It just so happened I finished up this season of House of Cards — D.C.’s not-even-guilty bingeing pleasure of choice — at the same time results came in for the Super Tuesday primaries. Watching two funhouse mirror versions of American democracy unfold simultaneously — television character Frank Underwood and television character Donald Trump — just reinforced my distaste for both.
To start with the fictional, I realize I’m supposed to hate the Underwoods, while also thrilling to their villainy. And that was a lot of fun for a while. Then the show rushed Frank Underwood into the Oval Office, leaving behind the batshit byzantine plots of the Washington elite for dealings with a second-rate Putin and something involving China that even the shows writers can’t explain.
So when this season kicked off with a fallen reporter providing narration for his cell mate’s jackoff session, I was already halfway to the door. I would have made it out had it not been for friends telling me, Oh, just wait, it gets so much better! No, actually, it doesn’t. Somewhere around the time the show began telegraphing an assassination attempt and minor character death with a lack of subtlety surprising even for House of Cards, I moved directly into the hate-watch camp.
It’s not the show’s lack of connection to reality that bothers me, although “ludicrous” doesn’t even begin to describe its depiction of the American political system, the writers’ understanding of which seems to have come from skimming a few months worth of Politico articles. It’s not even watching the cringe-inducing cameos by prominent journalists, although it does reinforce why cable news should be about the last place one would go to be a well-informed citizen these days. (Why, Gwen Ifill, why? You’re supposed to be the best of us!)
What it comes down to is a show that is fundamentally stupid — filled with fabulous actors and wicked one liners, but still stupid — working so hard to appear smart. This pretentious nonsense is why you end up with the two evil geniuses putting together a complicated plot that involves allowing an Iraqi terror leader to speak with potentially murderous kidnappers yet neglect to have even one Arabic speaker in the room. Or the baldly nihilistic ending that exploits American victims of terror as nakedly as 24 ever did but with even less nuance.
Which brings us to Trump: a campaign that is fundamentally stupid — filled with compelling characters and wicked one liners, but still stupid — working so hard to appear smart. Part of the fascination of watching the Trump roadshow is how closely it tracks with what we would traditionally consider political satire: dismissing the egghead elites and proposing ludicrously simplistic solutions to every problem (building a wall, registering all Muslims, solving every international problem by making deals faster than Monty Hall). Trump gives his audience scapegoats — blacks, Mexicans, Muslims — because Trump is about looking outward for excuses, never inward for understanding.
But what Trump and House of Cards really have in common is hate and anger about our political system. For Trump voters, that anger is directed toward anyone but themselves: at the politicians who’ve abandoned them, the minorities who’ve taken their jobs, the gays who’ve stripped away their values. It’s a hate directed at others, constantly looking to blame.
For House of Cards fans, particularly the feverish ones populating Washington, it’s simply self hatred — thrilling to a show that treats its audience as complicit in a failed, corrupt system. It’s why journalists clamor for cameos on a show that presents journalists as corrupt or inept or captives of the system. It’s why politicians and staffers live for a show that claims there are no principles, only power. It’s a collective probing of an open wound. Yes, you can read too much into a simple show about political corruption, but given the self-seriousness of both the narrative and its creators, I’m inclined to take the show at its word.
Trump or Underwood, fantasy or fiction, right or left — it’s hard to see how any of this ends other than badly.
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