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Monday, August 21, 2017

Welcome to the fifth part of our ongoing series, examining all the ways that the artistic and entertainment communities have been trying to warn America that Donald Trump (or someone like him) was up to no good.

Would you believe that there are a lot of people out there who think Donald Trump bears an uncanny resemblance to an incorrigibly vulgar cartoon blue bear named Waldo?

Waldo comes to us courtesy of “The Waldo Moment,” a second-season episode from the British anthology sci-fi show Black Mirror. Written by series creator Charlie Brooker, “Waldo,” like all Mirror episodes, is set in its own distinct universe, telling a different acidic, disturbing satire that reflects our technology and media mores back to us.

In “The Waldo Moment,” the title character is entered into a by-election for a suddenly vacant MP seat as a publicity stunt. The fact that he isn’t human turns out not to be an issue at all for the voters. Waldo is a profane parody of the sort of well-informed teddy who might show up on educational children’s shows to explain what a “politician” is. Only Waldo, like a mean-spirited Colbert, lures oblivious pols onto his show and then calls them a “pussy” over and over again.

And who is Waldo? This is Waldo:

Waldo-bird
Meet Waldo

Seriously. I’m not the only one who sees the resemblance…

“The current state of the race reminds me a lot of an episode of Black Mirror, a terrific BBC show about a dystopian near-future,” Cillizza wrote in The Washington Post back in September.

Trump’s kinship with the foul-mouthed gold-toothed bear is so striking that someone was able to mash up clips from the episode with actual Trump sound bytes:

Waldo is a kind of digital marionette that assumes the facial expressions and voice of a comedian named Jamie, who manipulates the character’s movements from behind a screen. As the episode begins, we gather that Jamie’s personal and professional lives have run aground. His former peers in comedy have gone on to bigger and better things, his most successful gig as an actor was playing “a corn on the cob in a high-interest personal loans commercial,” and we gather than he is struggling with the fallout from the breakdown of a relationship. When he gets the opportunity to run a fake campaign for an MP seat, he seems the least thrilled of anyone.

Of course, he isn’t going to win, and that’s the point. This is just to drum up enthusiasm for a potential pilot. The constituency is solidly conservative, so even the young Labour candidate, an earnest but pragmatic careerist named Gwendolyn, who steals Jamie’s heart, isn’t going to win — she’s just there to dutifully pound the pavement, and pay her party dues. Everyone’s just going through the motions, in Jamie’s words, for their reel.

But what catches Brooker’s eye isn’t the party politics of parachuting surefire candidates into safe-seat constituencies — it’s the way the crude antics of gotcha comedy and reality television find currency in the political arena.

The episode charts Waldo’s progression from a sideshow to a viable, popular candidate — to the delight of social media and the immense consternation of every sensible person watching this spectacle unfold.

As with Trump, the peculiar joy of watching Waldo spar with the other candidates and with journalists who gamely try to corner him, lies in the glib delight and ease with which he smashes through — and exposes — the staid conventions of the whole process. When Trump openly ridiculed his Republican rivals for having once accepted his money, it was hard not to savor the moment, regardless of your politics. Waldo shuts a pundit down by noting that he is bringing them the best ratings they’ve seen in months – how many times has The Donald done the exact same thing to assert his dominance over the news networks?

 

Waldo and Trump can mock the political-media maelstrom by reflecting, perverting, and amplifying everything that people find craven and insubstantial about it. Jamie (Waldo’s voice and wayward soul) isn’t interested in politics, so Waldo isn’t either — great thing is, he doesn’t have to be. His team will google whatever he needs to know — summoning rebound stats and nasty anecdotes which they can feed to him in real time. If the news crews want to point their cameras at Waldo’s producers, all the better. Since every candidate has a group of researchers, handlers, and mouthpieces — by being upfront about it, it all just feeds into the deconstruction. He’s phony, but so are they. If Waldo has a point, that’s it, and it turns out to be a winner.

His unwillingness to buy into the bull makes him a “mascot for the disenfranchised,” in the words of one pundit. Like Trump, Waldo succeeds at harnessing people’s disgust with the entire political process. But where Trump feeds off anger, Waldo’s ascent is powered by apathy. We know exactly who Trump’s “disenfranchised” supporters are — a contingent of incensed, mostly white Americans, who feel threatened and dethroned. But Waldo’s fans appear to be simply bored, their nerve endings and democratic ideals deadened by too much nicety and sameness in politics. In the words of one character, Waldo encourages people not to care. Trump encourages people to do much worse.

Waldo doesn’t have any hateful dogma fueling his campaign. He doesn’t want to build a wall; he isn’t enamored of the power and devastation of nuclear weapons; he doesn’t claim to be able to make anything great again. He just mercilessly “takes the piss,” to use the succinct British idiom that is Waldo’s touchstone, and in doing so becomes a lighting rod for protest voters. This is all just for attention.

But if their ideologies are divergent, their tactics are not. Waldo and Trump don’t play by the rules because they don’t have to.

Chris Cillizza, comparing Waldo to Trump, writes:

Waldo has no qualms about using profanity, lewd jokes and all sorts of non-PC behavior to win verbal sparring matches with his opponents. Those traditional pols have no idea how to handle Waldo because he is, well, a made-up bear. Waldo loses, but his impact on the public — and against politicians — is huge.

But wait, you say, Donald Trump is not an animated bear. You are correct! But Trump’s ability to say and do things no one else would makes it very difficult for Bush to win a fight with him. If your opponent doesn’t play by the rules — or doesn’t acknowledge there are rules at all — it’s no fun to play a game with him.

Bush learned that the hard way, Cillizza noted. As do Waldo’s hapless rivals.

Waldo and Trump are beholden to nobody, merrily unencumbered by any interest outside the advancement of their own celebrity. 

The irony is that Waldo is owned by someone — the network — and he is responsive to their bottom line. Waldo becomes too marketable to let go of, and after a conscience-stricken Jamie abandons the character, his unscrupulous producer takes over the reins and turns Waldo into something much uglier, inciting violence by promising 500 pounds to anyone who can pelt Waldo’s opponents and hecklers with a shoe. Another echo there of The Donald, who has supported and even provoked violence at his rallies and among his supporters. (A hasty, and frankly weakly conceived, epilogue suggests that, long after the events of the episode, political operatives have harnessed Waldo’s reach and turned him into a dangerous, global instrument of control.)

The A.V. Club‘s David Sims argues that one large and simple flaw of the episode is that “Waldo isn’t funny, and he rarely even makes the kind of cogent points” we’d expect him to make. “He didn’t need to be funny, but outside of one particularly successful rant, his content is entirely dumb dick jokes and profuse swearing, which would certainly attract some media attention, but probably not the kind of phenomenal success he experiences in the episode.”

Frankly, I think this is a feature, not a bug. Not only has Waldo’s schtick supplanted actual political discourse; his crass mocking tactics, which are largely devoid of any insight or wit, have taken the place of actual comedy. I don’t find Trump’s ad hominem attacks and free-association ramblings very funny, but God knows his supporters do. According to any conventional standard, Waldo and Trump fail miserably as both entertainers and politicians — but in their respective bizarro universes (one a British sci-fi show, the other the United States in an election cycle) they succeed spectacularly as both. At least according to the vox populi on social media. Trending on Twitter is, Waldo’s producer notes, democracy in action. So be it.

“The Waldo Moment” becomes an iteration of the old story of an artist who loses control of his art, who achieves widespread success and is crushed by it. Jamie may not have political integrity, but he yearns to have artistic integrity, to be true to his craft and to the work of devising the best joke. And Waldo was never a very good joke — he knows that keenly. That this vile blue bear should become his breakout role is an embarrassment he knows he can never walk away from. 

Even the politicians, in their own weary, eroded way, are allowed to show a glimmer of sincerity. Gwendolyn chastises Jamie: “If you were a revolutionary, that would be something,” but he’s not. He’s an equal opportunity spitballer. The conservative candidate observes that Waldo is making the whole system look absurd — “which it may well be,” he muses, “but it built these roads.”

Just because you play by the rules, that doesn’t make you an ineffectual phony. And just because you break every convention, it doesn’t mean you can achieve meaningful, positive change. The would-be MPs aren’t dolts, and Waldo isn’t a radical. He makes people laugh because the things he says are gauche and unexpected — but only an idiot would actually laugh at, let alone vote for, such a creature.

In the final analysis, the comparisons between Waldo and Trump are really only skin-deep. There is no puppeteer behind the curtain with Trump, turning his gears, losing faith, second guessing the vile nonsense coming out of his mouth. It’s just Trump all the way down. And there’s something more insidious and dangerous than a mere mercenary bid for publicity powering Trump’s campaign.

Ultimately, “Waldo” isn’t a satire of political theater, and it isn’t about demagogues and toxic ideologies. It’s a damning indictment of the idiocy of a hashtag electorate that thinks going viral and being legit are the same thing.

“The Waldo Moment” is less prophetic for what it says about Trump than for what it says about us.

This is the fifth in our series “Pop Culture Warned Us About Trump.” 

Check out Part 1: “The Penguin”Part 2: “MAD Magazine”Part 3: Lex Luthor; and Part 4: ‘The Dead Zone.’

Screengrab: ‘The Waldo Moment’ from Black Mirror (via Channel4/Netflix)

 

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