Although it may seem like a show like House of Cards would be more relevant and exciting when released during a volatile election season, the popular Netflix show appears bland and stilted compared with the political entertainment of real life. I’ve seen all the previous seasons of House of Cards and enjoyed them, which is why it’s a shame I can’t get past like three episodes of this season because now it feels so goddamn boring and irrelevant. Sad! Even Canadian Ted Cruz’s performance of a southern accent now seems more authentic than Kevin Spacey’s. Simply put, the real world is just too absurd, and even with the most wild plot devices, a conventional political narrative can’t keep up.
House of Cards seems to rest on certain popular fantasies about power and the people that hold power in modern society. Policy in America is decided by the intrigues of a network of cynical, self-interested people making bold moves on a sleek sexy chessboard, a board checkered in a clean, dark palette of deep navies and crimsons—America’s colors, but edgier, darker. Conversations are curt and cool; they scheme quietly. These characters contemplate paintings, they think about ominous symbols and they brood profoundly over the sinister consequences of their ambitions.
Wow, it’s like the blood is symbolic or something!
How boring! How low energy! Absolutely unbelievable. Can an understanding of “the political life” be any more out of touch? Just like the RNC and Nate Silver and whatever other seemingly serious soothsayers of this election cycle, House of Cards is caught hopelessly off guard by what is perhaps the greatest mind-bending, reality-warping spectacle in contemporary politics, Donald fucking Trump.
I presume the political insiders, whoever they really are, and the myriad politico-yuppie commuter class debutantes who live in Arlington like to think of themselves as aspiring to peddle influence in the hallowed halls of our republic in the pseudo-profound manner of Frank Underwood. Just like the horrendous Baz Luhrmann Gatsby adaption ironically inspired so many frat parties, the mythos of House of Cards gets all those Reese-Witherspoon-in-Election types hot and bothered for steamy affairs and wicked betrayals featuring lobbyists and Super PAC organizers. Sure, its fiction, and sure, we’re supposed to think that the Underwoods are immoral or something, and sure, whatever dramas govern actual politics can’t be so perfectly truncated for Netflix, but surely there remains something real here! I mean, how do you explain Nixon? In the same way, the RNC hup-hupped around stroking their cleanshaven chins farting about how Rubio would be the inevitable GOP nominee. Because Rubio has experience in politics proper, the real politics of powerbrokers giving fat donations in smoke filled rooms with presidential portraits on the walls, plotting, plotting, ever so coyly—whereas Trump is bound to implode because he’s not a politician, just a reality TV personality. As if there is a difference!
“You look up when you wish to be exalted. And I look down because I am exalted.”
In the aftermath of Little Marco getting absolutely pounded in his home state by the Centipede, a veil is lifted—one that was important for keeping coherent our fantasies about power. These fantasies hold that power is negotiated and slyly calculated by the “establishment” experts or whoever behind the scenes, and that the “behind the scenes” world—of course kept secret from all but those in-the-know—is the true world of politics. These behind-the-scenes puppeteers are not affected by their environments, but rather they set the environments around them: they are absolutely in control. This veil therefore supported the common pundit notion that somehow the true powerbrokers would grow tired of the Trump nuisance and scheme with their infinite connections to quash him. Or so many hoped. This obviously has not happened, and won’t happen either, barring a bold coup by Republicans at the Convention to affect a distinctly un-democratic establishment restoration.
“Into the trap!”
So the veil is lifted and the GOP establishment’s bluff is called, everyone all around is exposed as a hack except those with the foresight to max out on Trump YES on PredictIt immediately after the Iowa caucus. All the predictions, all the bloviating pundits with serious, furrowed brows and those awful faux-authoritative voices, the thinkpieces, the smug tweets, the righteous indignation of those properly racist Republicans, the righteous indignation of those triggered SJWs, those stupid Wall Street Journal head-pictures next to lazy provocations of headlines. And so on. They laughed at Trump’s preposterous Zarathustrian descent down the escalator amongst the gleaming gold of his great tower—but little did they know that it heralded an extended avant-garde mockery of everything they believed was true and real. They were the butt of the joke and they were that which kept it running for so long. He was everything they could have ever wanted: “I give them great ratings,” Trump boasts, aware of this mutually enabling feedback loop as only someone from the entertainment industry would be. Likewise, I’m optimistic that this post will get me more traffic than any I have made before.
“We’re gonna be so Brechtian it’ll make your heads spin!”
There never was any effective substance supporting Rubio or Jeb!—they had money and nominal influence and so on, but they both fatally underestimated Trump because they failed to understand that they were always fundamentally playing on his terms. Politics is no more than show business at its worst! And so they were always a few steps behind, and whenever they thought they had some real zinger to derail the Trump Train, it would materialize into nothing more than half-baked reactions to Trump’s more skillfully vulgar moves. At the worst, as with the Rubio small-hands/small-dick insinuation, the jabs would linger uncomfortably, unwelcome like stale farts. It was worth a shot, since their PAC-stocked pockets proved to be powerless.
Those who control the means of mass communication have lost control of its consequences. Once it became clear that Trump could not be stopped without great concerted effort by the whole cabal of the Media, a blitzkrieg of negative ads, myriad endorsements, the #NeverTrump hashtag, etc. They trot out Mitt Romney, a total fuckin’ square, still probably stuck in Plato’s cave—and even he is so indecisive he can’t even name a candidate he’d endorse as a Trump alternative. How stiff and artificial he looks! Might as well sum him up with one word since that’s what language is for: “Loser!” And with that the urgency of the endorsement is lost into its own ridicule, because honestly who cares what Mittens thinks anyway? After all, his mind is filled with thoughts about things like how Michigan’s trees are the “right height.” (We can only assume that The Donald’s mind has normal people thoughts, like fantasizing about having sex with eastern European models and wiping that shit-eating grin off Rosie O’Donnell’s fat fucking face.) Trump’s campaign is hardly about white working class resentment under late capitalism, or xenophobia, or a backlash against Obama, or whatever other endless reasons fleshed out in the endless thinkpieces. It is about the pretensions of political discourse and decorum imploding under their own absurdities, as if the heaping pile of shit and nonsense became self-aware and donned a wig speechifying some slogans: “Now we stage a play! Something by Genet!”
“It’s a true image, born of a false spectacle.”
It’s telling that Trump is described as someone who is more “real” than the other candidates, that he is “honest” and “tells it like it is.” Meanwhile the snakelike “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz says he prefers country music to rock because of the different ways they “collectively responded to 9/11”, officially making him sound like some kind of sleeper-cell Manchurian candidate who can only interpret American-ness in a manner reminiscent of The Thing. A guy with billions of dollars suddenly seems much more relatable just because his own bizarre simulation of American-ness is more joyously tacky. But if there is any lesson we can learn from this election, it’s that no words actually have stable meanings and pretty much any word can simultaneously mean its own opposite. We’ve always been in it, but perhaps we’re starting to realize that we’re in the Différance Zone. We all ask: Do we even know if Trump means anything he is saying? Does he really have all these hateful views? Will he actually make Mexico pay for “The Wall”? Are any of these actually real policy proposals? Who knows? But this sort of chaotic anti-meaning, paradoxical non-meaning, absolute ambiguity is a much better exercise in postmodernity than plenty of contemporary art projects, judging from the fact that it has already motivated millions of people to get off their asses and vote for someone who retweets Mussolini quotes. We can’t even determine if Trump tells lies or the truth because his whole campaign is an annihilation of the very possibility of these truths.
So if Trump is real politics, what the hell is House of Cards supposed to be? A fictional show about a hollow rendering of power in a democracy that romanticizes everything we now see as impotent delusions? Thus is House of Cards too fake—it demands we pretend that our political leaders are clever calculators and our pundits astute observers as opposed to screeching demagogues of various degrees of self-awareness. After all, on what planet can South Carolinian Frank Underwood get elected without shamelessly spewing tons of racist shit and exploiting the inevitable xenophobia of his constituents? And House of Cards demands that we believe that these “candidate-contestants” have any shame—that they don’t is perhaps the closest to an eternal truth as we can get. The writers of House of Cards propagate the delusion that the country is governed by narratives that resemble Shakespeare rather than a cross between Caryl Churchill and Brad Neely. If we need any more evidence that we’re living in the up-is-down, right-is-left doublethink dystopia, it’s that the people who make TV shows treat politics with more dignity than the politicians themselves. Frank Underwood is a real person and Hillary Clinton is merely playing his part.