In May 2017, The Guardian ran an article titled “Who said it: Donald Trump or Frank Underwood?”. Compiled by Stuart Jeffries, are a bevvy of outrageous quotes said by either Donald Trump or Frank Underwood and readers are tested on their ability to identify the correct source. Donald Trump is predictably credited with purposefully controversial remarks such as “the point is you can never be too greedy” and “you know what I have been very successful, everybody loves me.”
Jeffries’s objective is not simply to draw attention to the loose cannon of Trump’s mouth but to highlight the grim similarities between a fictional character, marred by the ruthlessness and villainy of a Shakespearean tragedy and the incumbent president of the United States.
Paradoxically, in 2015, Ian Crouch argued in The New Yorker that those “who turn to House of Cards, looking for a view of how Washington really works are likely to be disappointed.” Crouch offers a further assertion of Frank Underwood specifically, that “he is an agent of a plot rather than a character of human dimensions.”
The chilling trajectory of American politics following Trump’s ascendancy to the Oval Office reveals the human dimensions through which a real-life Underwood manifests. In just over a year as president, this current government has accumulated a succession of scandals that include a mounting turnover among administration staff.
The ongoing furore at the White House thus provides a strong semblance to the dystopian underworld of the Netflix series. The recent announcement that Rex Tillerson is to be replaced as Secretary of State by CIA director Mike Pompeo has already been undone by the firing of former FBI director Andrew McCabe. Considering the immediacy of the timing of McCabe’s departure, it is not explored in this article.
According to the president, Mike Pompeo, California native and former congressman from Kansas, is a “winner.” Pompeo certainty boasts a multifaceted career: after graduating from the prestigious military academy West Point, he served in the army reaching the rank of Captain. Subsequently, he attended Harvard law school and went on to become a tax litigator. Following that, he established his own aerospace and private security company.
Despite the extensive list of achievements, his political experience is limited. Though limited experience is irrelevant because Pompeo, unlike Tillerson, is a Trump loyalist, and loyalty is the most valuable currency in ‘The House of Trump.’
The fundamental distinction between Pompeo and his predecessor is not only doing Pompeo share the president’s proclivity for a chaotic hard-line foreign policy, it could even be argued that he aims to abet it. Pompeo is a vocal critic of the Iran deal, has indicated a preference for imposed regime change in North Korea and even defended the use of waterboarding. Tillerson, although flawed, sought at the very least to retain a veneer of respectable diplomacy.
In response to the GCC crisis, Tillerson’s preference for the U.S. was to perform a mediating role in the conflict. However, this was undermined by the President’s decision to side with Saudi Arabia.
The escalating tension between Trump and Tillerson saw the latter as the subject of a humiliating tweet by Trump following his approach to North Korea. Trump was reportedly denounced as a “moron” by Tillerson after a disagreement over a nuclear arsenal last year.
Departure was the only outcome for Tillerson. In ‘The House of Trump’, survival is only awarded to those subservient to the president and everyone else is driven out or simply fired.
Along with others in the Trump camp, Mike Pompeo shares questionable affiliations with figures on the far-right and supports controversial policies, including coercive counter-terrorism methods. Legitimate concerns are therefore raised as the prospective secretary of state will be armed with immense power and responsibility.
This article does not assert that the existence of far-right rhetoric in the mainstream political apparatus is a unique or new phenomenon. What is a new phenomenon, however, is the shifting spectrum of the discourse that shapes policy. In drowning out all ideological diversity and only ever rewarding adherence to his capricious temper, Trump dismantles the opportunity for balanced judgement to inform both his own decisions and that of his administration’s.
So far, there have been over twenty departures from Trump’s administration, thus encircling an increasingly harmonised roster of Trump loyalists while amplifying the Trumpian echo chamber in The White House.
In 2014, Richard Lawson wrote in Vanity Fair, “It’s a daunting juggling act, keeping so many pieces of plot in play, but House of Cards does it, with uncanny ease and sophistication.” In real life, Trump’s strategy has certainly kept him afloat, although his endurance so far is not because he uses Frank Underwood inspired tactics but rather the opposite.
The scale of influence that he yields among his support base empowers him. However, with the looming conclusions of the Mueller investigation and the inevitable toll that will be taken from the continuum of shake-ups in the White House, an important question arises. How sustainable is ‘The House of Trump’?