Why you should care
Because sometimes life imitates art, and even the art of the deal.
A charismatic, über-rich New York businessman and celebrity, derided by his political opponents as a con man and “crypto-fascist clown,” embarks on his first run for elected office. He electrifies his die-hard conservative followers with appeals to patriotism, family values, pride and wealth acquisition and a pledge to restore the promise of America.
What sounds uncannily like the narrative behind Donald Trump’s 2016 run for the U.S. presidency is in fact the plot of Bob Roberts, the 1992 political mockumentary about a crusading Pennsylvania Senate candidate and self-made millionaire/folk musician (played by Tim Robbins, who also wrote the screenplay and directed). Bob Roberts may not stand under a “Make America Great Again” banner, but the conservative rebel’s “Times Are Changin’ Back” outlook and album title managed to preview both the culture wars of the 1990s and the Trump phenomenon of the current election cycle.
Roberts is a brilliant manipulator of the media who is not shy about trumpeting his own wealth.
Roberts is “handsome, meticulously dressed and groomed,” according to the screenplay. “He is the quintessential yuppie but there is also something intimidating about him.” A military school grad with an Ivy League degree, he is a slick businessman whose campaign bus and staff double as a mobile trading unit. Not unlike the current Republican front-runner, Roberts is a brilliant manipulator of the media who is not shy about trumpeting his own wealth and the importance of winning.
Set during the 1990 election cycle, the film traverses a very different political landscape from today, from concerns with drugs and Contras to the threat of Saddam Hussein, as it follows Roberts along the campaign trail. But Roberts’ brand of “down-home fascism,” as critic Roger Ebert labeled it, transcends the era. It is a populism grounded in division, and the faux folk anthems that the guitar-strumming Roberts sings at his massive campaign rallies are hymns to greed (“I will take my inheritance and invest it with pride”) and diatribes against political correctness, Arabs and “lazy people” who “complain and complain and complain” about their lot in life. “I wanna be rich, I don’t have a brain / So give me a handout while I complain,” goes one of the catchy songs written by Robbins and his older brother, David (their father was folk singer Gil Robbins of the Highwaymen).
As Roberts’ election fortunes begin to soar, the dynamic surrounding his campaign turns increasingly ugly. Protesters attending his rallies are roughed up as he aggressively calls them out from the stage. The film even captures how his somewhat sinister celebrity grates on many of the journalists and entertainers who have no choice but to go along with it. “It seems you would like Americans to cast their vote based on hatred and ignorance,” says one TV newswoman who can barely hide her contempt for the man she later confides to the camera “has adopted the persona and the mindset of the free-thinking rebel and turned it on itself.” The controversy surrounding Roberts’ guest appearance on a fictional version of Saturday Night Live mirrors many of the misgivings surrounding Trump’s hosting of SNL in November. Unlike with Trump, however, an angry staffer pulls the plug (literally) on Roberts’ performance.
Bob Roberts is not a subtle film in either its plot or its caricature of far-right politics, and, in the end, it collapses under its own pretenses and far-fetched conspiracies as its Machiavellian protagonist engages in the ultimate deception to win voter sympathy — and a Senate seat. Still, like every shrewd political satire, it nails its mark enough to remain relevant, even while verging on the ridiculous. “Recent events haven’t completely overtaken the movie,” The New York Times wrote of the film’s opening in the midst of the turbulent 1992 presidential election, “but they do indicate just how wild a satire must be these days to remain on the cutting edge of the outrageous.”
Even in this 2016 election, where the outrageous — and the level of outrage — have reached new heights, Bob Roberts still strikes a powerful chord among those who complain and complain and complain about the state of American politics.