Aug 28, 2020
TV Shows that Predicted Trump: Black Mirror "The Waldo Moment"
On September 13, 2016, Charlie Brooker, creator and showrunner for the hit British sci-fi series Black Mirror, addressed the media with his opinion on the US presidential race, which resounded with the kind of bleak doomsaying that would normally happen in a Black Mirror episode: “I find it fucking terrifying,” he said, “because I think Trump’s going to win.”
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Not many of his compatriots in the mass media shared his opinion. They were all taking comfort in the fact that, disgusting and damning as it was that Trump had managed to garner the amount of support he had, he still didn’t have enough supporters to put him in the White House. Nate Silver’s predictions at FiveThirtyEight were the most competitive of all the legitimate polling services; he put Trump’s likelihood of winning at 28%. Quinnipiac, Princeton, Gallup, and others were less cautious, putting Hillary Clinton’s chances of victory anywhere from 85 to 95 percent. Sam Wang of Princeton famously declared: “If Trump gets more than 240 electoral votes, I will eat a bug.” (Awkward.) Reason will prevail, they said. Say it with me: Madame President, they said.
How could Brooker have been right where so many qualified people went so astray? Did Brooker pick up on something crucial that we didn’t? He well might have. The context in which Booker was asked his opinion on the election was this: in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, many commentators began to notice remarkable similarities between the race and a 2013 episode of Black Mirror titled “The Waldo Moment”. It came at the end of the second series (that’s what you call a “season” in Britishish) and easily became the worst-reviewed episode of this consistently well-received series. Critics said the plot was too outlandish, the characters’ motivations opaque, and the ending jarring and hammy.
Initially, Brooker said, he was inclined to agree. “At the time I thought that was one I didn’t nail, I didn’t get the stakes right,” he said of the episode. But the direction that Western politics took in just a few short years convinced him otherwise. “[Y]ou look at it now, and go ‘Fuck me–that’s Trump.’’
I’ll summarize the series for those of you too out-of-the-loop or too possessed of your inner light to have given Black Mirror a go. It’s a sci-fi/horror show originating on the UK’s Channel 4 and now being very comfortably bankrolled by Netflix. It’s an anthology series in the vein of Twilight Zone or Outer Limits, and each episode portrays a disarmingly plausible dystopic near-future in which the internet and social media have murdered all love and decency, and despair reigns supreme over the Earth. “Sitting upright, hugging a pillow, rocking, and moaning softly” is a completely normal reaction to seeing a Black Mirror episode. “When can I watch the rest?” is another.
Part of the irony in the dismissive reception of “The Waldo Moment” is that it’s arguably the least dystopic, least farfetched, and least sci-fictive entry in the whole series. In a show which contains androids, artificial realities, brain implants, and people getting murdered by a Twitter hashtag, the premise of “The Waldo Moment” is rather grounded indeed. Our protagonist is Jamie (Daniel Rigby), a comedian who performs the character of Waldo, a remote-manipulated cartoon bear, for a segment on a talk show. Jamie hates doing Waldo, but doesn’t have any other career prospects. His boss Jack Napier (Jason Flemyng), encouraged by Waldo’s viral success and itching for material for a Waldo pilot, suggests that Jamie get Waldo to stand (“run”, in Britishish) in a by-election (“special election”) in the town of Stentonford, whose MP (“congressman”) has recently resigned for getting caught DM-ing dick pics to a 15-year-old (“Anthony Weinering”).
Jamie does his shtick faithfully, following Conservative candidate Liam Monroe (Tobias Menzies of Rome and Game of Thrones) around the campaign trail in a van with Waldo projected on the side, and heckling and swearing at him at every public appearance. In his downtime, he strikes up a romance with the Labor candidate, Gwendolyn Harris (Chloe Pirrie). In a moment of rapport, Jamie privately admits to Gwen that he wishes he could do more with his life than be a mindless fart-joke-spewing provocateur, and she admits to him that she has no illusions of beating Monroe and is just in the race to get some good “test footage” for a future political career.
But then, Gwendolyn ghosts Jamie after her campaign manager warns against getting involved with him while the election is going on. His ego pricked, Jamie goes on a tirade at a public round table forum, savagely insulting Harris, Monroe, and the whole system as phony and unconcerned with ordinary people. “You look less human than I do,” he fumes, “and I’m a made-up bear with a turquoise cock. You’re just an old attitude with new hair, assuming you’re my superior because I don’t take you seriously. No one takes you seriously!”
Jamie’s profane rant becomes a YouTube hit, and Waldo becomes a rallying point for the apolitical, disaffected masses everywhere, a symbol of loss of faith in democratic institutions and distrust of the career-politician class. His star rises. At Jack’s urging, Waldo goes on talk shows, becoming even more famous, and as his poll numbers climb, he overtakes Gwendolyn and guns for the seat previously assumed to be in the bag for Monroe.
This is probably where the episode lost the 2013-era viewer. In his C+ review for the AV Club, David Sims wrote, “[T]he episode isn’t nearly as clever as it thinks it is…Waldo isn’t funny, and he didn’t even make the kind of cogent points I expected him to make. He didn’t need to be funny, but outside of one particularly successful rant, his content is entirely dumb dick jokes and profuse swearing, which would certainly attract some media attention, but probably not the kind of phenomenal success he experiences in the episode.”
Oh, to live in those days again! To go back to the times when it was unthinkable that anyone could succeed politically by making such a bald-faced, shit-pantsed mockery of the governing institutions of democracy. To once again be able to have faith that a hijacked platform, empty but for stacked bales of coarseness, bile, and nihilism, could never turn into a bully pulpit. Mr. Sims’ opinion reflects a naivete that would be charming if it weren’t a few short years away from its rude comeuppance. The system wasn’t headed toward catastrophe when “The Waldo Moment” aired. It was there. Nobody wanted to see it yet. What was dismissed as ultrablack cynicism from Charlie Brooker ended up being more prescient, more trenchant than anyone in 2013 dared admit.
Perhaps critics’ difficulty in interpreting this episode lay in their trouble placing it within the broader context of the series. Most Black Mirror episodes have specific plot points related to computers, smartphones, the Internet, or social media. “The Waldo Moment”, on paper at least, has no such themes. So how, then, is it a proper Black Mirror episode? What these critics and people like them failed to understand is that Waldo’s candidacy absolutely could not have happened except in the internet age. Their failure to understand the internet’s effect on the political process is what led everyone to underestimate Donald Trump.
First of all, there would be no Waldo—and no President Trump—without the coarsening effect that the internet has had on political discourse. The internet creates virtual communities that our brains treat as real ones; communities that aren’t like any other community humans have ever taken part in, that are unmanageably large and unnaturally impersonal. In a social space crowded with literally millions of voices and bereft of the normal empathic cues and social norms that normally regulate our interactions, the trend over time is for the loudest, most outrageous voices to dominate the conversation, simply because it’s the easiest way to be heard over the din. Nuance dies. Context fades. Consensus breaks down. Moderation disappears. Differences become irreconcilable. Cynicism metastasizes. And when a burn-everything-down figure like Waldo (or Trump) comes along, it’s incredibly tempting to either celebrate because he promises an interesting show, or resign yourself to him because you don’t think it makes any difference anymore. (I’m being almost incoherently glib with this point: read this fascinating article for a more in-depth look at the role of “troll culture” in the rise of Trump and the alt-right.)
Second, the internet has created a crisis of authenticity. We all live our online lives as completely fabricated personae, interacting with people we know to be every bit as fake. Moving so much of our existence into virtual space has caused a blurring of the lines between public and private, between authentic and virtual. Politicians have always existed in this blurred space, but the internet has changed how we relate to it. Every one of Waldo’s supporters knows, on an intellectual level, that he’s fake, but because the internet treats him as real, they react to him as if he’s a real person. Because that’s what the internet does: it turns virtual things real, and real things virtual. Donald Trump’s been playing a strong, authoritative version of himself on TV for decades; anyone should have been able to predict that the crazy voodoo of the internet could turn him into presidential material.
People don’t like it when you point out that they’re being hoodwinked in this fashion, and they’ll go to some lengths to justify their skewed perception. Jack tries to win over Jamie by saying that Waldo’s artificiality could, in itself, be a statement on the artificiality of the political class: “[Waldo]’s not real, but he’s realer than all the others.” “He doesn’t stand for anything,” Jamie protests. “Yeah, well at least he doesn’t pretend to.” Like Waldo’s supporters, Trump’s supporters knew he was playing a character, but that hardly mattered in their minds, because all politicians are playing characters, so you might as well get an entertaining one.
Third, the unimaginable weight of all the information available on the internet, the sheer number of voices and perspectives it contains, and the vastness of its landscape compared to puny, limited meatspace, often has the effect of breeding in its more devoted users a phony, facile sort of egalitarianism. Anyone can feel smart and hyper-competent when you have the entire world’s corpus of knowledge a few keystrokes away at any moment. Anyone can feel well-informed when you can watch events unfold thousands of miles away, in real time, whenever you want. And social media redoubles the effect by trapping you in a media bubble, carefully filtering out anything that might suggest you don’t already know what’s good for everybody or that anything you don’t care about is important. It’s the ultimate ego trip. Part of 2016’s much-touted “populism” stems from a sense of outrage that we still have a class of people charged with “representing” our interests for us. As if we—all-knowing, all-seeing cyborg gods that we are!—are silly babies who don’t know what’s good for us.
Jack’s ultimate endgame for Waldo is an extension of this ethos: he wants to create a world without politicians, where the will of the people gets sucked up straight from the source. “We’ve all got iPhones and computers, right? Any decision that needs to be made… put it on the internet. Thumbs up, thumbs down, majority wins… That’s a real democracy.” “Yeah, so is YouTube,” Jamie retorts, “and I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but the most popular video is a dog farting the theme song from Happy Days.”
Jamie knew what was coming. It’s his cowardice and inertia that prevent him from acting in time to keep the Stentonford by-election from becoming a shameful race to the bottom. After a tearful, acrimonious encounter with Gwen (“If you were preaching revolution, that’d be something, but you’re not… that would require courage, and a mindset”), Jamie breaks the fourth wall at a public Waldo appearance, begging his assembled fans to vote for anyone besides him. In a powerful symbolic gesture, he steps out of the van and shows the gathered masses the fragile, limited human being behind the video-screened simulacrum they love. While Jamie tries to smash the van’s video screen, Jack quickly assumes the mantle of Waldo and urges the crowd to beat Jamie, which they do without hesitation. (Hmm, followers that are easily incited to violence? Uncanny.)
From his hospital bed, Jamie watches the results of the by-election: Monroe wins, with Waldo a strong second. But to underscore the fact that the game has been changed, Jack (as Waldo) urges the crowd to throw shoes at Monroe. And here comes the most controversial, most speculative, and most conventionally sci-fi portion of the episode. We flash forward a few years, and we see Jamie as a homeless drunk, sleeping in the glowing billboards and gigantic LED screens proclaiming the virtues of a vaguely defined but clearly sinister new global government. Waldo’s hopeful blue face is on every one of these screens. Jamie throws a beer bottle at one, and is beaten by jackbooted policemen for his trouble. And just like that, the point is driven home that the apathetic nihilism that Waldo represented played right into the hands of the power-hungry, amoral political establishment that Waldo’s followers nominally despised.
Was this, as critics said, overkill? Is this turn of events “hammy”, “unrealistic”, and “melodramatic”? It was easy to think so a few years ago. I daresay that whether you believe so now depends very highly on your opinion of the current administration. If you honestly find nothing outré about the past year’s events, then the new global regime will probably just slide into place without you noticing. The membrane between real and surreal has been pierced. Or maybe it wasn’t the substance of the ending that was objectionable; it’s that it seemed too glib, too pat, lacking build-up—but there’s not much basis for belaboring that point anymore. Not when things can change on a dime as they do today. So much that what seemed four short years ago like fevered, paranoid speculation is now very much real. We’re living in a society that’s becoming a tragic parody of itself at such a blistering pace that Charlie Brooker, one of the planet’s most brilliant satirists, can only hope to stay a short step ahead.
Is a worldwide tyranny led by a cartoon really all that beyond the pale anymore? Why not? We’ve already got a cartoon president.