Watching House of Cards in the Age of Donald Trump


Amy Woodbury Tease

Like many Americans, I spent the days following the 2016 Presidential election trying to process the results. Those who had their champagne glasses poised to toast our first female president watched them shatter in the early hours of the morning after and took to social media to voice their outrage, confusion, and devastation in status updates, tweets, and blog posts. Some swiftly swore off the internet, going dark out of feelings of betrayal, abandonment, and manipulation by their trusted sources. Others, just plain tired of the noise, retreated into themselves: depressed, deflated, defeated. While I am not a Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram junkie, I confess to taking comfort in the mundane chatter of everyday life that typically governs my feeds. But I keep that chatter close to home. I don’t engage a particularly wide network. I work to control who I follow and who follows me. In our digital age of surveillance, it would be naïve for me to claim total confidence in my privacy settings or online security mechanisms. I protect myself by maintaining a low profile, posting once or twice a week without revealing too much about my inner life or my politics. Some would characterize this behavior as paranoid. I’d never given that too much weight. A little paranoia can be productive, after all. But on the morning after Election Day in America, the paranoia was palpable. As I scrolled numbly through my Facebook feed, taking in the resounding panic from my like-minded community, I needed to let my guard down, to contribute to the conversation. I struggled to write meaningfully and honestly, aware that my audience also included family and friends not necessarily on my side. I crafted and deleted several drafts of my status update, sensing their judgment. Finally, I posted, “I woke up in a world that I don’t understand.” Within seconds, a string of emoticons appeared. I was not alone in my feelings of confusion and disillusionment. I had a network with “thumbs up” behind me.

A quarter of the way into the first year of this new administration, as I continue to negotiate, contend with, and communicate my feelings about living in the Age of Trump, I realize that the status update I agonized over in November was misguided, maybe even cowardly. I do understand this world, but I am struggling to recognize it as my own. I have become a character in one of the texts that I teach. Is it a dystopic novel, a psychological thriller, a political drama? Go ahead. Pick one. You’re in it too. The question now becomes one of navigation and survival: how do we persist within this new but not unfamiliar world? What roles do we play? What actions can we take to protect ourselves and our families? How do we give agency and significance to our values and our voices when they are drowned out by louder, more far-reaching and powerful ones?

In search of answers, I immerse myself in stories. I look for specific kinds of stories, ones with guts and grit that might help me to confront the fear I am feeling about the future, to begin to process the emotional and intellectual responses of others. I find myself gravitating towards political dramas, in their literary and media forms, in a way that I never had before. Works that interrogate the power dynamics and policies that govern people’s everyday lives, despite their tendency to melodrama, may turn out to be useful. So I have thought. Already in my wheelhouse are the classic literary works often referenced by the media as anticipating the post-9/11 surveillance state: Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, George Orwell’s 1984, and more recently Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. On the pop culture side of the house, I am well-acquainted with the conspiracy-driven network dramas like 24, Scandal, and Designated Survivor; and the more critically-acclaimed and binge-worthy cable television series such as The Newsroom, Homeland, and Veep. These and the countless others that have emerged over the past several decades simultaneously feed and exploit anxieties about the loss of civil liberties, increased government and institutionalized surveillance practices, and the rise and influence of an expansive media culture that have infiltrated our political landscape. The most popular—and subsequently the most effective—of the contemporary political dramas I’ve consumed lately are those that capitalize on our now pervasive fears about political transition, economic crises, terrorism, and war. In confronting the seemingly endless list of paranoia-inducing phenomena explored in these texts, one strikes me as eerily relevant to our times and worthy of a closer look, and that is House of Cards.

Adapted from the British mini-series and Michael Dobbs novel of the same name, the Netflix original series House of Cards shines a spotlight on the cutthroat political- and media-driven systems within present-day America. It delivers a beautifully stark portrait of the ever-expanding surveillance society that is becoming more powerful, more pervasive, and arguably more dangerous by the day. In many ways, House of Cards adheres to the format of a standard political drama, delivering ample doses of intrigue, soap-opera-style suspense, and conspiracy. Returning to the American series in the wake of the 2016 election I felt compelled to take it more seriously than I did when it debuted four years ago. I am now struck by its anticipation of the current political climate in the United States, specifically in its depiction of a power-hungry protagonist who is simultaneously repulsive and seductive and whose rise to power is surrounded by cynicism, controversy, and division.

If you haven’t seen it, the series stars Kevin Spacey as the ruthless Democratic Majority Whip-turned-President of the United States Francis “Frank” Underwood, and Robin Wright as his equally cunning wife and partner-in-crime Claire, who, in an unexpected and unlikely twist at the end of season four, becomes his Vice-Presidential running mate.* Echoes of the Clintons abound here, and it’s worth briefly noting how, in the wake of Hillary’s defeat, the fact that the Underwoods are Democrats disturbs me more than it did when I first tuned into the show. I can’t help but think about how the brutality exhibited by the Underwoods towards those they work with, those they serve, and most explicitly towards one another, reflects an inherent violence within “America” at large that Trump’s victory not only unmasked but legitimized. The fact that the Underwoods participate in acts that are both inhumane and unethical complicates things for Democratic viewers because, to put it rather bluntly, we think we are better than that. (As a close friend admitted to me recently, “I probably would have voted for that asshole.” Me too.) As an ambitious Congressman and leader in the House, Underwood curates his public image with care, outwardly donning the attributes necessary to being perceived as Presidential. On the surface, his character posseses poise, humility, compassion, and a controlled command of language delivered through the charm of an exaggerated Southern drawl – all of the characteristics that Donald Trump has abandoned in his degenerative reinterpretation of Presidential speech. Where the series manages to articulate the potential appeal of Trump’s rhetoric and anti-Presidential modus operandi is in Underwood’s dealings with the media, and even more so in his rapport with his television audience.

Underwood doesn’t have a Twitter account, but he befriends those who do, connecting with the public through indirect lines of communication that he can easily deny or sever, sometimes with deadly force. In more private moments, Underwood “gets real” with his outside audience. He invites his viewers to see the world through his eyes by breaking the fourth wall, bringing us into the know through sideways glances and snarky asides, and creating a strange intimacy between himself and “the people” that mirrors the Twitter effect that Trump has cultivated and that some have likened to trust. And this is where those who follow will falter. For if we allow ourselves to be seduced by the rhetoric – to accept and to trust what we read without question – we may fail to see the potential consequences of the actions that rhetoric mobilizes. What Underwood’s carefully orchestrated ascent to the Presidency over the first two seasons of House of Cards makes visible are the effects of this political strategy. It involves the construction of a network of alliances and subsequent betrayals that result in an onslaught of conspiracy theories, several instances of blackmail, and the cold-blooded murder of Zoe Barnes, an ambitious young reporter whose mutually beneficial affair with Underwood gets too close for his comfort – until he pushes her in front of a moving Metro car. In short, House of Cards has all the stuff that riveting political dramas are made of, and the spectacle of it all is entertaining – until it bleeds into our reality. The series seems more sinister when we recognize just how closely it reflects the spectacle that launched the Age of Donald Trump.

I devoured the first few seasons of House of Cards upon its debut in 2013, but had been reluctant to visit its British counterpart, which aired in the early 1990s, despite the rave reviews. My reluctance had to do with a sense of belatedness. I thought that the original series, which opens in the immediate wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death and situates itself firmly in the analog world of printed newspapers, cassette tapes, and landlines, might feel outdated and irrelevant to my life in the twenty-first-century digital age. On the contrary. The datedness that I feared would be a turn-off was one of its most compelling aspects. For starters, the absence of the modern technologies that have become ubiquitous and seemingly essential to our being in the world—cell phones, twenty-four-hour news feeds, open-access wi-fi—made the power of the surveillance state stronger and more visible, forcing the twenty-first-century viewer to think about the impact of the digital age on the way we live and understand the people and the world around us. There are clearer lines drawn between the people and the government in the Thatcher years because the “chatter” is confined to a small set of correspondents and channels, leaving less room for smoke and mirrors (though there is still plenty of that to go around). Even more striking about the original House of Cards is the way that it quite consciously grapples with the tensions and divisions inherent in a period of change and the subsequent transitions of political power.

In the very first scene of the series, delivered before the riveting nationalistic trumpet fanfare of its opening credits, Francis Urquhart, Chief Whip of the Conservative Party played by the distinguished actor Ian Richardson, is sitting at his desk holding a framed photograph of Margaret Thatcher in his hands. “Nothing lasts forever,” he says with a mix of smugness and nostalgia. He puts the frame face-down on the desk and, as if suddenly aware of an outside presence, looks over his shoulder into the camera. He smiles as he finishes his thought, keeping his eyes fixed on us: “Even the longest, the most glittering reign, must come to an end someday.” The particularity of this transformative moment in British history fuels the series’ narrative, which is explicitly engaged with the idea that change is necessary to move the country forward. It is this emphasis on the unsettling possibilities inherent during any period of political or social division that resonates strongly with the current state of the collective American psyche. The original House of Cards therefore speaks more to the paranoid conditions of our twenty-first-century surveillance state than its American revival. I was hooked.

And thus I consumed the three-part British series with more urgency and excitement than I had its American counterpart. The cruel indifference and relentless stamina of Richardson’s Urquhart outmatches that of Underwood, whose desire for admiration makes him a much more accessible figure in my mind. I could relate to Underwood despite his abhorrent behavior because there was something intrinsically human and flawed about him. Occasionally he was even willing to expose that vulnerability if it meant he could get something in return. Urquhart is flawed too, of course, but his articulation of power is so divorced from human emotion and everyday experience that it ultimately defied my sympathy. Unlike Underwood, Urquhart doesn’t pretend that he needs public support, but he nevertheless works to maintain it. He seduces those around him by demonstrating the loyalty and dependability of what those who speak well of him refer to as a “dying breed” of politician. Urquhart is part of the loyal old guard who will not let you down, who will stop at nothing to protect both the public and the power of the state at large. Or at least, that is what he will have you believe.

He is slippery, that Urquhart, and he survives politically by aligning himself with the strength of the nation, positioning himself as noble and unshakable in a time when Britain is riddled with instability and self-doubt. The self-confidence and absolute resolve Urquhart projects in his interactions with the Prime Minister as well as the Press make him a dangerous figure. As political correspondent Mattie Storin observes upon meeting him for the first time, “threats by Francis Urquhart are not idle threats.” He proves her quite right. By the end of the first season, Urquhart has managed to wrangle his way into the position of Prime Minister by keeping up appearances, holding his cards and his enemies close, gaining their trust and support through careful manipulation. He operates within a system of his own design and control, one that requires absolute faith in his role as an upholder of the law, a disciplinarian whose investment in protecting the image of Britain as “a fierce proud nation […] one to be reckoned with” can be viewed, on the surface, as an investment in protecting its people.

Urquhart’s focus on protection in the form of discipline also implies the use of force, and this is where his emphasis on maintaining the “greatness” of Britain at all costs sent shivers down my spine. I heard within it echoes of the “Make America Great Again” platform that Donald Trump championed throughout his Presidential race and that continues to resound beyond his first 100 days in office as he positions “America First” and works to strip away our basic human rights through exclusionary acts targeted at women, immigrants, refugees, and Muslims, to name only a select few. Trump’s “greatness” campaign resonates with the force of Urquhart’s patriotic mission as Urquhart attempts to unite what he recognizes as an increasingly divided nation. What I see as inherently dangerous in this nationalistic ideology is the embedded psychology of a leader that views himself not simply as the face of a nation, but as the savior of its people. This mentality of the leader as savior mobilizes and enforces the agency of the surveillance state. It is a mentality founded on the idea that to perform the role of the savior well, one needs to assess who and what he is up against, to know what his people are up to, breeding suspicion and distrust amongst his citizens.

In both versions of House of Cards we watch as Underwood and Urquhart promote themselves as the administrators of justice, who work to maintain the safety and security of the public at all costs. In order to play this role convincingly they both publically deny and privately justify the unethical and outright criminal acts that keep them in power. In a meeting with Congresswoman Jackie Sharp, a war veteran positioned to be the new House Majority Whip in the American series, Underwood touts “ruthless pragmatism” as the key to his successful leadership, advising Sharp to make no excuses for what the people may consider to be questionable past decisions. “You did what needed to be done,” he states. Period. Underwood’s calculated murder of Zoe Barnes earlier in the same episode demonstrates that he practices what he preaches. At the end of that episode, Underwood assures us that he has done his duty to eliminate a looming threat: “Don’t waste a breath mourning Ms. Barnes,” he assures us, “every kitten grows up to be a cat. […] For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy.” Underwood’s claim to show Ms. Barnes no mercy may seem to be in direct contrast to Francis Urquhart’s insistence on his own murder of reporter Mattie Storin as an “act of mercy”, but the results of his rhetoric are the same: the ticking time-bomb has been dismantled and discarded, and the people have been saved once again.

In the cases of both Zoe Barnes and Mattie Storin, the threat that needs to be contained is the media, an agent both tethered to the political system and motivated to act outside of it. It is a body that Francis Urquhart refers to with a hint of his trademark sarcasm as “those valiant seekers after truth.” As an intermediary network, the media complicates the seemingly black-and-white relationship between surveyor and surveyed. Its power is presumed autonomous, yet it cannot survive without the purchase of both the people and the powers that be, which requires careful and calculated navigation. In the British House of Cards, we see the power of the Press limited by physical barriers: given the analog world it inhabits, information needs to be sought through live interaction and often under cover. Urquhart is well aware that the business of truth in politics is a murky one and so he works to keep the media at bay, maintaining a cordial but distant relationship with the press (with the notable exceptions of those he brings to bed with him). Urquhart is keenly aware of the benefits the media provides in shifting public opinion, which is why he chooses to work with them rather than against them, gaining power over the media by operating from within. This way, he can slither around under the public radar rather than parading out in front of it. And herein lies the difference between Urquhart and our real-life American President, Donald Trump.

Trump’s agenda diverges from Urquhart’s in that it is accompanied by a palpable need to be seen, if not straight-up admired, by the people within and outside of the political arena. This desire for attention levels the playing field and invites a tug-of-war between the President and the Press. While Trump saturates the media with declarations of his own greatness—with tweets burdened with hyperbole and loaded with self-aggrandizement—he also repeatedly frames the Press as the “enemy of the people” arguing that they lie and report “fake news” with the intent to deceive and confuse the public. In Trump’s worldview, the media is running a smear campaign against him: it is working in opposition to a leader who is trying to protect them. In Trump’s America, the media is a threat to Democracy and Freedom…but only for those who see the world his way. Both Urquhart and Underwood are more tempered than Trump in their arrogance, inviting the media to do the dirty work for them and discarding them effortlessly as soon as they become useless or untrustworthy. Urquhart’s distrust for the media in particular is not founded in their desire or ability to tell the truth; rather, it is their humanity that makes him doubt and mistrust them. Urquhart therefore utilizes the Press and its various agents to his advantage with the expectation that they will eventually betray him: he understands that “they all…betray us eventually. We trust them to be entirely human.”

The insistence on the humanness of others as evidence of weakness is what allows Urquhart to set himself apart from his people. Throughout the series he is depicted as inhuman, which aligns him with a more abstract notion of power that maintains the untouchable, God-like façade that he champions. The paternalism inherent to Urquhart’s position is something the show takes note of, particularly as Mattie Storin positions him as her “Daddy.” Mattie falls victim to what she calls “the aphrodisiac effect” of Urquhart’s power, and her desire to earn his trust and protection—to play daughter to his Daddy—ultimately leads to her death. By the time she recognizes that she has fallen into his trap, Mattie has fallen to her death, pushed off a rooftop by Urquhart after getting him to confess to the murder of Roger O'Neill (another one of his “naughty” children). Mattie’s death, like O'Neill’s, is by Urquhart’s standards that “act of mercy” that is both necessary and inevitable. Only a few scenes before Urquhart kills Mattie, we see him lying next to her in bed. In a voiceover, he asks “why shouldn’t I yearn to be everyone’s Daddy?”, yoking the power he commands by playing Daddy to the role of the Prime Minister. Even the newly-crowned King takes note of Urquhart’s desire to play Daddy when he admits to feeling infantilized and humiliated by him, “like a baby” in his presence. Given that Francis Urquhart himself is childless, his role as the Daddy of his people is nothing short of unnatural. Trump, by contrast, is a Daddy and he has used that position to his advantage, claiming it as evidence of his values and virility: his strength and his stamina as a patriarch. In this context, the Daddy Complex can be viewed as a national problem.

As citizens, we are often labeled the children of the nation. This ideology drives the trailer for the fifth season of the American House of Cards, which delivers a haunting vision of a dark and powerful military state. A relentless drumbeat builds in intensity as Frank Underwood, in voiceover, introduces his strategy for maintaining his hold on the Presidency: “The American people don’t know what’s best for them,” he begins, as images of protestors, prisoners, and soldiers fill the screen. “I do. I know exactly what they need. They’re like little children, Claire. We have to hold their sticky fingers and wipe their filthy mouths. Teach them right from wrong. Tell them what to think and how to feel and what to want. […]. Lucky for them, they have me. They have you. Underwood, 2016. 2020. 2024. 2028. 2032. 2036. One nation: Underwood.”

Frank Underwood is nobody’s Daddy, but he acknowledges the desire of the people to see him this way and will use it to intiate a legacy that exceeds the limits of power currently in place in the American political system. According to Underwood, the people have no agency: they behave as children who need guidance. That instinctual desire to feel safe overrides logic and reason. We, the American people, want to put faith in those who purport to support and protect us at all costs. For Trump supporters, protection comes in the physical form of a wall or in the legislative form of a bill that bans or eliminates perceived threats from the outside. Watching House of Cards in the Age of Trump offers the perspective that a country in the midst of change needs someone to govern with authority, to speak with conviction, and to take responsibility for what gets sacrificed in the process. In the British series, Urquhart accepts this responsibility until the end. His death on Margaret Thatcher Day is neatly executed, but we feel the uncertainty of its weight in the fact that the next candidate in line for his position is a bumbling flip-flopper of a politician. So while the menace of Urquhart’s reign is seemingly put to rest at the end of the series, the state of the nation remains a paranoid one.

For a paranoid American like me, House of Cards explores the very possible consequences of the political machine unhinged, affirming popular theories of the State as a corrupt and inhumane system and providing a lens through which to consider the real effects of democracy run amok. Returning to the American series for a final look, I can see now how its fourth season anticipates the climate of fear that Donald Trump has cultivated in only a matter of months in the White House. As Frank and Claire struggle to hold onto their power amidst a series of political scandals and terrorist threats, the couple comes to the realization that they have been running on an antiquated platform. They vow to radically refocus their campaign strategy to capitalize on the public’s paranoia and desire for safety in an age of terrorism. Claire says: “I’m done trying to win people’s hearts…we can work with fear” to which her husband replies in a disturbing reimaging of Obama’s 2008 campaign: “Yes, we can.” We don’t know yet how the Underwood’s story will end, but I know that in the real world that House of Cards has come to resemble all too closely, I will remain vigilant. I will keep my eyes open. I will not give way to disorientation or to the desire to feel safe and protected. Instead, I will come to terms with my own humanness and allow myself to be vulnerable. I hope others will do the same.