This story discusses the fourth season of House of Cards in its entirety. Proceed like Zoe Barnes should have approached the Metro: with caution.
House of Cards is straight-insanity, no chaser. It would take less time to list the elements of the series that do make sense than to go through every person and plot twist that does not. It would seem, to the casual observer, that a show in which the President of the United States literally gets away with multiple murders as he ascends from whip to POTUS would be, without question, more bonkers than reality.
Then again: Have you seen reality lately?
Reality. Oh man. Reality is rough. Reality is dark. Candidates vying to be one of the most powerful leaders in the world have called each other ugly and child molesters, protesters have been choked and punched in the face, and rallies have been called off because of threats of riots. And we can’t forget that time the leading Republican candidate told the world that he’s well-endowed.
This inspires us to ask: What is crazier, House of Cards or reality? Join us — Jessica Goldstein, culture editor, who followed a pretty strict “no 2016 ‘til 2016” rule re: reading election coverage but took notes during every episode of HoC; and Kira Lerner, political reporter who has first-hand experienced some of the more insane Donald Trump rallies and sat through all of the GOP debates — as we conduct this thorough investigation.
Round One: The Ku Klux Klan
JG: Let’s start with HoC. In the third episode, we discover that Frank Underwood has, stashed in a safety deposit box, a photograph of his father and a man in the KKK, white robe and all. The two are shaking hands. It is… it’s not great, no matter how you spin it, but it is especially not-great when Claire, who at this point in the season is still attempting to sabotage her husband, gets someone to print a poster-size copy of said image and slap it up on the Peachoid in Frank’s hometown of Gaffney. (Honestly, so far the least realistic thing happening here is that someone would go to all the trouble of printing a copy instead of posting it online and letting it go viral the new-fashioned way.) Frank has to both distance himself from the KKK and not sound like he’s trashing his dead dad, which he barely manages to do.
KL: Frank had the common sense to immediately launch damage control, knowing how much the KKK association could hurt his campaign. Trump? Not so much. Not only has Trump retweeted claims by white supremacist Twitter accounts (to his 7 million followers — far more people than would ever see a billboard in Gaffney), but he also refused to disavow an endorsement from David Duke, former grand wizard of the KKK, suggesting that he didn’t know anything about him. “How many times do I have to disavow?” Trump asked. All the times, Trump, all the times.
JG: My favorite part of the episode is when someone shouts at Frank, “Mr. President, was your father a racist?” Like, probably! Are we asking our presidential candidates this question? I think we are more concerned with whether the candidates are racist. We aren’t even climbing their family trees.
KL: You don’t want to go there…
CREDIT: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File
Round Two: The Debates
KL: Even reality TV feels tame after I’ve sat through 12 Republican debates in the past eight months. We started last August with 10 guys on stage, and we learned immediately that these almost-weekly spectacles would be light on actual policy. During that first debate, Fox’s Megyn Kelly asked Trump about his history of calling women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.” That would have been a good time for Trump to reassess his image with women, but instead he decided to personally insult Kelly — and then sat out another debate she moderated.
JG: In the HoC universe, the election is bringing America the first debate in which both presidential candidates and their running mates all go at it on the issues together. Nifty idea! But other than this structural departure from our politics, the debate is pretty grounded. Conway, the Republican hopeful, sticks to his message, landing over and over again on his go-to words and phrases. But instead of just letting him roll, Claire calls him out on his buzzword-dependency.
KL: The Democratic debates, although repetitive, have also been pretty straightforward politics. But the Republicans have continued living in their own reality — a reality in which Trump thinks it’s okay to talk about the size of his dick on national TV. Even Marco Rubio, the most Conway-esque candidate, may have cost himself the election by flubbing a New Hampshire debate — and repeating the exact same line three times.
JG: The only thing that’s really out there is that Frank kind of coerces Conway and his running mate, Brockhart, into lying on TV. But my understanding is that the real-life candidates are failing Pinocchio tests left and right in these real debates, are they not?
CREDIT: David Giesbrecht/Netflix
Round Three: How Candidates Respond To The Threat Of Terrorism
JG: So in HoC, the terrorist faction of the day is called ICO. They’re the new Al-Queda. (Not a lot of discussion of ISIS/ISIL in the show, if I remember correctly.) We’re not quite in apples-to-apples territory here, because Frank is a sitting president and none of the candidates in real life is an incumbent. But what we do have is Conway making some calls to all his buddies in Congress to block Frank’s efforts to get Russia involved in some military mission against ICO.
KL: If you were to only listen to the Republican presidential candidates, you would think we’re all living in an end-of-time thriller where ISIS, “the biggest threat to our nation,” is dooming all of our lives. In reality, there’s a long list of things that pose more danger to Americans than “radical Islamic terrorism,” but that hasn’t stopped Ted Cruz from proposing that we “carpet bomb” the Middle East.
JG: On HoC, it all escalates when a couple of American guys, accusing America of “illegal aggression and mass murder against Muslims,” take three American hostages, agreeing only to release them if the U.S. halts military activity in Syria, pays ICO $10 billion in reparations, and frees Yusuf. So Yusuf is the ICO leader that Frank had captured a few episodes prior — a big deal in the world of the show; Yusuf is imprisoned at Guantanimo — and the kidnappers want him out. Oh, also the kidnappers will only communicate with Conway; they say Frank is a “criminal.” And actually in this very specific instance, the kidnappers are not wrong! (See: Two homicides, one dogicide.) Conway could choose to sit this round out but, beautiful narcissist that he is, he has to release a video saying that he’ll do whatever the president asks him to do. Frank calls his bluff and summons the Conways to the White House, where everyone has a slumber party while Conway and Frank negotiate with terrorists.
KL: Try to imagine, just for a second, President Obama (or Hillary Clinton), inviting Trump to the White House to negotiate with terrorists together. Didn’t think so.
Point: House of Cards
Round Four: Rhetoric About Muslims
KL: If only the xenophobic rhetoric we’ve heard this election cycle were reserved for Netflix. Trump has straight-up called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, and while he may have backed away from that idea somewhat, his supporters haven’t. He’s also proposed a database of Muslims in the United States, and other candidates have called for surveillance of American mosques.
JG: Even though the kidnappers in HoC are quickly revealed to be two white men — so white, their names are Josh and Zach — characters within the show still worry that, because of the kidnappers’ allegiance to ICO, there will be backlash against Muslims. So one Muslim spokesperson appears, briefly, to tell a news crew that “ICO does not represent Islam. But there are those who would use this incident to justify draconian measures, like travel restrictions” on Muslims trying to travel to and from the United States. “The moment bigotry becomes a form of patriotism, America is no longer America.” And that’s really the last we hear of that issue; as the machinations of the plot take over, no one really ruminates on what the fear of ICO will mean for Muslims in America. Frank is all about playing on the fears of the American people, but he doesn’t take the tactic of turning people against Muslims; neither does Conway.
KL: Trump has been terrifyingly successful in turning people against Muslims. The number of Islamophobic incidents in the country since the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino has skyrocketed, and large percentages of Republican voters say they support a ban on Muslims.
Round Five: Conventions
JG: We have a brokered convention! Some backstory: Frank and Claire have a grand plan for an Underwood-Underwood ticket. In order to make this happen, Frank lets the leadership think he’s considering their number one choice, a senator from Ohio who is tight with the NRA. (It is hard to remember because Frank rarely acts like one, but he’s a Democrat.) After that “falls through” (a.k.a. after he and Claire force it to fall through), this senator withdraws from the ticket. Frank suggests Secretary of State Cathy Durant as a replacement but suggests letting the party choose her– or, as he spins it to the leadership, letting the party feel like they’ve chosen her by having an open convention. But once they get to the convention, things go bananas. Texas casts all of its votes to Claire. Claire spend a lot of time pretending to be surprised and disinterested in the role.
KL: While the Democratic convention is already pretty predictable, who knows how the Republican convention will play out! Political wonks are already thrilled with the thought of an open, brokered convention in which anyone, including Mitt Romney, could secure the nomination. Knowing Trump and the Republican establishment’s feelings toward Trump, it could get way more insane than anything on HoC.
JG: On top of that insanity, the Conways — jealous that the open convention is sucking up all the media attention — decide to camp outside the convention to read threats from ICO’s Twitter feed and tell the cameras that ICO is “recruiting around the globe.” Conway can’t obey the typical sportsmanlike rules that govern conventions, he claims, because the terrorist threat is too dire. So, that happens! Then Conway and Frank have a little backroom meeting wherein they pretend to talk about ICO but really just try to one-up each other for a while. And then the First Lady scores a spot on the ticket as her husband’s running mate.
KL: Well Trump is promising riots if he does not get the nomination, so Cleveland in July is likely to be beyond Netflix writers’ wildest imaginations.