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Trump Is President, But Kevin Spacey Can’t Even Play One on TV

The end of "House of Cards" raises a troubling question: Do we have higher standards for TV politicians than for real ones?

Paul Morigi/Getty Images

On Sunday, the actor Anthony Rapp’s allegations of inappropriate conduct by Kevin Spacey—when Rapp was only 14—were reported by Buzzfeed. Spacey horribly bungled his response, and his downfall has added the Oscar-winning actor to a lengthening  list of high-profile alleged sexual predators. From Harvey Weinstein to Bill O’Reilly to Leon Wieseltier and others, icons of political influence and media gatekeeping have been exposed as toxic, abusive men.

Netflix promptly cancelled House of Cards, the political thriller in which Spacey portrayed the cunning and unscrupulous politician Frank Underwood. The tenure of Spacey’s amoral, predatory fictional president, immune to practically any scandal, has been cut short by real-life scandal. The guilty, fictional TV President Underwood is now guilty in real life, and Kevin Spacey no longer gets to be president, not even on TV. Meanwhile, the actual President Trump, accused of eerily similar assaults, gets to stay president—especially on TV. More is at stake here than just a simple comparison between fiction and reality, entertainment and politics. The power of a show like House of Cards is derived in no small part from its relationship with actual political realities, and its fortunes as entertainment have waxed and waned in light of the dubious entertainments and urgent horrors of real political life.

When it premiered in 2013, House of Cards was a self-conscious antithesis of The West Wing, another, very different high-profile network TV show about the White House. House of Cards from the start embraced the atmospheric bleakness and grim character acting that media tastemakers associate with “prestige TV.” The West Wing, by contrast, was created by Aaron Sorkin, and you could tell: The show followed the classic Sorkinesque paradigm whereby impassioned speeches stuffed with liberal bromides changed minds, where savvy technocrats knew what was best, and wherein the supposedly transformative powers of honesty, patriotism, and decency built consensus, brokered compromise, and saved the common good. By contrast, the Washington House of Cards depicted was venal and petty, saturated with malice, riven with duplicity, and above all, drenched in cynicism, opportunism, and sleaze. In terms of their affects and themes, the shows could not have been more different. And yet many Americans—especially liberals—loved both.

The key to understanding this attraction lies in seeing the ideological work each show accomplished. The West Wing offered disappointed Democrats a comforting fantasy alternative to the real-world Presidency of George W Bush. America is great, it promised, in so many words, because America is good. Under Obama, House of Cards faced a different landscape, and filled a different need. The honeymoon expectations of various Grand Bargains and hopes for national transformation wore off quickly, and the realities of an increasingly hamstrung and progressively more disappointing Obama administration exposed previous years of faith Sorkinesque suasion as laughably naïve. Against this background, House of Cards offered a different kind of comforting message: things could be worse. America is good, in other words, because at least it’s not this bad. While The West Wing trafficked in saccharine civics lessons, with its counterfactual reality sustaining a rosy hope for a better future to come, House of Cards started as cartoonishly dark and got only more outrageous and cynical, the better to contrast with the track record of a merely mundanely disappointing present. Under Bush, The West Wing kept alive a naïve hope in the fundamental decency of a Democratic-administration to come. Under Obama, House of Cards did the work of lowering expectations of an ever-more tenuous Democratic administration that was already in power.

But then came Trump, and everything changed again. Now it was House of Cards’ turn to be out of step. Why devote time and affective energy to a fictional Washington full of over-the-top sociopaths when matters of actual life and death now lay in the hands of a real-world assemblage scoundrels, grifters, bigots, killers, and outright pigs? House of Cards’ dramatic reversals, its conspiracies, its Machiavellian gambits, all of that now felt pointless compared to a real Washington of unapologetic, shameless sleaze. The reality of Trump’s accession made Underwood’s antics and deceptions seem tame and trivial in relation to an obscene reality.

Nowhere was this clearer than on the show’s representations of sex, sexual harassment, and sexual violence – an area in which both the West Wing and House Cards unfolded on a queasy continuum. In the West Wing, Sorkin, true to form, pushed narrative arc after narrative arc of what he apparently saw as charming screwball romances—which in practice involved powerful older men haranguing younger women underlings until they ultimately won their hearts. Likewise, much of The West Wing’s first season was taken up with the story of a White House Staffer (played by Rob Lowe, no less) trying to “rescue” a high-class sex worker with whom he had become involved. On House of Cards, on the other hand, sex was primarily a weapon and a commodity, little more—contemptuously bought and sold, violent, coerced, and used to blackmail. This show also involved a subplot featuring a White House staffer getting involved with a sex worker, except this arc started with his recruiting her for a murder, progressed to his stalking and dominating her, and ultimately would up with him killing and burying her in a shallow grave.

With Trump, on the other hand, there have been plenty of moments of reckoning—but, since this is the real world, they have all come to nothing. He can brag about sexual assault, menace teenage girls in a dressing room, weather allegations of outright rape and other physical abuse, and win the Presidency with a nontrivial number of his voters forgetting those incidents entirely. The very fact that Underwood had to hide his monstrosity now seems quaint, even prudish – a comforting wish fulfillment if ever there was one.

While a fictional sex scandal never ended the tale of the Underwood Presidency, a real-world one now will. And not just a sex scandal—but an assault of a 14-year old child. Spacey’s gambit to waylay attention toward his a sleazy and cynical narrative of coming out is right out of the Underwood playbook, and there is some consolation to be found in how that cynical strategy is thankfully being dismissed for what it is. And yet in these moments liberals will still extract a few, hollow, self-satisfying ideological dividends—watching events unfold like yet another comforting show.

Of course, the “badness” of the Underwood Presidency and the “goodness” of the Bartlett one are narrowly personal. These fictional presidents, as individuals, activate flights of enthusiasm or thrills of horror that are all about noble leaders or evil villains—not structures or systems. The goodness or specialness of America is given, whether highlighted by these men, as in The West Wing, or persisting in spite of them, as in Cards. In other words, this is a theatrics of bad villains and good heroes, little more. And that adds another shad to the allegations against Spacey: his downfall is necessary, but it is also a kind of theatrical gesture, all about removing from the stage yet another bad actor—not about structures that produced him, that produced others, and that almost certainly will produce yet more unless something much more radical changes. And all of this unfolds while one of the most grotesque products of this systemic protection of abusers sits in the most powerful office in the land, and we, the disgusted audience, are apparently powerless to remove him. The result is that citizens are reduced to horrified and titillated spectators—while the bad actor in power continues to preen for the cameras.