I’m rather late to the party, but I’ve just finished binge watching the first five seasons of House of Cards, thanks to a “smart TV” gifted by my brother. The episodes have a “ripped from the headlines” realism that will be familiar to anyone who’s been following the news for the past 18 months.
But the thing is, most of the series predates the headlines—some episodes by as much as two years.
Season one made its debut February 1, 2013, and if you focus on episodes written and aired over the course of President Barack Obama’s second term in office, it’s clear the show depicts the permanent bureaucracy (a.k.a. the “Deep State”) and, by inference, Obama administration officials who leveraged its power for political gain.
There’s a surprising degree of commonality between pivotal plot developments in the show and events that subsequently occurred in real life during the period between the presidential campaign and the first six months of the Trump Administration.
Once is pure chance, twice is coincidence, but three or more is a pattern.
Facile comparisons between Frank Underwood and Donald Trump notwithstanding, there is a reason why the Underwoods work so well as Democrats. Could it also be that senior Obama Administration officials in the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Intelligence Community—the kind of people who are inclined to think they are living inside a television drama, anyway—so identified with the characters in the series that they—wittingly or unwittingly—took their cues from it to lay the groundwork to launch the investigations that now absorb so much of the Trump White House’s time and attention? Could it be that they are really that unoriginal?
Hmmm. Whatever the reason, it remains that there are some remarkable similarities to consider.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
The fast-paced, conspiracy-laden episodes, which are stuffed with Easter eggs for political junkies, require viewers to keep track of a couple of dozen characters and their history with the other characters. But binge watching compresses the time it takes for seasons to unfold, and real-world events confer the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.
Given the number of intrigues simultaneously playing out, you might not pay that much attention to Underwood asking campaign operative LeAnn Harvey about whether the NSA could eavesdrop on his Republican presidential opponent‘s phone conversation in season four (2016)—unless you already knew about the Congressional investigation into domestic surveillance abuses by the DOJ and FBI targeting the Trump campaign.
And that panicked election eve conversation between Harvey and Aidan Macallan, an NSA contractor who politicized domestic surveillance to target voters with Underwood campaign robocalls (“The only way we are going to survive this is if [the Democrats] win”) in season five? It had added significance because days before I watched the episode, news broke that FBI Agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page had texted each other about an “insurance policy” to hobble Trump’s candidacy, and joked(?) about a “secret society” to execute a plan to keep Trump and his closest advisors busy dealing with investigations—perhaps to buy the Deep State time to destroy evidence of probable crimes.
Three episodes later Macallan engineers a cyberattack that disrupts cell-phone service throughout the Washington, D.C. area so he could delete all traces of illegal use of domestic surveillance without being detected. Is that not unlike the mysterious “glitch” affecting thousands of FBI cell phones that made five months of text messages between Strzok and Page disappear?
Other noteworthy plot points:
- Season one details the machinations of House Majority Whip Frank Underwood to replace a sidelined Vice President Jim Matthews, who is re-elected governor of Pennsylvania and resigns. Underwood is vetted for the job by President Garrett Walker‘s long-time friend and adviser Raymond Tusk, a billionaire who made his fortune in the energy sector and has significant business interests in China. Tusk wants blank check leverage in return for his endorsement, which forces Underwood to drive a wedge between Walker and Tusk by starting a trade war with China in season two (2014) that hurts Tusk financially. Tusk retaliates by recruiting one of his Chinese business associates to help him funnel donations to GOP PACs via an Indian Gaming casino to evade FEC laws. Sort of like the DNC pouring money into the Clinton campaign during the primaries by first routing it through state Democratic Party chapters.
- Underwood tips off a financial journalist to the money laundering scheme and Tusk’s friendship with the president, triggering the appointment of a special counsel—which happened in real life three years later. One thing leads to another, and the president resigns when the House Judiciary Committee begins to draft articles of impeachment. Again, I had already lived through these season two plot developments in real life with two House Democrats introducing articles of impeachment against Trump (one of them forcing two votes on the matter), and Special Counsel Robert Mueller changing his focus from “Russian collusion” to obstruction of justice in his relentless quest to find an impeachable offense.
- At a photo op in Wisconsin two months before the election, Republican presidential candidate Will Conway and his running mate, General Ted Brockhart, discuss classified information leaked to them by members of the House Intelligence Committee. Conway excitedly says, “It’s perfect! The president colluding with the Russians?” (Season 4, Episode 11 at 19:15) Yes, that’s right. The words “The president colluding with the Russians” were uttered in an episode that released eight months before the 2016 election. Remember, the season began filming June 16, 2015—the day Trump announced he was running for president.
- Season five was shot over the course of the 2016 general election campaign. Several episodes are devoted to Frank and Claire Underwood’s efforts to rig the election and delegitimize the Republican candidate, depriving him of his victory. In the season’s fifth episode, Underwood tells his chief of staff, Doug Stamper, “Well, if we can’t win, we have to make sure Conway doesn’t either” (at 42:10). In real life, nearly a year after her loss to Trump, Hillary continued to contest the election results, Obama White House officials waged a campaign to delegitimize Trump, and members of the Electoral College were pressured to change their votes so that Hillary would become president.
Frank Underwood’s high crimes and misdemeanors ultimately catch up with him. By the time he resigns in the final episode of season five—which was shot right after Election Day—Hillary and her senior campaign staff had begun feeding an eagerly complicit press the “Russian collusion” narrative in real life. By the time the episode premiered, Mueller had been on the job two weeks.