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The many ways pop culture warned us about the 2016 election

🕐 7 min read

Two celebrity candidates. A real estate mogul casting himself as a man of the people. A political party in crisis. Lewd language caught on tape. Oh, and the potential for our first female president. With such vivid characters and controversies, our campaign season has plenty of parallels in film, TV, theater, music and literature. We’ve assembled a sampling of these analogues, organized by theme, showing how our political tropes are cultural ones as well.

If you can’t stomach the news channels on election night, try checking out one of the works below and experience reality from the comforting distance of fiction.

– Problematic Populists

“A Face in the Crowd” (1957)

In Elia Kazan’s film, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith) rises from drifter to TV show host to political influencer, as his charisma and crude humor help him harness the power of television to appeal to the common man, while he hides his insensitive treatment of women. Plus – spoiler alert – he’s eventually caught on a hot microphone revealing dark thoughts on the influence of his stardom.

“Bob Roberts” (1992)

This film’s title character (Tim Robbins) has made $40 million in finance and adopts a nationalist agenda in his free-wheeling Republican run for Senate, but also, like Rhodes, he’s a folk singer, staging rallies as entertainment. “The rebel conservative” also faces doubts about his charity’s legitimacy – and releases an album titled “Times Are Changin’ Back.”

“Bulworth” (1998) and “The Candidate” (1972)

Candidates Jay Bulworth (Warren Beatty) and Bill McKay (Robert Redford), respectively, challenge the establishment and break from the typical, honed political rhetoric, gaining fans in the process.

“Black Mirror” (2013 episode “The Waldo Moment”)

It seems funny when a crass cartoon bear runs for local office in an episode of the British TV series – until he starts gaining in the polls. Voters already love Waldo from a late-night comedy show in which he asks public figures embarrassing questions. He may know nothing about politics, but he has a way with cruel zingers.

“Coriolanus” and “Julius Caesar”

As theater critic Charles McNulty put it in the Los Angeles Times, both of these Shakespeare plays “reveal just how easy it is to transform anxious citizens into mobs.”

– – –

– Ruthless Moguls

“Back to the Future, Part II” (1989)

Writer Bob Gale told the Daily Beast that the character of Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) – who becomes a showy casino owner and Republican Party influencer – is based on Donald Trump.

“Wall Street” (1987)

Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is the embodiment of 1980s New York big business, where Trump made his mark, and the candidate’s rhetoric on issues such as his personal taxes has a “greed is good” vibe.

– The Political Glass Ceiling

“Commander in Chief” (2005-2006)

Rod Lurie’s ABC series surely will get a few extra clicks on Hulu if Hillary Clinton wins, and viewers will see a female president (Geena Davis) dealing with sexism from the very first episode, facing the charge that Muslim countries won’t take a woman seriously.

“Kisses for My President” (1964)

Curtis Bernhardt’s film plays the concept of a female president (Polly Bergen) for laughs, with an ending (spoiler alert) that wouldn’t fly today: She gets pregnant, so she resigns. Both the film and “Commander in Chief” spoof the supposed emasculation of the First Gentleman (Fred MacMurray and Kyle Secor, respectively) before giving him a bigger role in the administration. Another connection: In “Commander in Chief,” Bergen plays the president’s mom.

“Veep” (2012-present)

Yes, she’s hard to like, but HBO’s veep-turned-president Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) does grapple with gender issues. When an aide suggests she say “as a woman, I believe . . . ” on an abortion-related issue, she responds, “I can’t identify myself as a woman. . . . Men hate that, and women who hate women hate that, which I believe is most women.” The show also reveals the crass way politicians talk behind closed doors, leading Louis-Dreyfus to say on the New Yorker Radio Hour that this year, the show seemed like a “somber documentary.”

“The Good Wife” (2009-2016)

After standing by his side during her politician husband’s sex scandal, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) eventually decides to run for office herself. Clinton has said she’s a fan of the CBS drama.

“Run the World (Girls)” (2011)

The Beyoncé songbook is jammed with female empowerment anthems, but this 2011 single might be the most straightforward of them all. The question in the refrain – “Who run the world?” – isn’t rhetorical.

– Likability vs. Substance

“Election” (1998 novel and 1999 movie)

“People didn’t necessarily like me,” says Tracy Flick, the candidate for high school student council president in Tom Perrotta’s novel, “but they respected my qualifications.” According to Variety, when asked whether she would ever play Clinton, Reese Witherspoon said she had already played a young version of her in this movie.

“Parks and Recreation” (2009-2015)

Beloved NBC sitcom character Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) is a hard-working, competent-to-a-fault policy wonk who believes in government as a way to make people’s lives better. Naturally, she keeps a photo of Clinton in her office. During her city council election debate, Knope tries to address real issues while staying likable, but her opponent’s non-answers wow the audience.

– Sex And Politics

“The Contender” (2000)

Just after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Lurie directed this movie about a senator (Joan Allen) trying to be confirmed as vice president (after the previous one dies) while an enemy exposes a bit of her sexual history, raising the issue of how much the public should know about a candidate’s personal life.

“Rigoletto” (1851)

The opera adapted from Victor Hugo’s play “Le roi s’amuse” features a political leader, the Duke, who has his way with all the women in his court and gets away with it. His famous aria, “La donna e mobile,” is a classic blame-the-victim moment: He claims it’s women who are as fickle as the breeze, not men.

– Fear of the Other

“The Plot Against America” (2004)

Philip Roth creates an alternate past in which Charles Lindbergh – the aviation hero with no political experience – soars to the top of the Republican presidential ticket by exploiting the country’s paranoia about minorities.

“It Can’t Happen Here” (1935)

In this novel by Sinclair Lewis, adapted into a play in 1936, Sen. Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip runs for president while espousing nativist attitudes such as, “We probably will have to lick those Little Yellow Men some day, to keep them from pinching our vested and rightful interests in China.”

“Falling Down” (1993) and “Gran Torino” (2008)

A white entitlement double-feature: Michael Douglas’s protagonist rampages through Los Angeles, beating a Korean store owner for not speaking English, while Clint Eastwood’s Korean War vet clashes with a Hmong teen who tries to steal his 1972 muscle car.

– America’s Going Down The Toilet

“Idiocracy” (2006)

Director Mike Judge envisions a dystopian future in which our deplorable descendants eschew facts and logic and have elected President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews) – a brand in his name – who doesn’t talk like any politician we know: “I know s—‘s bad right now with all that starving bulls— and the dust storms and we running out of french fries and burrito coverings. But I got a solution.”

“South Park” (fall 2016 season)

Schoolteacher Mr. Garrison’s Trump-like campaign for president goes so over the top that he eventually commands his fans not to vote for him, but they want to anyway. The show weaves in other topical references, including talking, grape-like ” ‘member berries” that lull you into nostalgia (and say things like “‘Member when there weren’t so many Mexicans?”) and the town’s Internet troll calling his offensive postings “just stupid, harmless, locker-room humor.”

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (1941)

The first movement’s “invasion theme” is repeated 12 times, more and more loudly. It’s seen as illustrating not only the Nazi invasion of Russia and the rise of Stalin, but also, more generally, how banal repetition can lull an audience into submission.

“Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)” (1982)

In his hit single, Merle Haggard pines for the post-World War II purity of American life before it was spoiled by Vietnam, the Beatles and that time “Nixon lied to us all on TV.” The reserve in his voice suggests that such simpler times may exist only in the rosiest memories – and in songs like this.

– – –

Chris Richards, Anne Midgette, Stephanie Merry, Peter Marks, Nelson Pressley, Michael O’Sullivan, Ron Charles, Nora Krug, Elahe Izadi, Marc Fisher and Caitlin Moore contributed to this story.

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