By Nick Robinson
[warning, spoiler alerts throughout]
After finishing Season 4 of Netflix’s popular political drama, House of Cards, it had occurred to me that this incredibly well-written program had far greater resonance with political geography/geopolitics than previously expected – from realistic storylines that mirrored (or even predicted) real-time political events, to its own brand of deadly humour striking a chord against current political climates on social media.
But whilst a draft blog from when Season 4 finished over a year ago never made it to completion, I was this week inspired to return back to my notes. It appeared that the supposed lines between well-scripted television political dramas and reality were now inexorably blurred; with House of Cards proving that you should brush-off its ruthless portrayals of U.S. political discourse and global affairs at your peril.
In the lead-up to the most recent G20 Summit in Hamburg (7th-8th July, 2017), many media outlets focussed their attention on the hotly anticipated ‘first encounter’ between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Given recent controversies over alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S elections, their polarised views on Syria, and North Korea’s recent missile testing (to name all but a few), it was billed as this year’s G20 blockbuster: What would be on the agenda? Who would take control? Would we see a new dawn to US-Russia relations? There were even those on social media who mocked: would this even be their first encounter?
As it turned out, we didn’t learn much about Trump-Putin relations from this encounter, although U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested they “connected very quickly”. When pressed, Putin denied election interference, whilst Tillerson urged us all to “move forward” from the accusations with “intractable disagreement” with Russia on the issue. A ceasefire was announced in southern Syria, whilst Trump’s suggestion of a partnered and “impenetrable” cybersecurity unit with Russia was soon backpedalled into the ether.
The meeting was, in the eyes of many in the media, a box-office flop.
But it was the now customary post-meeting handshake between leaders that raised more scrutiny and analysis, particularly amongst the House of Cards-watching community. Indeed, Trump’s handshakes with other world leaders have not been without controversy before – with Trump’s renowned ‘handshake of death’ generating great attention (and even ridicule) worldwide. For many, these ‘diplomatic power-plays’ from Trump are undoubtedly attempts at asserting his own Presidential (or ‘Unpresidented’) alpha-male dominance or masculinity with other world leaders, whilst perhaps simultaneously highlighting his own insecurities and tactlessness in the process. For instance, Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was left reeling after an excruciating 19-second handshake back in February.
On the other hand, and in the same month, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sparked the ‘resistance’ with what has been described as the ‘biggest display of dominance in the history of Canada‘.
In May, newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron created more handshake headlines after their intense stare-down and unbreakable handclasp had seemingly put Trump on the back foot. For Macron, it was “a moment of truth”, in no way innocent, and entirely intentional. Given Trump’s recent decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, this was a power play that projected the message that France wouldn’t be making “small concessions, even symbolic ones” to a Trump presidency.
(see also, CNN’s second-by-second analysis of the Trump-Macron ‘marathon’ handshake during July’s recent Bastille Day)
In January, shortly after Trump was inaugurated, it was holding hands, not handshakes, that caused controversy. During Theresa May’s first state visit to the U.S., Trump and May appeared to ‘hold hands’ whilst walking the colonnade of the White House. What could also be said of apparent attempts to avoid Trump’s hand during the meeting of dignitaries and Poland’s First Lady in recent months? It would seem, evidently, that there is far more to be said on the geopolitical and diplomatic significance/symbolism of ‘the handshake’, especially in the era of a Trump presidency.
Back to the G20, and soon after images of Trump’s handshake with Putin emerged from their bilateral meeting in Hamburg, social media was awash with those eager to begin unpacking and pyschoanalysing this iconic moment. Who had come out on top during this stand-off? Who had the upper hand? Trump – with his now customary outstretched hand, held from below (an apparent display of dominance) – was seemingly met eye-to-eye (or hand-to-hand) by a stern-faced, resolute Putin.
But, rather more strikingly, others soon observed: hadn’t we seen this iconic moment before? Unbelievably, and harking back to Season 3 of House of Cards (released in 2015), U.S. President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and Russian President Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen) had an eerily similar handshake before a summit meeting in the White House.
The resemblance is uncanny. Trump and Underwood, both appearing welcoming and cheery, adopting an identical open-handed stance/posture, whilst Putin and Petrov adopt a cautious, head-down approach – seemingly reluctant to offer a hand back in the other direction.
From my own perspective, it was almost too good to be true. As the above tweet (and Oscar Wilde originally) suggests, real life had imitated art.
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
The similarities between House of Cards and U.S. politics are not just limited to this one handshake, leading us to ponder the blurring between real-life politics and popular culture. Since its inception back in 2013, House of Cards has been lauded by fans and critics for its numerous parallels to real-world events.
The most striking of these would have to be the undeniably intentional ‘dead ringer’ portrayal of Vladimir Putin by fictitious Russian president Viktor Petrov. Introduced in Season 3, Petrov’s appearance was timely – around the same time as the Ukrainian crisis – whilst he and president Underwood quarrelled over their own not-too-dissimilar international crises, including NATO deployments near Russian borders, LGBT rights, and a peculiar cameo from Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina during a White House dinner. It would be difficult to argue that these parallels were not intentional.
In fact, the resemblances are so profound to some it seems that it has been reported that Putin has even advised his own Russian aides to watch House of Cards in an attempt to understand U.S. politics better.
“How does one caricature a president that is a complete and utter caricature?”
Marlow Stern – The Daily Beast, 2017
Moving onto the latest season of House of Cards (2017), how would the show adapt to what has been an incredibly turbulent and frenzied year in U.S. politics – not to mention the chaotic opening months of Trump’s presidency? As critics have keenly pointed out (including Kevin Spacey below), House of Cards couldn’t be any more relevant today.
On top of a global fight against ‘ICO’ (see, ISIS), Season 5 sees Underwood forced into responding to a Syrian chemical-weapons attack, implementing a Trump-style travel ban, whilst attempting to keep tabs on a flurry of internal leaks and congressional hearings. Sound familiar?
Beyond the Script and Screen
But what could be said of the times House of Cards actually participated in national conversation, playfully satirising current political discourse, much to the enjoyment of the show’s fan base? From their running social media commentary throughout the Trump candidacy, to their reaction to the firing of FBI Director, James Comey, House of Cards’ social media strategy has been persistent and on-point, with its Twitter account leading the way in purposeful put-downs and witty GIFs. Even on election day, Frank and Claire Underwood’s encouragement to #VoteYourConscience didn’t go unnoticed.
The satire hasn’t been constrained to U.S. political discourse either. Before the 2017 UK general election, Theresa May was ‘brilliantly trolled’ by the account after she missed the BBC Leaders Debate, whilst David Cameron was seemingly belittled for his involvement in the Panama Papers scandal back in 2015.
So it seems that House of Cards has remained one step ahead of the game when it comes inadvertently predicting the course of events for U.S. politics and global affairs. What will its screenwriters conjure up for Season 6? The shows active role not just in shadowing current U.S. political discourse, but within a much broader popular geopolitics, should be of great interest to us as scholars. This is exemplified by the shows continued presence on social media, continuing to blur and distort what is authentic and what is well-scripted political drama. But House of Cards also causes us to pause and reflect on our own political and social surrounds. Would we rather live in a Donald Trump or Frank Underwood presidency? Both are seemingly caught up in crisis after crisis, political scandal and tumultuous internal party divide. Neither seems appealing to be perfectly honest. But let us enjoy these shows for what they are, as, in the words of Kevin Spacey, at least House of Cards “have the better writers”.
Nick Robinson is a current PhD student in the CDT for Cyber Security at Royal Holloway, recently completing his MSc in Geopolitics and Security in 2015. Stepping across both Geography and ISG departments, Nick’s research is primarily grounded in Estonia where he is currently exploring the Estonian governments use of data embassies to securely store and distribute vast quantities of sensitive data around the world. He is a member of the editorial team here on the RHUL Geopolitics and Security blog.