The movie about Trump’s rise to power — his steamrolling of typical political strategies, his wielding of entertainment and emotion over policy and fact, his irascible irresistibility in the face of plodding traditionalism — was made more than 20 years ago. It’s called “Bob Roberts.”
It’s a great “mockumentary,” but, like “Idiocracy,” it’s no longer very funny now that real life in America seems to be taking the gag seriously.
The plot: A wealthy businessman runs for national office, and everyone thinks he’s a joke until he wins. He’s ultra-conservative (the ’60s, he says, were “a dark stain on American history”) and vows to make America great again. He accomplishes this by being a shameless entertainer — in this case, a folk singer in a three-piece suit, singing songs like “The Times, They Are A-Changin’ Back,” even hosting a beauty contest. There’s a scene in which he’s booked on a “Saturday Night Live”-type show and people threaten to boycott. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, he’s milking the exposure to make himself richer. All this used to be fictional.
“Bob Roberts” stars Tim Robbins (he also wrote and, making his debut, directed it) amid dozens of hilarious character turns from Alan Rickman, Ray Wise, John Cusack, James Spader, Jack Black, Susan Sarandon, Brian Murray, and many more. The ensemble charges the film with a crackling energy because it seems as if they’re having a blast making it.
Not surprising, because back in ’92 this narrative still seemed fun and plausibly far-fetched. Watch it today, though, and it’s understandable to feel a bit queasy. The line between the fake documentary and current events remains discernible only by the film's well-written dialogue.
Most reviews of the film framed it by looking back: the unabashed moneylust that is the hallmark of Bob Roberts’ character was a legacy of the “greed is good” 1980s. In hindsight, though, some analysis of the film foreshadows campaign season 2016. Take Roger Ebert’s assessment:
For [Roberts], as for others, populism no longer means the solidarity of the working class, it means its division — race against race, worker against worker, with hate being stirred up to obscure the real enemy, the profit-takers who are raping the companies and leaving them stripped and dead. … Watching it might be an education for some voters, who will recognize in the movie political techniques they see being practiced all the time in real life. There is an eerie quality to Roberts’ down-home fascism, the way he strums that guitar and unashamedly looks like a Woody Guthrie, a Bob Dylan, a folk-singing regular guy, while his lyrics give us the litany of greed.
What made me recall this old chestnut was the obvious and stark contrasts between the rhetoric of both party conventions this month. Much has been said by now about the GOP podium’s considerable cursing against the darkness, and right now we’re in the middle of hearing the Democrats try to light a few candles (Cory Booker’s speech used the word “love” 12 times). My concern is that Hillary Clinton’s (thankfully) measured approach, (obvious) grace and wisdom, and (respected) old-school credentials basically make her, in this metaphor, into … Brickley Paiste.
That’s Bob Roberts’ opponent in the film, and his name telegraphs everything about his character. Played by the great Gore Vidal, he epitomizes any true-blue traditional tactic that crumbles in the face of a fascist showman. Watch the debate scene from “Bob Roberts” below — the editing is perfect, back and forth between the frowning, angry Roberts promising to give the common man a huge financial return on an electoral investment, and the staid instructions from Paiste on how we all must “work hard and, dare I say it, sacrifice … because that is what politics is really about — reality, not image.” In the end, Roberts — looking directly into the camera with serious menace — sells his image of “passion, and belief.”
It’s just a movie, I know. But I’m just a culture journalist and scholar who values the discourses to be found in popular media and the insights to be gained from them. Bugs Raplin, the journalist chasing Roberts throughout the film, asserts: “If you want the truth in this country, you have to seek it out. You must be vigilant, unrelenting, uncompromising.”
Alas, if you want to watch this film, the same vigilance will be required. “Bob Roberts” somehow isn’t available, pretty much anywhere — no streaming services, only a 15-year-old DVD edition (and as I post this, Amazon reports only four copies in stock). For goodness’ sake, Lions Gate or whomever, please put this into rotation. What a perfect climate for a new, bonus-packed release (paging Criterion!), or at the very least Netflix saturation.
I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.