Buttoned-up politicians repeat the same stale lines over and over again. Only interested in getting elected, they value political expediency and money over honesty. Finally, a truth-telling rebel comes along and tells it like it is: “I’m fed up with party politics!”
It’s a dependable storyline that has been the basis for such films as “Bulworth” (1998), “Head of State” (2003), and “Man of the Year” (2006). In the end the courageous man triumphs and changes politics. But would it really be desirable in real life? Now with Donald Trump as president, we are seeing what would really happen after the campaign ends and the underdog rebel takes office — and it’s not what the movies would have you believe.
Voters and even politicians have said they wanted the unvarnished truth. Barack Obama fantasized in 2013 about “going Bulworth.” But what does it really mean to “go Bulworth”?
In “Bulworth”, directed by and starring Warren Beatty, an idealistic California liberal, Senator Jay Billington Bulworth, is disenchanted by the Clintonian triangulation he must engage in to get reelected. After befriending the people of Compton, he adopts a hip-hop persona and spits fire.
But Bulworth’s version of “telling-it-like-it-is” really just encompasses spouting off with bigoted, uncivil, and conspiratorial attacks. “If you don’t put down the malt liquor and chicken wings … you’re never going to get rid of someone like me,” he tells a black church.
Speaking to Hollywood big shots, he says, “My guys are not stupid. They always put the big Jews on the schedule.”
He attacks the moderators at a debate, implying that they are rich and “financed by the same guys” that finance all the campaigns.
When he does address the issues, his critiques and solutions are vapid, blaming unemployment on trade with Mexico, for example.
It’s not much different in the other films. They all blame every single perceived problem on money in politics. Loud and grating sound bytes are taken as “truth telling.” On the debate stage of “Man of the Year”, comedian Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams) hogs all the time, continuously interrupting questions intended for his opponent and with simplistic talking points and gibberish.
When the network cuts to commercial with the crowd cheering, the viewer is supposed to support Dobbs, but Dobbs really comes off as a vapid jerk indulging in demagoguery. What those films really depict when they show candidates who can turn a crowd into a chanting mob isn’t someone confronting the unpopular truth. Rather it is nothing more than the tyranny of populism — candidates saying what the masses want to hear in order to get elected.
So Trump really does fit well into the genre. Attacking the moderators, accusing his opponents of being bought off, blaming Mexico, interrupting and making personal smears were all things he excelled at. He even threw in some Bulworthian stereotypes in his speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition: “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t negotiate deals? Probably more than any room I’ve ever spoken.”
But what happens after the hero wins the election and takes office? In only one of the films noted, “Head of State,” did the candidate (DC alderman Mays Gilliam, played by Chris Rock) actually end up becoming president, and the film ended shortly thereafter. Dobbs won the election but turned it down after finding out the election was rigged, and Bulworth was assassinated after he went rouge.
What viewers didn’t to see, but what we can see now, is how the archetypical Bulworth, after railing against big money politics, would have filled his cabinet with alumnus of Goldman Sachs, longtime DC power players, and two of the top seventy party contributors in the country as heads of cabinet-level agencies. It turns out that to the media and Hollywood, “telling-it-like-it-is” just means being loud and obnoxious while lying.
Roads & Kingdoms, The World of Chinese, The Federalist, and The Hill.com. He has written two guidebooks, including Panda Guides Hong Kong.
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