House of Cards is back for a fifth season. And it's sweeter and more idealistic than ever.
Last year, I wrote that one of the most surprising effects of Donald Trump's candidacy was how it transformed Beau Willimon's stylish dystopian warning of what American politics could become into a sunny period drama documenting how politics used to be. What initially powered the show was the Underwoods' skill at presenting a smooth and scandal-free surface to the public while corruption festered underneath. The Underwoods were brilliant and two-faced in an intriguing, vaguely Shakespearean way. Above all, they were expert at playing to a gullible populace that still believed in virtue. "House of Cards' failure to land is less an index of the show's shortcomings than a sign of our political environment's decay," I said then. "Perhaps when the show began we were still capable of being scandalized. Political mistakes still had consequences."
Fourteen months later, it's clear that a hefty percentage of the gullible public the Underwoods adroitly exploited doesn't exist. What does exist is a substantial public that doesn't believe in anything like "virtue" — or want it. The America worth fooling with cunning machinations and pretensions of decency is a thing of the past. Politicians needn't bother. And so, House of Cards — which was supposed to show us what a truly evil politician like Frank Underwood could do with our system — has instead become a morbidly interesting way to measure our decay. The country it depicts is, against all odds, more idealistic and decent than our own.
Let's take an example. In the new season of House of Cards, there's a politician who loses his temper and yells at a pilot. The audio is leaked to the press, and the politician's prospects are doomed as a result. It's a touchingly naïve storyline. Practically a fairytale, in this day and age.
Now, let's compare that incident to the present state of American politics. House of Cards was released the week after a politician — Montana's Greg Gianforte — attacked a reporter for asking him about the Congressional Budget Office score of the GOP health-care bill the day before the election. Gianforte, a millionaire who doesn't believe in retirement because Noah built the ark when he was 600 years old, had refused to tell constituents whether he supported the remarkably unpopular AHCA. He was caught on tape, however, praising the plan to Republican-leaning lobbyists.
One might think that the public deserved some clarity on that point. That any voter would appreciate a journalist, in this case The Guardian's Ben Jacobs, asking a candidate about the discrepancy, whatever their political affiliation — particularly since the CBO score, which came out that day, estimated that some 23 million people would lose their insurance under the plan.
One would be wrong.
Witnesses say that, in response to the question, Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck, threw him down, and then punched him, breaking his glasses.
This constitutes a crisis by any known political metric. So what, in the two Americas we're comparing, does our politician do in response?
Well, in the world of House of Cards, this would be a career-ending story if it got out. The politician would immediately corral the witnesses, bribe them with whatever is necessary and — if he's an Underwood — kill those who refused to cooperate.
In the real world, Gianforte's solution was to lie. Lazily. His campaign issued a statement saying that the journalist was the aggressor — it was unfortunate that he'd ruined the good candidate's barbecue with his violent … wrist-grabbing: "Jacobs grabbed Greg's wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground. It's unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ."
The trouble with that statement was that none of it turned out to be true. It was an astonishingly clumsy lie, especially given that there was audio of the attack in addition to several eyewitnesses, some from Fox News, all of which contradicted Gianforte's account of events and corroborated Jacobs'. Here's the Fox News account of what happened: "Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith, and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, 'I'm sick and tired of this!'"
Ah, but did Jacobs grab Gianforte's wrist? No: "To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte," said the Fox News crew.
If there was ever a test of whether the America cheering for Gianforte cares about the truth, this was it. There was audio. There was a firm rebuttal of Gianforte's account from Fox News — hardly a "liberal" source. The Montana newspapers that had backed Gianforte pulled their endorsements; they couldn't support a candidate who attacked a journalist for asking a question about something that presumably matters to the American public.
Gianforte won anyway.
More shocking than Gianforte's victory was the fact that the lie need never have been told. Once the truth was out, supporters and pundits praised his behavior. Finally! Someone was showing those "smug" and "elite" journalists what's what! They mocked the reporter for failing to fight back.
Let's extend our hypothetical House of Cards version of this story. On the show, the president and VP would have worked hard to ignore this particularly unsavory race. Sure, Gianforte won, but his political reputation would be so damaged that the higher-ups would distance themselves. They'd fear damaging their own reputations by association with a violent thug in their party, one who'd be sworn into office with a misdemeanor assault charge.
In the real world, the vice president — who didn't comment on Gianforte being charged with a crime the day before the election — tweeted to warmly congratulate him on his victory.
Oh, and the president? Having concluded a busy week giving away classified information, praising despots, alienating allies, and shoving world leaders so he could be at the front of the class picture, he took time out of his busy schedule to call Gianforte's a "great win."
This is not the world of House of Cards. It's so much dumber that the show — which has flailed a bit these last few seasons because its sometime relevance has dimmed into a discomfiting dissonance — has actually flipped its function. The ugly prophecy of what America could become has instead become an accidental record of how comparatively wholesome American values used to be. As I wrote back in March of 2016, "Frank's finesse is passé":
His moves depend on everyone playing according to the same rules — or at least sharing basic assumptions. We don't. The show's inability to reflect the current state of American politics arises from the idealism of its central premise: that cleverness matters and manipulation and diplomacy are essential to political success. Without them, you run the risk of being investigated and punished — or taken to task by an electorate who cares.
And that actually makes the show quite interesting as a contemporary nostalgia piece. The final line of this season (I won't give it away) is an explicit nod to that, and to a political future that splits aggressively from the present.
That said, there's a moment on this season of House of Cards when Tom Hammerschmidt — the hard-hitting journalist played by Boris McGiver — has what looks like a world-altering disturbing epiphany. It's not 100 percent clear what it is. But his expression suggests that there might be a moment when House of Cards' reality will intersect with our own. The fact is, Hammerschmidt's story — the story that's been hovering over the show like the sword of Damocles, ready to destroy the Underwoods and their cronies with its criminal revelations — might not matter to the public at all.