Bob Roberts isn’t interested in debating you. The film, a vicious satire of the aw-shucks, just-like-you conservative movement of the 1980’s to the early 2000’s, marks out a clear target early and often. It tells you that the bad guys are the politicians who pretend to be simple folks from the heartland, but who are actually financiers whose oligarchical class loyalty supersedes any cultural affiliation they perform for voters. It paints a picture of a conservative movement in thrall to a shadowy donor class and a menacing series of war criminals and imperial schemers. It’s a cartoonish, over-the-top portrait of a political movement utterly devoid of any sort of morality or sense of responsibility. Bob Roberts, as a film, sits somewhere between biting satire and furious polemical, borne out of an ardently sincere leftism.
Naturally, it was mostly ignored or panned when it came out. The film was like something out of a parody of late-period Spike Lee, too ridiculous to even comment on reality. Sure, politicians like George Bush lied, but so do all politicians. Cheney seemed like a creepy guy, but he was more or less a solid Vice President, right? It was the paranoid hippies, the ones scared of “The Man” just mouthing off again.
But now we know that the film was far more accurate than parodic. Bob Roberts is a film for the age of Trump, and for a GOP more devoted to white nationalism than any sense of personal or political responsibility. When the Republican-controlled Congress has passed a massive tax cut for the oligarch class while trying to cut welfare payments, and when new foreign adventurism is more popular than responsibly ending the decades-long imperial wars in which the US is already engaged, a satire that is clear about the emptiness at the heart of conservatism reads more like prophecy than parody.
Still, when most of us look back on popular culture of the past few decades, we tend to overlook films like Bob Roberts—the mainstream consensus of the time has ossified around these films as forgettable products of the leftist fringe. Michael Moore, shrill propagandist though he might be, has proven a more insightful prognosticator than the entire CNN lineup of pundits, who thought that the GOP would act responsibly in 2016… and 2017, and 2018. And Bob Roberts, with a title character who arguably fakes his own assassination attempt, had a better sense of the importance of the grift to the conservative project than ‘serious’ commentators like Bill Kristol.
This has been true for decades—the hippies who called Nixon a traitor have been proven to be nearer to the mark than the responsible broadcasters like Cronkite or Murrow were willing to admit. (Nixon, of course, sabotaged the 1968 US-North Vietnam peace talks to improve his election chances.) Reagan’s administration sold arms to Iran and funded the Contras in Nicaragua (the colonel who went to jail as a consequence of the investigation into the Iran-Contra affair, Oliver North, is currently the head of the NRA). Bob Roberts is a film that’s clear-eyed about these issues—Alan Rickman plays a character who’s halfway between North and Cheney.
Somehow, though, the fact that the hippie fringe has historically been more clear-eyed about the nature of the conservative movement hasn’t penetrated much of the mainstream discourse. That should change, especially as the current government—not just Trump—makes it clear that Bob Roberts has a better grasp of the right than Brian Williams or Chuck Todd has ever demonstrated.