What Trump Could Learn From ‘Sesame Street’ (Column)

Sesame Street muppet autism Julia
Courtesy of 60 Minutes

With the introduction of autistic character Julia, perhaps we'll find that even bad guys like Ronald Grump can be softies

It’s been frequently observed that Donald Trump, the former host of “The Apprentice,” ascended to the White House by using the rhetoric, logic, and naked shamelessness of reality television. But perhaps we should have been watching our “Sesame Street”: Trump is just a real-life version of a villain from a children’s story.

“Sesame Street” made “Ronald Grump,” a rapacious, orange-wigged land developer, into their villain on three separate occasions — in the ’80s, when Grump tried to evict Oscar; in the aughts, when an “Apprentice”-inspired Grump heartlessly fired Elmo; and in the ’90s, for the show’s 25th anniversary special. (That last appearance is especially prescient; Grump, played by Joe Pesci, replaces his doorman with an automated system, hits on a reporter played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and is only defeated by a march of all of Sesame Street’s residents, led by Big Bird. It’s possible Trump has been using this episode as a manual.)

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Sesame Street muppet autism Julia

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Consider the facts: He’s absurdly orange, predictably shifty, and not above gloating in his gilded penthouse. With his constant contradictions and well-known speaking tics, he basically is a cartoon. Add a couple of schemes that are so ridiculously mean-spirited they make the Big Bad Wolf look cuddly, and you have yourself some great kids’ TV.

Trump’s proposed budget is, of course, no exception. In between persecuting immigrants and race baiting, the president has unveiled a plan to ax all federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. What the CPB does is commonly misunderstood; it does fund programming, but it mostly funds the upkeep for rural local stations — stations like WCTE in Cookeville, Tennessee, as Variety’s Cynthia Littleton reported last week. For many in this part of impoverished Appalachia, WCTE is the only station they can afford to get.

WCTE sits in solid Trump country — more than 45-point margins delivered these counties to the president. “Sesame Street,” which is now funded by HBO, and PBS Kids’ “Curious George,” co-produced by Imagine, WGBH, and Universal, would both still get made. But under Trump’s plan for the CPB, this programming would not be able to make it out to Cookeville — because under Trump’s plan, WCTE would cease to exist.

Which is especially (cartoonishly?) ironic, because on March 19, Sesame Workshop indicated that they were about to become more vital than ever; the show will introduce Julia, a 4-year-old character with autism on April 10. In terms of timing and content, it could not be more appropriate; the disorder has become a much-discussed topic, especially with regards to children, as awareness has risen in the past several years. And in terms of scheduled marketing rollouts making a mark on public politics, it could not be more coincidentally or deliberately well-timed. (Sesame Workshop has been developing autism-specific programming for some time; Julia first appeared in an animated short in 2016.)

As a relevant and necessary educational tool, it’s difficult to imagine a more universally positive example of the show’s energies, which have long been proven to be remarkably effective for children. It’s further difficult to imagine a situation that would make Trump look even more like Ronald Grump than grousing about the undeserved funding of an adorable 4-year-old Muppet with special needs.

There is also more to this well-timed rollout than the purely symbolic opposition between a Muppet David and a presidential Goliath; President Trump has demonstrated specific and repeated interest in autism. Granted, one of this political moment’s foundational “alternative facts” is a scientifically inaccurate theory that claims vaccines cause autism. Although that theory has been widely debunked, it has proven remarkably persistent, and like many conspiracy theorists, Trump latched onto it. In January, the then-president-elect floated the idea of a “vaccine safety commission” headed by noted skeptic Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

But the interest has appeared in other ways, too. In February, Trump asked the principal of a special-needs school about the increase in autism, suggesting, “maybe we can do something.” His questioning came from a place of misinformation (it’s not that autism rates are rising, but instead that we now know more about how to identify and diagnose autism), but also uncharacteristic concern.

Allow us to follow the logic of children’s television for a moment: If he really cares about autism, maybe Julia’s presence on public television will move him to reconsider his budget. As we’re told, even the bad guys have hearts.

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  1. Dennis says:

    The crazed Dems will stop nothing to brainwash even our youngest children

  2. Trump and Sesame Street says:

    Like Trump cares what a TV show for children under 6 thinks about him everyone who try to put him down should just stop hes gonna be our president for a long time, and this is so pointless making this doll anyways because autistic people make up 3% of this population i had too comment when i saw this stupidity.

    • Foundin Farthers says:

      “forever” Hahah bitch please, he is bound to the 24th amendment of the US. Constitution up to 2 POSSIBLE PRESIDENTIAL TERMS of 4 years each. Unless you’re telling me, he is going to run for vice presidency forever after he is the president.

  3. noel says:

    I remember Grump too but Trump is forgettable!

  4. gabe says:

    I remember grump

  5. Marc Marshall says:

    Trump promised to get $150 Billion back from Iran since they have already breached the agreement they made with John Kerry. He also said American taxpayers will not be paying for his wall (estimated to cost up to $50 Billion). If he keeps these campaign promises, he will have $200 Billion with which to fund PBS and NPR. Or, if he simply moves his family into the White House, as Presidents should do, and stop spending taxpayer money on security for them at Trump Tower, that would probably take care of it too.

  6. Jacques Strappe says:

    Trump is as crooked as they come, even several notches below used car salesman. And he is even possibly more stupid and illiterate than he is corrupt and mendacious. I would also add that Trump supporters might benefit from watching Sesame Street as well since most of them couldn’t even tell you what the three branches of government are or explain how a bill becomes law. Ask them what Honey Boo-boo favorite food is and they would surely get that right.

    • Zachary Wathen says:

      The three branches are the legislature (consisting of the House and Senate), the Executive (consisting of the president and his cabinet), and the Judicial (Consisting of the Supreme Court). A bill is first proposed through a committee before it’s taken to the Senate to be vote on. I’m a Trump support and I’m proud. I’m also slightly autistic and this greatly improves my capacity to learn. I do not know what Honey Boo-boo’s favorite food is. I never watched the show because the parents were raising her to be spoiled. Liberalism makes no sense to me and all I see on your side of the aisle is anger and hatred and broken people.

  7. Paula Stafford says:

    Great article Sonya. PBS and the CPB have had a major impact on children for quite some time. From “The Count” to “Big Bird” to “Elmo” and the whole gang the critical learning paths of imagination, reading, and creativity are taught in every show. We spend more on our military than the next 7 nations COMBINED and that’s without the $54B increase. We can afford one less fighter jet or ten less tanks to invest in America’s children for years to come.

  8. Inspector clouseau says:

    Need more crying towels Sonya?? You and the rest of the hypocrite left much prefer corrupt life-long politicians who’d continue to sell this country out to highest bidders.What have YOU learned other than true Americans don’t want any of you liberal/communists shitting on the constitution anymore?? Clintons,Bush’s and Obozo traitors should be jailed. Give me your address and I’ll Fed Ex a load of towels to you with a map of all safe spaces you can hide in.

  9. cadavra says:

    What could Trump learn from “Sesame Street?” Well, spelling and arithmetic for starters.

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