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

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

Sesame Street muppet autism Julia
Courtesy of 60 Minutes

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.)

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.