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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

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)

 

Many Democrats are getting nervous about the upcoming presidential election. Ominous, extensively reported articles by two of the best in the business—the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin and The Atlantic's Barton Gellman—outline Boss Trump's plot to keep control of the White House in 2021 no matter how the American people vote.
Trump is hardly making a secret of it. He's pointedly refused to commit to "a peaceful transfer of power."

"Well, we're going to have to see what happens," is how he answered the question. He added that after we "get rid of the ballots"—presumably mail-in ballots he's been whining about for weeks--"there won't be a transfer, frankly. There'll be a continuation."

Of course, Trump himself has always voted by mail, but then brazen hypocrisy is his standard operating mode. If you haven't noticed, he also lies a lot. Without prevaricating, boasting, and bitching, he'd be mute. And even then, he'd still have Twitter. He recently tweeted that the winner "may NEVER BE ACCURATELY DETERMINED" because mail-in ballots make it a "RIGGED ELECTION in waiting."
Gellman gets this part exactly right in The Atlantic: "Let us not hedge about one thing. Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede. Not under any circumstance. Not during the Interregnum and not afterward. If compelled in the end to vacate his office, Trump will insist from exile, as long as he draws breath, that the contest was rigged.
"Trump's invincible commitment to this stance will be the most important fact about the coming Interregnum. It will deform the proceedings from beginning to end. We have not experienced anything like it before."
No, we haven't. However, it's important to remember that Trump makes threats and promises almost daily that never happen. Remember that gigantic border wall Mexico was going to pay for? Trump has built exactly five miles of the fool thing, leaving roughly two thousand to go.
His brilliant cheaper, better health care plan? Non-existent.
On Labor Day, Boss Trump boasted of his unparalleled success in strong-arming Japan into building new auto-manufacturing plants. "They're being built in Ohio, they're being built in South Carolina, North Carolina, they're being built all over and expanded at a level that we've never seen before."
Not a word of that is true. Two new plants, one German, another Swedish have opened in South Carolina, but construction began before Trump took office. Auto industry investment during Barack Obama's second term far exceeded Trump's. His version is sheer make-believe.
But back to the GOP scheme to steal the election.
First, it's clear that even Trump understands that he has virtually no chance of winning the national popular vote. He's been polling in the low 40s, with no sign of change. To have any chance of prevailing in the Electoral College, he's got to do the electoral equivalent of drawing to an inside straight all over again—winning a half-dozen so-called battleground states where he defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 by the narrowest of margins.
At this writing, that looks highly unlikely. The latest polling in must-win Pennsylvania, for example, shows Trump trailing Joe Biden by nine points. That's a landslide. Trump's down ten in Wisconsin, eight in Michigan. And so on.
So spare me the screeching emails in ALL CAPS, OK? Polls were actually quite accurate in 2016. Trump narrowly defeated the odds. It can happen. But he's in far worse shape this time. Furthermore, early voting turnout is very high, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans two to one.
Hence, The Atlantic reports, "Trump's state and national legal teams are already laying the groundwork for post-election maneuvers that would circumvent the results of the vote count in battleground states."
The plan is clear. Because more Democrats than Republicans are choosing mail-in voting during the COVID pandemic, Trump hopes to prevent those ballots from being counted. Assuming he'll have a narrow "swing state" lead on election night, he'll declare victory and start filing lawsuits. "The red mirage," some Democrats call it.
"As a result," Toobin writes, "the aftermath of the 2020 election has the potential to make 2000 look like a mere skirmish." With Trump in the White House urging armed militias to take to the street.
Mail-in votes take a long time to count. Things could definitely get crazy.
True, but filing a lawsuit to halt a Florida recount was one thing. Filing suits against a half dozen states to prevent votes from being counted at all is quite another. Public reaction would be strong. Also, winning such lawsuits requires serious evidence of fraud. Trumpian bluster ain't evidence.
The Atlantic reports that GOP-controlled state legislatures are thinking about sending Trumpist delegations to the Electoral College regardless of the popular vote winner—theoretically constitutional but currently illegal.
Fat chance. If that's the best they've got, they've got nothing.
Anyway, here's the answer: Vote early, and in person*.

[Editor's note: In some states, receiving an absentee ballot means that a voter can no longer vote in person* or may have to surrender the absentee ballot, including the envelope in which it arrived, at their polling place. Please check with your local election authorities.]