but also forced to turn the other cheek when their white colleagues say casually racist things in front of them. This is not dwelt upon, however.
Where the film diverges from Trump, though, is that while The Donald is undoubtedly a forceful personality who’s very much in charge of whatever it is he’s committed to doing this week, Roberts is quite clearly a pawn in a much larger game. It’s established about midway through the story that Rickman’s character, Roberts’ campaign manager and a former CIA operative, was indicted in the Iran-Contra scandal (he gets indicted a second time later in the film, as well), and his stewarding of Roberts is an act of revenge against the senator who interrogated him, who happens to be the guy Bob is running against.
Again, the film doesn’t dwell on this, since it actually trusts us to put the pieces together on our own.
It’s perhaps not too surprising that, being a folk hero of the 1980s, Trump would bring the problems of that era with him when he became President. The self-deluding conservatism of Reagan and his brood never went anywhere, as those of us who lived through the Bush years can attest, but by allowing the cycle to repeat itself so blatantly, we’ve exposed that not only has conservatism ceased to evolve, but the rest of us are stuck right along with it!
Next up in Movies that Predicted Trump: A venal redneck conman (Andy Griffith) works his way up from hayseed TV pitchman to the hallowed halls of political power in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd.