If you want to be disturbed and yet also oddly reassured that American politics cycle through the same themes again and again, look no further than the 1992 political mockumentary Bob Roberts written, directed by, and starring Tim Robbins as the eponymous Pennsylvania senatorial candidate, a Yale educated financial man with a serious fencing habit-turned-down-home, folk-singing huckster despite his liberal Philadelphia upbringing. Of course, his squeaky clean image hides a corrupt campaign that only the intrepid reporter Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito) cares enough to uncover. With descriptions of Pennsylvanians that could have been dropped into campaign analyses in 2016 and fans who follow Robbins’ character with a religious fervor, Bob Roberts offers a grim portrait of the political landscape that no longer even feels heightened; it’s just reality now.
A wealthy man who runs a beauty pageant — “Miss Broken Dove” — Roberts parallels Trump’s rise and appeal, right down to his folk album title and de facto campaign slogan, “Times Are Changin’ Back.” His opponent, incumbent Senator Paiste (Gore Vidal!) calls him “a master of pushing racist buttons and sexist buttons, the politics of emotion… but I don’t see anybody at home” in a line that could be pulled from today’s online verticals. The only thing in Bob Roberts that feels even remotely dated is the Lorne Michaels stand-in (played by Bob Balaban) who shuts down a female producer with legitimate concerns about Roberts by saying, “Are you on your period?” The producer’s complaint about having Roberts on to sing his sloganeering folk tunes — “This is a fucking commercial for a fucking political candidate!” — is sadly still relevant, considering that Trump hosted SNL in late 2015 while a candidate.
The film also offers a cavalcade of favorite actors, including Alan Rickman, Susan Sarandon, Helen Hunt, James Spader, Ray Wise (who you may know best as Twin Peaks’ Leland Palmer), and a very, very young Jack Black. There’s even an SNL proxy in the show Cutting Edge Live led by John Cusack. And in an incredibly meta move, the real SNL even had Robbins on as Bob Roberts in 1992, guitar in hand, singing to high school kids and burning books around a campfire.
The main takeaway — and window into this particular moment — comes from a local news anchor (Lynne Thigpen) stuck interviewing Roberts despite her distaste of his policies. Her viciously insightful summation of Roberts describes so many of the personalities we’ve seen come and go in the 25 years since this film was made: “Here is a man who has adopted the persona and mindset of the free-thinking rebel and turned it on itself: the rebel conservative. That is a deviant brilliance.”
Erica Lies is a writer and comedian in Austin, Texas. Her nonfiction work has appeared in Paste, The Hairpin, Bitch Magazine, Rookie Mag, and Screener.