Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? It’s a mystery for the ages.
Either way, there’s an almost unnatural parallel going on between the characters of House of Cards and our real-world stable of politicians jockeying for the big desk.
Trouble is, House of Cards is not a story about nice people. It’s a story about one fundamentally loathsome man and the sycophants and power brokers he surrounds himself with.
Nevertheless, House of Cards is truly at its best when it holds a funhouse mirror up to real-life politics. And that’s why it’s so much fun to match up these characters with their flesh and blood counterparts. Who are the villains? Who are the heroes? Part of the fun is not being able to tell one from the other.
But that doesn’t mean we won’t try. Let’s get started, shall we?
Hillary Clinton = Frank Underwood
Where to begin? If there’s ever been a fictional character who better embodies political ruthlessness, it’s Frank Underwood. And if there’s ever been a real-life politician who’s more talented at channeling that ruthlessness, it’s Hillary Clinton.
There’s almost no end to the list of controversies and full-blown scandals that former Secretary Clinton has been involved with over the last few decades. It’s true that at least a handful of them have been artfully blown up beyond any reasonable proportion by the Republican Party, but knowing this does nothing to lessen the rest of them.
In no particular order, the unanswered questions about the Clinton family include: Whitewater, Pardongate, the Swedish slush fund, the lethal exercise of police force at Waco, the millions earned from paid speeches to Wall Street, the Clinton Foundation’s obvious conflicts of interest, and many, many more.
What Hillary Clinton needs to learn from Frank Underwood is that you need a certain talent for artistry and charm if you expect to get away with political ruthlessness of this magnitude.
Bernie Sanders = Donald Blythe
Whatever else you might say about him, you can’t deny that Bernie Sanders stands pretty much alone in American politics. He’s spend most of the last 40 years toiling away in relative obscurity, either getting arrested for protesting segregation, giving fiery speeches before Congress about unnecessary wars and worsening income inequality, and generally standing up for the greater good.
Donald Blythe is a similar unsung hero in the world of House of Cards, and he, too, rarely receives the credit he deserves. Blythe is among the few characters willing to call out American leadership on their bull****, and is clearly a man who possesses deep convictions. When all the cards are on the table, Blythe even knows when to back away entirely from the President, and even voices his support for impeachment.
If Bernie Sanders has anything to learn from Donald Blythe, it’s this: Keep doing what you’re doing. Be the lone voice of dissent even when it might be political suicide. Blythe could be a powerful force for the common good if he spoke up more forcefully, but he frequently backs down. Bernie: Just keep being your beautiful self.
Donald Trump = Raymond Tusk
If you asked Donald Trump to describe himself using just one word, it would likely be “great” or “businessman.” Raymond Tusk’s answer would probably be similar.
Tusk is a businessman, certainly, but he’s also a ruthless force — in the world of business and politics alike. For an example of how far he’ll go to make a point, look no further than his outburst in Season Two when he snaps the neck of one of his prized pet birds. Trump exhibits the same kind of creepy petulance every time he shouts down well-meaning protestors at his rallies, threatens to punch his dissenters in the face, or tells a gripping tale about executing Muslims using bullets drenched in pig’s blood.
If Trump were just a little bit more like Tusk, however, he’d realize that quiet machinations and a smoldering intellect are better tools for reaching your objectives than loudmouthed pandering to the uneducated, public ego-stroking, and pointless hatred. Trump divides to conquer. Tusk conquers by sticking to the shadows.
Marco Rubio = Peter Russo
Peter Russo is a weak man. He’s an alcoholic who regularly exhibits poor judgment, doesn’t seem to take his job terribly seriously, and didn’t really work for his position or his authority.
Marco Rubio is also a weak man. He’s not an alcoholic, but he’s no stranger to poor judgment and has no real accomplishments to claim as his own. He’s one of the least experienced Presidential candidates we’ve seen in recent memory. And perhaps most unforgivably, his broken robot impression at a recent debate confirms that he probably doesn’t have an original idea in his head that hasn’t been nervously rehearsed in front of a mirror.
Peter Russo’s story came to an ignominious end because he was almost hilariously easy to manipulate. And if Rubio’s career trajectory so far is any indication, he shares more than a few traits in common with Russo. Rubio has, after all, been raking in contributions from the Koch network, and as of a few days ago, he literally hired a Koch Industries operative to work on his campaign. In light of all that, it’s little surprise that Rubio’s positions on clean energy and climate change have nothing at all to do with Reasonableness and everything to do with pandering to his benefactors. He’s a human chess piece wearing expensive boots.
For some reason, Rubio has emerged as the Right’s answer to Barack Obama, which is hilarious for a bunch of reasons. Suffice it to say, if Rubio learns anything from the sad fable of Peter Russo, it should be to grow a backbone and think for yourself for a change — before it’s too late.
Ted Cruz = Seth Grayson
Ted Cruz is creepy for reasons only science can explain in full. Nobody wants to sit next to him anywhere he goes. Even his kids appear to be repulsed by him. There’s even an all-too-plausible (and apparently confirmed) conspiracy theory that says his wife isn’t even his wife. All told, Cruz is a bigoted, trickle-down, fearmongering, Bible-thumping weirdo who used to doodle headstones during his time as a legal clerk in Virginia.
But for all of his unpleasantness, we don’t actually know that much about Ted Cruz. He’s almost impossible to imagine sitting and sipping a beer with, because he appears to be almost entirely incapable of regular human emotions, to say nothing of normal conversation.
And that’s why Seth Grayson is such a perfect fit. Like Cruz, Grayson is a cipher. He more or less Trojan horsed himself into a job in the White House and frequently does morally questionable things in the pursuit of power, but beyond that, he’s almost a complete mystery. He’s an utterly charmless creature of guile.
But he’s also incredibly politically savvy — and whatever else you might say about Ted Cruz, he’s certainly that. But if Ted can learn anything from Grayson, it’s that political influence is a poor substitute for human decency.
Updated with VP picks in July 2016
Vice Presidential Picks:
Tim Kaine = Jackie Sharp
In the world of House of Cards, it’s all too common for a character to act out of naked self-interest. That’s bad enough, but it’s another thing entirely to cloak one’s ambitions in the pretense of altruism.
Jackie Sharp is a ball of contradictions in the show. She makes big claims about loyalty and standing by her allies, but deep down she appears to be motivated almost purely by her own self-interest. When the chips are down and she has to make a tough choice, Jackie almost always serves herself first, no matter the collateral damage. Remember the illegitimate child she helped uncover? And how about her sham of a marriage — the one she entered into purely for the political optics of it all?
Enter Tim Kaine, the long-assumed, and now official, running mate for newly crowned Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.
Like Jackie Sharp, Tim Kaine, according to outward appearances, appears to be a model politician. He’s got a laundry list of decent accomplishments that should help Clinton cozy up to disaffected progressives. But a closer look reveals no shortage of ulterior motives and other assorted nastiness.
Unlike Clinton, Kaine is not pretending to stand against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is nothing short of a global threat to democracy, and needs to become a major issue as this election lurches onward toward November. He also has a rather bad reputation when it comes to labor and union issues, and has been speaking out in favor of deregulating the banks.
In other words, like Jackie Sharp, his carefully coiffed public image hides a bit of a rotten center.
Mike Pence = Doug Stamper
Doug Stamper is an evil man — no two ways about it. And that’s what makes him a perfect match for Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s VP pick. Over the course of several seasons, Doug has gone from bad to worse. His love of the drink, alongside his violent tendencies, sometimes cause problems even for the Underwood family, who already allow him a rather long leash. Suffice it to say, Doug is not the sort of person you want to get a drink with. He’s ruthless, uncompromising, and just damned scary.
And so is Mike Pence. His code of ethics is best described as “Conservatism on steroids.” As the governor of Indiana, he cost his state tens of millions of dollars by pushing draconian, medieval, anti-LGBT and anti-choice laws that drove new and existing business investments into the neighboring states. He was also found guilty of using campaign funds to pay his mortgage. Is it any wonder a crook like Donald Trump would gravitate toward this kind of lowlife? They’re a match made in … well, hell, probably.
Although the severity of their evil may be comparable, the type of evil on display here does set Mike Pence and Doug Stamper apart. They both subscribe to a rigid but apparently cohesive moral code, even if they express it in different ways. Pence is motivated purely by self-interest and spite, while Doug is loyal to a terrifying fault.
Header image from BGR.
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