The election of Donald Trump is more shocking the more you look at it. The first thing is the rhetoric, the ‘plain speaking’, and the TV persona, but the actual implications of his lack of experience for such a sprawling set of responsibilities is set to astound for months to come. Sheltering in the comfort of your Netflix recommendations will provide you with representations of competent Democrats that won’t remind you of an even worse version of Reagan. The West Wing and House of Cards provide a romantic binary: Josiah Bartlet fatherly and authoritative Nobel Prize winner, against the damaged but brutally cunning Francis Underwood. Despite their differing agendas, both are the images of competence, Bartlet in duty and Underwood in self-service.
In comparison with Trump’s need for ‘more time than usual’ to get to grips with the responsibilities of the office, both are appealing distractions.
What they don’t do is account for the emphasis on truthiness that has permeated this election, the emphasis on what ‘feels’ true, than what is supported by fact. Consistency is no longer necessary. Raising the level of public debate, as so often was the intention of Josiah Bartlett’s administration, is not the focus, nor is Trump a shrewd political operative, making plays and destroying lives for power.
Trump might end up destroying lives, but it is not in his actions that he has gotten this far (his lack of concrete policy platform shows that), it is his performance. What Trump says and the way he says it appeals deeply to an aspect of America that is not present in these liberally orientated programmes. I think that both The West Wing and House of Cards are good, but they refer to political environments that no longer exist.
They function as a means of escape rather than as a model of how government works. As pleasant and fatherly as Josiah Bartlet is, his appeal to nostalgia for ‘great men’ who direct the free world perpetuates a myth about power that simply isn’t the case. It comes from a time when Democrats were seen as morally bankrupt, and Republicans were unintelligent warmongers. It was an ideal played by one of America’s most iconic actors, someone who was intellectually and emotionally intelligent, and who always did the right thing for its own sake. It is something that is implausible when you look at the demands of the office. Even Obama resorted to ill-prepared drone attacks. You cannot be morally whole and President of the United States.
Underwood is none of the ideals that Bartlet embodies, yet he presents an image of the satisfyingly cunning and driven political operative. An image of competence at the least. He kills and maims, he is an evil man, but he is invested in the system, no matter how much he manipulates it. A newspaper article can derail him and so can a smart enough opponent.
Trump is not like this. His reliance of demagoguery and removal from reality makes the usual political attacks impotent. He is playing a different game altogether. And although he lacks experience, his erratic behaviour may be enough to keep political opposition off balance, if he is not overcome by the responsibility, or usurped from within.