Like most political satire, Bob Roberts is a time capsule of its era. Set during the fictional 1990 senatorial run of its titular character, writer-director Tim Robbins’s 1992 mockumentary is in part a critique of President Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs and the C.I.A. overreach of the ‘80s and a takedown of the moral crusades that came to a head in the mid-to-late ‘90s. But while its targets are tied rather tightly to a specific time in America’s political past, this shrewdly drawn portrait of the unsettling intersection of entertainment, business, and politics now feels surprisingly prescient.
Viewed through the funhouse mirror of America’s current political climate, there’s an intriguing and frightening through line from the conservative folk-singing politician Bob Roberts (played by Robbins) to Donald Trump. Both men have an uncanny ability to use the media for their own gains, painting themselves as the antagonized victim of fact-based reportage while crafting the image of the wealthy conservative rebel who will cut government excesses as a way to restore power to the common man. But where Trump is brash and boorish, Roberts is slick and mannered—a wolf in sheep’s clothing in an age before Americans simply welcomed in the wolf at their door.
The film follows Roberts on the campaign trail as he pridefully sings songs about welfare mooches, the drug war, and investing his hefty inheritance. Throughout, we’re privy to the insidiousness with which Roberts’s public image is carefully manufactured through a combination of pop-cultural signifiers and brand management so as to ensure the most powerful emotional bond between candidate and constituent. The man’s inversion of Bob Dylan’s regular-joe mystique—Roberts releases an album called Times Are Changin’ Back and pays homage to Dylan’s iconic “Subterranean Homesick Blues” music video from 1965—infuses his political persona with the distinct aura of the cultural iconoclast. Only in this case, the rebellious act is reactionary rather than revolutionary, as greed itself is presented as the panacea for Americans to reclaim that which had once made them great.
Roberts’s cunning manipulation of the media expands even further beyond the carefully crafted songs and speeches aimed at the American heartland. He’s nothing short of abhorrent in the way he deals with his enemies. During a Good Morning, Philadelphia interview, host Kelly Noble (Lynne Thigpen) presses Roberts for details about his past indiscretions, to which he condescendingly asks if she’s a communist, even adding a snide, racist remark about her being black and as such being supportive of government assistance. Later, Roberts appears on Cutting Edge Live, a Saturday Night Live-style variety show, and bullies his way into being allowed to play a more politically divisive song than was originally planned. And naturally his lack of scruples extends to his press strategy against his opponent, Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal). Using a doctored photo, Roberts accuses Paiste of engaging in a relationship with a teenage girl. By the time the story is debunked (it’s revealed that Paiste was merely dropping off his granddaughter’s friend at home), the damage has already been done in the polls.
Roberts’s devious methods are all the more frightening when his supposedly strongly held political beliefs are revealed to be masking his ruthless business dealings. Throughout the film, Roberts butts heads with Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito), a scrappy but intrepid reporter for an independent newspaper who’s traced Roberts’s anti-drug charity, Broken Dove, to a C.I.A-controlled drug-running scheme in the ’90s. After being brushed off when attempting to interview Roberts on several occasions, Bugs uses the documentary camera following the politician’s every move as a means to force Roberts into addressing the accusations, believing he has his prey cornered into confessing. Slick as a snake-oil salesman, Roberts manages to slither his way free by claiming that the previous congressional investigations into Broken Dove’s dealings turned up empty.
Bugs is eventually shown to be on the right track with his ever-expanding conspiracy theory regarding not only Roberts’s shady business dealings, but a potential shadow government operating in arms dealings without any congressional oversight. As the scope of Bugs’s theories move past Roberts, the film briefly loses its sense of clarity as Bugs transforms into a sweaty, overly paranoid slob rather than a well-researched and knowledgeable writer willing to speak truth to power. But it recovers just in time during the staging of an assassination attempt that’s pinned on Bugs. Despite his claims of innocence, Bugs is harassed and beaten by a band of feverish, and very white, Roberts devotees led by one Roger Davis (played by a young Jack Black).
The full depths of the deceitfulness from within the Roberts campaign are finally measurable when it’s revealed that not only was the gun planted on Bugs, but that Roberts, who milked his recovery all the way into office, wasn’t even shot. By this point, though, the truth is of no interest to Roberts’s supporters, who remain faithful even in the face of an avalanche of evidence that confirms their predestined savior’s guilt. Because his vision of America aligns so closely with their own, the end justifies the means at every turn.
Ultimately, this satire about a man that Kelly Noble called “a Machiavellian poser” posits that racism, sexism, xenophobia, and unbridled greed packaged in the form of a rebellious, anti-establishment zealot who speaks without a filter could actually become a senator in these United States. Although The Simpsons accurately predicted the specific future of our country’s current commander in chief, few, if any, films or TV shows have flashed as many warning signs as Bob Roberts about the nefarious ways we would arrive here.