Beloved of idealistic young things everywhere, The West Wing was always famous for the way in which it sought to imagine an alternative or counter presidency to that of George W. Bush, who came to power during the show’s second season. As liberal wish-fulfillment went, it was comforting but simple stuff. (It wasn’t exactly difficult to imagine a more appealing administration than that of the forty-third president.)
More impressive was the manner in which, in its final two seasons, inspired by a stirring 2004 Democratic National Convention speech by a charming but relatively unknown first-term senator, the show effectively predicted, not only the rise of Barack Obama, but also the type of opponent he would face in the general election and his eventual appointment of a former rival to the role of Secretary of State.
The show failed to predict a few important, even crucial, details (Alan Alda’s Arnold Vinick, who in many other ways closely resembled John McCain, wasn’t mad enough to choose a Sarah Palin type as his running mate) and not everything tallied perfectly (Vinick was awarded the State Department gig, which McCain obviously wasn’t, and Jimmy Smits’ Matt Santos was Latino rather than African-American). But reality nevertheless conformed so closely to the fiction that it was difficult not to feel that the fiction had played a role in shaping the reality somehow, opening up the conceptual space necessary to consider the most unlikely of election victories possible.
House of Cards has never been particularly interested in idealism or prediction. Indeed, it has never seemed particularly interested in the reality of Washington, either. In its cynical and often histrionic way, it prefers to think about power in the abstract, as an elemental force, with the presidency merely its greatest manifestation.
Comparisons to Shakespeare, who had similar concerns, particularly in the War of the Roses cycle, are apt primarily for this reason. (I have always found the comparisons to Macbeth, on the other hand, a little off the mark. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were affected by conscience in a way that Frank and Claire Underwood are not, though the show’s cinematography and blocking often call to mind Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, the greatest cinematic adaptation of the play.) There is much in Kevin Spacey’s performance that recalls his well-received turn as Richard III, and plenty in the writing, both formally—most notably the asides—and in terms of its essentialist exploration of power, that deliberately recalls the Bard. It’s the play of abstract forces, rather than specific ones with real-world analogues, that matters here. Prediction is beside the point.
For all that, however, there are plenty of parallels between the world of the show and the one we inhabit. Russian president Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), a thinly-veiled caricature of Vladimir Putin, is the most obvious of these, though the emergence in the latest season, which was released in its entirety last week, of the “Islamic Caliphate Organisation” in Syria and Iraq is a close second. (Like Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, House of Cards is more responsive to events than predictive or alt-historical.)
There is also the matter of a certain presidential election—the season begins with Frank campaigning in New Hampshire—though there is little that the on and off-screen races have in common besides the year in which they’re taking place. On the show, it’s the Democratic Party, not the Republican one, that is hurtling towards a potentially chaotic open convention, the GOP having agreed upon a young, clean-cut family man (Marco Rubio would be his closest counterpart in reality, though even there the similarities are few) seemingly before the season even begins. What’s most immediately different about the on-screen race, however—something even The West Wing couldn’t have predicted—is the absence of Donald Trump.
Which is to say the absence, not ony of the man himself, but also of the effect he has had on politics over the course of his campaign. The belligerent ‘new normal’ he has ushered in so effectively and represents so totally is beyond even Underwood’s wildest fever dream.
Make no mistake: Underwood is still a dangerous man with blood on his hands, an amalgam of Nixon with his dirty tricks and Clinton with his complete lack of values—Christopher Hitchens’ No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton seems an obvious reference point for the character—and still corrupts or brutalises everyone and everything he comes into contact with.
House of Cards is still a cynical show (except, curiously, when it comes to its journalistic sub-plot, which, Zoe Barnes and her sex-for-stories approach notwithstanding, resembles All the President’s Men more with each season). But get Frank out from behind closed doors and the man is at the very least civil.
On the Republican side of politics today, civility—the ability to talk to and about one another with any degree of politeness or respect—is dead. (This decline has had the curious effect of rendering Armando Iannucci’s Veep, which returns for its fifth season next month, the most realistic depiction of Washington on television.)
The West Wing’s famous live-to-air debate episode, in which Alda and Smits held a tour-de-force, hour-long, genuinely insightful policy discussion, comes across as woefully naïve in the era of unhinged personal taunts and thinly-veiled innuendo about menstruation cycles and penis measurements.
But even House of Cards, which consciously styles itself as the anti-West Wing, comes across as naïve in the face of this sort of stuff. How could it not? When the show first started airing three years ago, I could never have imagined that one day I would be writing that the Washington it represents is in some ways preferable to the real one, however problematic or disturbing the real one often is. But that is indeed what I’ve been forced to do. Quite a thing to write about a show whose main character literally murdered his way into office.
All this has been coming for a while now, of course, and the failure of artists and pundits to predict it now seems willfully ignorant at best. Trump, or someone like him, has been inevitable at least since Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, most likely since Karl Rove stole Bush the election, and probably even since Nixon sat about spewing bile about the Jews to Kissinger.
It’s a version of the trickle theory at work: anti-Semitic asides and “enemy lists” behind closed doors become terms like “anti-American” and “traitor” on the stump and ultimately bloom into “she called him a pussy”. The final, festering resting place of such rhetoric—where it is further cultivated by right-wing radio and television hosts, the earliest adopters of each new put-down and conspiracy theory—is in the minds of those who don’t know any better. Its ultimate expression is violence. This is the black hole towards which America seems increasingly drawn today. Political incivility begets political instability.
Not even House of Cards is that dark. Or, at least, it’s not that dark yet. The closing moments of the show’s fourth season suggest that its fifth (and one suspects final) will take the Underwoods, America and viewers to the precipice.
One longs to hear Underwood, in his Gafney drawl, declare that he’ll trade his kingdom for a horse. But when the world of the show is finally burning, it will be because the Underwoods are a couple of bad apples and the people around them susceptible to rot. When the real world is burning, as it may well be sometime soon, it will be because Americans forgot how to talk like a civilised people. The latter reason—the one we must actually consider when we turn off the television—is the greater tragedy for being all the simpler.