Designated Survivor

We don’t normally comment on brand new shows at The NYRD, but it is worth talking about Designated Survivor, the Kiefer Sutherland political thriller about how a terrorist organization blows up the Capitol building killing most of the American government and leaving an earnest and inexperienced Housing and Urban Development Secretary as President of the United States. It is not the plot or the characters that we want to discuss but the deeper implications that such a show offers about the current American mindset and the fun-house mirror reflection that it casts on our current Reality-Star-in-Chief.

Mr. Kirkman Goes to Washington
It is worth remembering that Designated Survivor, premiered in the Fall of 2016, two full months before the election of Donald Trump. Yet the issues that the show tackled with casting the unassuming Tom Kirkman as President were very present in the political landscape of the election and the aftermath. We have mentioned before how our fictional Presidents often seem to be created in response to our actual Presidents, but with Kirkman and Trump there is something more going on. Not only did Kirkman precede Trump, but the turmoil surrounding his Presidency shares tones with The Donald’s ascent to power.

The most important correlation comes from the fact that both Kirkman and Trump are more or less Independents. Yes, Trump has an (R) next to his name, but there are also several asterisks next that too -and there will probably will be several more before the year is up. There is something about a man who holds no allegiance to any particular political party that is appealing to the American voting and viewing public, at this moment in history. Of course, that was evident in the campaigns leading up to the election, with the rise of candidates like Trump and Bernie Sanders. The difference -of course- is that Kirkman leans left, and Trump leans somewhere right of Stalin, but they are still both non-political outsiders who inexplicably found themselves in the most powerful seat in the world.

TV shows, like Designated Survivor, shoot their episodes several months before airing, and are written at least a few months before that. Stunt shots, location scouting, even craft services need to be set up well ahead of premiere time. Story-arcs and plot lines are developed so far in advance of air dates that it is hard for TV shows to really make concise comments about breaking news -except if you’re South Park. Still, even with that lag time it is obvious that the writers and producers were aware of this trend in American politics, -primaries seem to go on for years and years in advance of the actual election- and decided to capitalize on it for their show. Yet, we cannot imagine even they realized how cogent and timely some of their themes would end up being past November 9, 2016.

Spoilers in Politics
There has been criticism of the heavy-handed way in which Designated Survivor sometimes goes out of its way to criticize Trump, and we cannot argue that. This is Hollywood after all, and the second half of the first season -filmed after the November election- definitely made more than a few coy winks and nods at the idiocy of our actual President. Filming for Designated Survivor, began in July 2016, but did not wrap-up for the season until April 2017. Though we doubt it altered the overall story-arc of the show, the course of our real elections did give writers plenty of opportunities to tackle issues such as Supreme Court nominees, a politically motivated congress, refugee bans, military operations, and other C-plot political crises that demonstrated how well the serious and academic-minded Kirkman was able to handle governing as opposed to other current Presidents who will remain nameless… except if you look at one of his buildings.

The haters will call it “liberal Hollywood commentary,” and the cheerleaders will call it, “screw you President Orangeman,” but regardless of intent, comparisons will always be drawn between fictional and non-fictional Presidents. So, let’s go ahead and just do that right now: Tom Kirkman is a former architectural college professor who does not naturally seek the spotlight, and values his family above everything else. He is level-headed, rational, and fully cognizant of the weight and complexity of the office he must burden and the issues he faces on a daily basis. On the other side is Trump, a former building tycoon, a consummate con-man and reality star, who has had so many wives he has stopped counting. He is ruled by his emotions and his Twitter thumbs, and -for some reason– believed that being President was going to be easier than being a trust-fund baby who played golf all day and drove casinos into the ground. Kirkman shows a firm understanding of history and civics. Meanwhile it is questionable if Trump even understands the basic layout or function of the three branches of our government.

One of those is a description of a Presidential character so unrealistic that the pitch for it would have been laughed out of every TV executive’s office in Hollywood… the other is a character played by Kiefer Sutherland. However, these forced comparisons and the show’s obvious commentary are not really what we want to talk about. After all, anyone could write a show to overtly criticize the President -we’re pretty sure that is still legal. Anyone can write a scene where President Kirkman goes to a NATO summit and is articulate, well-meaning, and measured among our allies… you know, like an adult, and set it up in opposition to a real-life NATO meeting where our allies have to keep their comments to below four minutes to keep The Donald’s attention from wandering… you know, like a child. No, we do not want to focus on those obvious constructed moments. What we really want to talk about is the deeper implications.

The Unconscious Current
TV Presidents, like Designated Survivors‘ Tom Kirkman often arise as unconscious desires and feelings driving the American viewers. These same currents also drive us at the voting booth. They are worth examining. The rise of Kirkman and Trump show that America is looking for an Independent, someone new who is not beholden to the old political machinations of Washington. However unlike Trump, Kirkman is an every-man, Sure he is an academic, but his views on issues tend to reflect the majority opinion of Americans. Moreover, Kirkman inherited a country that was in an actual life-or-death crisis, as opposed to Trump -who only thought that, and- actually inherited a relatively peaceful country in the midst of an economic upturn and record low crime rates. Yet, we can also not deny that there is still some sense of overwhelming dread in the factual America. It is a sense that we have gone through some great tragedy in Washington, a perspective shift in how we see ourselves and our country. For Designated Survivor this comes in the form of an actual terrorist attack, but for us it something more subtle: foreign cyber-hacking, immigration issues, or just the felt affects of globalization. Designated Survivor manifests our feelings in a tangible and knowable way, and it sets up a competent -but not perfect- President to deal with it.

The overall plot of the first season deals with defeating the terrorist organization responsible for the bombing, but it is not an Islamic one. In the end, we learn that the terrorism that most affects the nation are not from Islamic extremists, but from crazy white people believing what they read on Twitter, all the while believing that they were doing the best thing for America. There can be an argument made that the make-up of the final conspiracy/terrorism group was altered a bit to more closely resemble Alt-Right ideals, but Designated Survivor did a pretty good job in the first half of the season -the pre-election half- of illustrating that the perpetrators of the bombing were always going to be an organization very similiar to what we think of as Alt-Right nationalist groups. The show’s Pax Americana group are extremists who ultimately believe that America had fallen from grace. They are authoritarians who follow a strongman leader that believes that the country is faltering in the light of refugees, globalization, and other “liberal” ideals. In a sense they want to return to an idealized past, in an attempt to make America… something… Again. You get the point.

The great attack perpetrated against America in Designated Survivor does not come from without, but from misguided patriots manipulated through false dogma. In the fictional America of the show, this group uses their influence and power to blow up the Capitol building, and throw a megaton brick through the window of the Washington establishment. Meanwhile, in our world a group of very similarly minded individuals spread false news and inflamed Facebook and Twitter to set off a bomb in the halls of Washington by the name of Donald Trump. In essence, Donald Trump is our national crisis, except unlike Designated Survivor we do not have a Tom Kirkman to guide us through.

Now, we are not making the explicit claim that all of this was done without forethought. On the contrary, some TV writers and producers are very good at anticipating the next big thing, and by the time of July 2016 it was hard not see the orange iceberg on the horizon -even if we thought we were going to miss it. The writers of Designated Survivor are semi-conscious humans living on this planet, so it is no surprise that they grasped at least some of the underlying tensions of the past Presidential race. However, the comparisons, the reflections, and all the rest would not resonate with the American viewing public unless there was not a majority of viewers ready to accept the reality and concepts of the show. The success of Designated Survivor comes from the fact that it touches a relevant nerve in us, and really that says more about the reign of Donald Trump than anything else we ever could.

Perhaps you recently read that we here at The NYRD have decided that it is time to introduce a new party to the hot, sticky, and unseemly jungle that is American politics. Thus, the Nerd Party has been born and we are committed to doing what is right for Americans, young and old, man and woman, poindexter or dweeb, alike. As a party we believe in values like justice, fairness, equality-ness, and cosplay, but it’s hard to launch a campaign on those vague ideas, especially cosplay. That is why we thought it might be time to clarify our positions on some very important topics.

Healthcare
Since March of 2010 America has endured under the economic weight of the Affordable Care Act. This legislation, passed by partisan votes in the House and Senate, has become one of the most divisive bills in American history, and has suffered tragically in runaway costs, websites that don’t work, and fewer choices of robots. So, we at the Nerd Party believe that there is another way, a better way, a mechanical way.

On day one in office we will ask Congress to repeal Obamacare and replace this divisive law with a plan we are calling Robocare. Much like the Republican candidates and their esteemed orange front-runner we believe that the free market can fix all our problems, like a magic wand made of elm with a core of a single strand of toupee of Trump. So, we asked ourselves, what is the most proven tactic for the free market economy? Then we answered ourselves: automation.

This proven tactic helped drive down costs and increase production in factories all across the American heartland and it is painfully obvious that if we want to truly reduce the costs of our medical system, robots are our only logical choice. So, the Nerd Party is committed to the belief that anyone in America has the right to visit any robot physician they choos. Best of all the GOP Congress will have to vote for it. It embodies all the the cold, unfeeling, and mechanical aspects of a free market healthcare plan that they are looking for, because when getting a prostate exam there is nothing quite like the metallic finger of the free market. So, America, we don’t care if you’re visiting a state of the art surgery-droid or a Roomba with a scalpel duct taped to it. It is your God given American right to be able to have access to any robot of your choosing, because if Donald Trump gets his way most people will probably only be able to afford Dr. Siri anyway.

International Relations
A main component of our China policy is leadership, and demanding extra egg rolls. We strongly believe that good international relations are key to the prosperity of America, but we are not afraid to get tough about it either. That is why we will never back down and never compromise with tyrant countries like China, Mexico or Smurf Village. The rest of the world has come to see the United States as soft over the past 8 years. They have even begun to believe that we might be a country willing to work toward reasonable global partnership, as if we actually cared about the rest of the world.

So we at the Nerd Party have a plan to fix all that. To start we will be ordering Wakanda to forgive all our debts for Vibranium purchases going back to World War II. After all, we legally purchased the material and promised payment in good faith, but screw them. We’re Americans, not Lannisters. We don’t have to pay our debts. Also, we are fully prepared to order the US military into Narnia if thier religious dictator of a lion refuses to build a wall around every wardrobe in this country. We can no longer tolerate them sending us their murders, rapists, and satyrs. More importantly, we are fully prepared to order airstrikes on all training camps used by terrorists and dark wizards. We cannot let places like Hogwarts -an admitted school of witchcraft- continue unchallenged.

Political Finance Reform
The Nerd Party finances its own campaign, mostly through the selling of our old comics and Star Wars action figures -still in the original packaging- but there are a select few politicians that believe there is too much money in politics. Currently big corporations and billionaire donors can give unlimited money to Super PACs, anonymously. Super PACs can then use that unlimited cash flow to support any candidate they choose, and by “any candidate”  we mean the candidate that set up the Super PAC in the first place. However, we here at the Nerd Party believe that there should be even more money in politics, and different types of money too. We’re talking BitCoins, Steam credit, and even Amazon gift cards, because if it’s good enough to be a gift from our grandmothers, than surely it’s good enough as a campaign donation.

The way we see it, money in politics is like money in video games. Sure you can work hard, level your character, and gain experience and gold through honest gameplay, but that’s for suckers. Why not just use your credit card information to purchase that Level 100 Glowing Weapon of Awesomeness or that +20 Strength Armor of Impenetrable Steel? Who cares if wearing them unfairly represents the actual level of skill and trust that you have earned in a game that so many others have devoted months and years of their life to playing fairly? Politics isn’t about trust, its about winning, so why should we have to settle for that Level 5 Campaign Poster when we can get a few rich kids to pay for the +30 Platinum Campaign Ad Blitz. After all, they’re just doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. It’s not like we’re going to owe them anything at some point down the line… right?

Tax Reform
Too few Americans are working, too many jobs have been shipped overseas, and too many families cannot make ends meet. The Democrats want to blame this problem on the top 1% and say that we should raise their taxes to compensate for our failing middle class. Yet, we here at the Nerd Party feel that we need to place blame where blame is due, and that is squarely on the scaly shoulders of those who deserve it, dragons. For too long these giant fire-breathing lizards have terrorized farm lands and horded our gold reserves, putting good working class families out of business and obtaining wealth that they have no intention to reinvest in the economy. Who really needs to sleep on a mound of gold, other than Donald Trump, but we hear that’s just for lumbar support.

The rich are not to blame. We give them tax breaks and they give the rest of us wonderful gifts in return, such as low wage jobs, union crushing lawsuits, and the Kardashians. No the real culprits are dragons and it is time we start raising taxes on Smaug and his ilk of fiendish lizard misers. Unlike bank CEO’s or trust fund managers, their greed knows no bounds. They only live to acquire more wealth  than they possibly need. That is bad for the economy because if money or Dwarven gold is not invested properly into the market than it cannot grow or be taxed to help provide public services or private industry growth. That is why under the Nerd Party we will be implementing a 35% Dragon Horde tax. Every year we will send a group of IRS agents to the lair of every dragon in America to collect a percentage of their gold. Those that come back alive will surely bring with them enough new tax money to help boost our flagging economy. You might laugh at us now, but even you have to agree that taxing dragons is at least less of a fairy tale economic strategy than giving breaks to the already wealthiest 1% of this country.

Immigration
Real immigration reform puts the needs of working people first, and that is why the Nerd Party we will not back down from our powerful neighbors to the south. We have had enough of Mexican tyranny. Sure, they are ranked 15th in GDP, and we’re ranked number 1. Sure, they import more American goods than almost any other country, but we are tired of their sass and lack of construction efforts. When the Nerd Party takes power, we will not only force them to make a wall, but also a ceiling, some nice laminated wood panel flooring, and maybe even a sun porch.

This wall will be the biggest wall you have ever seen, but that is only the beginning, because after we build it we will form a group of dedicated individuals who will stand atop that wall and swear an oath to hold no lands, father no children, wear no crowns -not even those paper Burger King ones- and win no glory. They will live and die at their post, and make sure no Mexican, Wildling, or White Walker can ever get across. Our first priority needs to be securing our borders against anyone who just wants to make a better life for themselves.

That is also why we will be closing our borders to all Jedi Knights. Please know that we are not unreasonable, and we acknowledge that not all Jedi are Sith, but can we really take that kind of a risk with the safety of American lives. Last year Dark Jedi killed millions during the Starkiller attacks, and even though that was the work of only one or two individuals, we will irrationally blame every person identifying as a Jedi. Please also note that this will only be a temporary measure, but it will be aimed at keeping out any knight, padawan, or anyone else in a bathrobe. We will turn them all away, even those who are desperately and innocently fleeing the very things we are afraid of: terrorism, war, and Order 66. We cannot let these types of religious fanatics into America, especially when we already have so many of our own types of religious fanatics already here.

Second Amendment
The Second Amendment to our constition is clear -well kinda/sorta clear- and that is why we have made our position on this issue equally clear. However, we feel this amendment needs to go further. That is why the Nerd Party is pushing for an expansion to allow citizens the right to keep and bear doomsday devices, without limit. We are talking about weather dominators, moon-based laser cannons, fission bombs hidden away on islands shaped like skulls. The world has changed and muskets alone are no longer enough to overthrow a tyrannical government on a whim, and for far too long only super-villains have had access to these types of weapons. We, as Americans, cannot rely on British super spies to be there every time one of those criminals wants to hold a global nation hostage for ransom money. The only way to stop a bad guy with a thermonuclear device is a good guy with a thermonuclear device. Thus, our stance on the Second Amendment is much like America’s stance on nuclear weapons in the Cold War, mutually assured… something. We never really paid attention too well in history class, and it doesn’t matter.

You see, our real problem is that we need to reform our mental health care system. Places like Arkham Asylum are nothing but revolving door facilities, and super-villains by definition are criminally insane. We need to improve our medical screening process to be on the look out for megalomaniacs who might have the power and resources to do real damage to this country. All super-villainous acts have one thing in common- there were red flags that were ignored. People of power and influence, with giant egos and small hands, who were allowed to continue in their megalomania undiagnosed, until they were pushed too far. One day a man is a typical billionaire real estate mogul/reality star and the next he is wearing an iron mask and calling himself a ridiculous villain name like “The Revenger,” “The Doomsayer,” or  “The Donald.”

The Nerd Party truly believes that we need a better system for identifying these types of people and getting them off the streets, because at least the majority of people who own guns can only hurt a few innocents, but megalomaniacs can hurt our entire nation, sometimes even without missile based satellite technology.

So, remember to get out there and vote Nerd, because really what other choices do you have left?

For the American people it seems like the grass is always seems greener on the other side. And the grass in question happens to be sitting behind a wrought-iron fence guarded by the secret service on the front lawn of the White House. As Americans we have a very unique relationship with our leader, the President of the United States -POTUS to his friends- as he is both our boss and our employee. We have had good Presidents, strong Presidents, war heroes, statesmen, peanuts farmers and actors, but it may be our fictional Presidents that say the most about us as a people and a nation. With House of Cards returning to Netflix this week, we thought this would be a good time to take a closer look at our fictional leaders like President Underwood or his West Wing counterpart, President Bartlet, and do some Presidential comparisons, both fact and fiction.

A Proportional Response
Let’s start with President Josiah Edward Bartlet. His fictional term lasted from 1999 to 2006. He is a economics professor from New Hampshire, who won the Nobel Price for his work in that field. He is also a former Governor of New Hampshire and a direct descendant of Josiah Bartlett, who signed the Declaration of Independence. By all accounts he is a New England academic from a very old family, and also a liberal Democrat who believes in gays in the military, campaign finance reform, and education. He is a bit long winded in a folksy way, but above all he is shown as being the best of us. Sure he lied about having Multiple Sclerosis and was embroiled in his fair share of Washington scandals, but it was never anything serious and when all was said and done he always took responsibility for his actions. He was shrewd, intelligent, compassionate, and warm. His legacy was defined by compromise and doing what was right. He stood by his friends, his family, and his staff, even when it wasn’t always politically savvy to do so.

His real-world counterpart was President George W. Bush, from 2000 to 2008, a Republican. Perhaps one of the only things he shared with his fictional counterpart was a sense of idealism and the fact that they were both Governors. Other than that, Bush was known for his war policies, his persona as a cowboy, and his inability to speak words. Under his administration the country saw the Patriot Act, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, and an amendment to the Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. Now, we are not trying to paint Bush as a bad President, but we do want to show that he is a sharp contrast to the persona of President Jed Bartlet, who continually enjoyed a higher approval rating than the sitting President.

BartBush

Though one can argue that President Bartlett existed before President Bush, there is no denying that the fictional POTUS is -in at least some way- a response to his more conservative and inarticulate real-world counterpart. Continuously throughout the Bush Presidency, a time when the President of the United States enjoyed some of the highest and then lowest approval ratings in history, it was Bartlet whom people turned to every week for solace and hope. His liberal policies were ahead of their time, and though he was sometimes accused of being overly sentimental the show often tackled national issues in thoughtful and heartfelt ways. By all accounts it often seemed as if Bartlet was the President people were looking for. Yet, it was Bush they voted for in 2000 and again in the 2004.

Chapter 2
Next let’s look at President Francis Joseph Underwood, whose Presidency started only in season 3, but has been with the American public since 2013. His public persona is one of a judicious and fair-minded liberal. He ended a naval standoff with China, and started an ambitious domestic job program. However under this congenial appearance lies a different person. In reality, Underwood is a conniving, Machiavellian, and sometimes over-the-top evil character. He uses any means he can to rise to power, and has cheated on his wife, blackmailed, and manipulated the events around him to get to the White House. He is from a family that dates back to prominence during the 1800’s. Unlike Bartlet his public persona is completely different than his inner thoughts and private actions. A Southern Democrat and lawyer, he was the Majority Whip, then the Vice President before scheming his way into the Oval Office. President Underwood has no sense of tradition, decorum, or even a caring for the rules of fair play, and it is a role he almost revels in.

The real President since 2008 and during the run time of House of Cards is President Barrack Obama. He is from Chicago by way of Hawaii, and unlike the other three Presidents talked about already, has no famous ancestors or famous American name. Obama has passed laws for universal healthcare, repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t tell,” and is working on gun reform and climate change. He has partially helped to end some of our wars in the Middle East, and has had an overall positive effect on the American image overseas. Say what you will about the current President of the United States, but he is not Frank Underwood. Though, there has been some questionable tactics used under the Obama Administration in the area of drone attacks, it is hard to see our even tempered Commander-in-Chief embroiled in plots of power, sex, and murder.

UnderObama

Thus, we must wonder, that if Bartlet is a response to Bush, then is Underwood a response to -or even a condemnation of- Obama? Our current President is mild mannered and has been embroiled in very little and minor Washington scandals. Underwood, on the other hand, is fierce and has no qualms about things like corruption or adultery. The real POTUS rose to power on the tide of a national movement, while the fictional one gained his power by discrediting his predecessor and taking over his position. Many perceive President Obama as weak and lacking of a plan or the conviction to make America strong. President Underwood is anything but weak, and he always seems to have a plan. Unlike Bartlett and Bush, these two men are not from different parties and even have similiar liberal agendas. Also, Underwood like Obama shows a very politically attractive face to the American public, much like our current President. Instead, the House of Cards President differs more in his personal tactics and hunger for power. It can be argued that this match-up may say something -at least in part- about what some secretly suspect about our POTUS. Obama is sometimes too perfect, too congenial or too well behaved. Yet, we highly doubt our leader is playing from the Underwood playbook, so it is more likely House of Cards is just another form of Presidential wish-fulfillment. Still, the popularity of the Netflix show makes us wonder if we, the American people, tend to feel an attraction to fictional Presidents that embody everything our real-world Presidents do not.

Living in their Shoes
We can attribute some of the popularity for fictional Presidents to the fact that viewers get to live their triumphs and tragedies. We get to know our fictional leaders in ways we will never get to know our real ones. We can sit in on meetings with Jed Bartlet and see him struggle with decisions. We can follow the scheming of Frank Underwood and quietly cheer for his successes, even when we know it’s wrong. The very format of television is designed to put the audience on the side of the main character. When we look at our real-life Presidents we only get the snapshot, the man behind the podium, or the polished and cleaned-up sterile image of the leader of our country. We don’t get to see him joking with his staff, suffering from marital issues, or filing his tax returns. So in a way, our factual POTUS becomes less real -just a prop we see on our TV- when compared to the fictionalized and idealized President, especially by comparison.

What is more interesting is that The West Wing and House of Cards -though diametrically different from one another- offer a look into the evolution of how the viewing and voting public have thought of our elected officials over the years. To go from Josiah Bartlet to Frank Underwood is as much a change in what Americans look for in an elected official as it was to go from George Bush to Barrack Obama. The West Wing portrays the entire political process as one filled with smart and caring people who are doing their best to make the world better. Even Republicans are often portrayed as articulate and intelligent, except with differing views. House of Cards, on the other hand, goes out of its way to be a theatrical and ruthless look at modern American politics and governance. Each is a fictionalized version of the truth -we hope- yet each equally holds the attention and imagination of America. Perhaps these fictional Presidents and their shows are so popular because they give us an ideal we feel we don’t have or that we’ve lost in real life. Thus, each still holds enough truth to be believable and worthwhile, regardless of your political persuasion.

So, maybe this all really comes down to human nature, and our natural yearning for wanting what he don’t have. We, as the American public, are like a soccer mom dreaming about the pool boy, yet knowing all along that our dreams are nothing but fiction. We seem to lean toward a TV President that is the opposite of the current sitting POTUS, because we do that with everything else in our lives. We accept the factual while romanticizing the path not chosen. We use fiction all the time to ask the question, “What if?” and to condemn those in power who do not meet are sometimes exacting standards. Really, all this means is that if Donald Trump is elected, then after 2016 we may find ourselves with the most sane, humble, caring, and brilliant fictional President ever to be portrayed on television.