Netflix has just released the fourth season of House of Cards, its series about a Machiavellian politician (Kevin Spacey) who became president through nefarious means. In a debate just hours before the new season hit the Internet, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump declared that the military would follow any order he gave, even if it were illegal. “I’m a leader, I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it.”
The coincidence is striking, and the popularity of the series offers some insight into why Trump has gotten as far as he has. Surveys show deep cynicism and distrust about nearly every aspect of the government, and House of Cards plays to that sentiment. It has no real heroes: its characters range from the morally compromised to the utterly murderous. “For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy,” says Frank Underwood in one of his many asides. “There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted."
If you are going to have an amoral law-breaker in the White House, you might as well have one who gets results. In a 2013 video for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Mr. Spacey spoke in character as Underwood: “I may lie, cheat and intimidate to get what I want, but at least I get the job done. So I hope some of you were taking notes.” After his crimes had gotten him to the vice presidency at the start of the second season, he said: “One heartbeat away from the presidency and not a single vote cast in my name. Democracy is so overrated.”
Some Americans seem to agree. Two decades ago, the World Values Survey asked if it would be a "good" or “very good” thing to “have the army rule." Just one in 15 Americans said yes. The most recent survey finds that the figure is today one in six. In 1995, the wealthiest one-fifth approved of having a “strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections.” Now more than 40 percent think that way.
Such beliefs tend to spread when economic malaise persists and the government seems unable to solve it. So it is no surprise that so many television viewers enjoy Frank Underwood – and that so many voters are turning to Donald Trump. Like the fictional president, Trump will do anything to get his way. His supporters apparently do not care that much of what of he says is blatantly false, since they assume that everybody else in politics is a liar. When Gallup surveyed Americans about the honesty and ethics of various professions, members of Congress and lobbyists ranked at the very bottom.
Is it an overstatement to compare Donald Trump to the homicidal Frank Underwood? Back in January, Trump told a cheering crowd: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.”
House of Cards is fantasy. In the real world, blustery strongmen do not bring efficient government or economic prosperity: contrary to myth, Benito Mussolini did not make the trains run on time. And while Trump calls himself a winner, many of his enterprises – Trump University, Trump Shuttle, Trump Mortgage – have been pathetic losers. If Trump were to win the 2016 election, the people who voted for him would learn this lesson very quickly, albeit too late. If you tire of a TV show, you can just turn it off. A presidential term lasts four long years, whether you like it or not.
Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.