Editor's note: Sally Kohn is an activist, lawyer, and political commentator. The views expressed here are her own. Warning: House of Cards spoilers ahead. Sometimes life imitates art. Or, more accurately in this day and age, sometimes life imitates television — as when the star of a reality TV show runs to be president of the United States. And sometimes, television imitates life, which then turns into an ominous warning about reality — as is the case with the current season of House of Cards. Is the underhanded Francis Underwood Donald Trump? Is first lady and aspiring vice presidential candidate Claire Underwood Hillary Clinton? Or is the idealistic yet stubborn Secretary of State Catherine Durant a stand-in for Hillary? Is the charming but green Republican contender Will Conway a proxy for Marco Rubio? Or are we all reading too much truth into fiction out of a desire to predict the outcome of a wildly unpredictable political season and geopolitical landscape in general?
We’re watching precisely because it’s so absurd and ugly, because this isn’t the way we presumably want our leaders to be.
Perhaps what’s more pronounced than any particular theories about who on House of Cards is or is not modeled after which real-life figures is the simple fact that the outlandishly brutish politics portrayed in the show seem to have been eclipsed by real life. That’s not to say any of the leading Democrats or Republicans are staging civil coups to ascend to the Oval Office, nor literally manipulating foreign nations or terrorist groups to serve political optics. But whereas toward the beginning of the show, House of Cards may have looked like a bizarre house of mirrors, taking the ugly reality of politics and twisting and contorting it into absurdity, now our actual politics seem infinitely absurd. The latter half of House of Cards' season 4 centers around an open political convention in which delegates and candidates are jockeying for power. That’s not far off from what the Republican Party may be headed toward this summer.
In episode 7, President Underwood invites his Republican opponent Will Conway to a private meeting at the White House. The two end up playing video games and Conway makes a crude dick joke. Underwood almost chokes on his sandwich, partly because he's laughing, partly because he's surprised. But at least it was done in private. Now, in real life, we have Republican presidential candidates jockeying over the size of their penises. Americans are watching House of Cards for entertainment but may not find the more extreme and outlandish politics of real life remotely entertaining. The French philosopher and author Albert Camus once wrote, "Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth." In the beginning, House of Cards may have seemed almost like science fiction, an absurd commentary on what politics might be in a dark alternative universe. But within that lie, there was some truth, a kernel of ugliness in the irrational hatred against Barack Obama and the unyielding obstructionism of the Republican Party that has become a full-blown cancer in the form of angry, ardent support for Donald Trump. When Francis Underwood pushed his source and sometimes-lover journalist Zoe Barnes into the path of an oncoming metro car, it belied aggression and brutality that we knew was dormant within Underwood but was still shocking to see. Now we have a Republican front-runner for president who wants to push undocumented immigrants and Muslims and perhaps many more people out of the American Dream, while encouraging an ugly aggression from his supporters toward these very same people. To watch white Trump supporters verbally and physically assaulting protesters, especially black protesters, who dare penetrate Trump’s rallies, is to imagine the writers behind House of Cards dreaming up their most vicious ideas and then waking to see them come true.
"I’d like to punch him in the face," Trump himself said about one protester. This is the sort of thing you can easily imagine Frank Underwood saying or even doing in private, behind closed doors. Donald Trump actually said it: in real life, in public. There is, perhaps, one thing that plainly separates House of Cards from political reality today. House of Cards is not meant to be an optimistic and pleasant show, but a dark, almost-horror-like drama steeped in dystopia. We’re watching precisely because it’s so absurd and ugly, because this isn’t the way we presumably want our government and our leaders to be. And yet here we have the actual 2016 presidential election, with — especially on the Republican side — petulant candidates making childish dick jokes and prioritizing personal attacks and meanness over policy debates and vision. And, according to TV ratings, it’s the kind of show the American people are tuning in for. The question is: If they continue to support the likes of Trump and keep this hellacious show going, will they like the very real and ugly ending we get? Head over to R29 Binge Club to read House of Cards recaps.