Out of touch, out of ideas? The American Presidency in film and television


Dr Gregory Frame

Lecturer in Film Studies at Bangor University. His research focuses on the politics and ideologies of mainstream film and television. His book, The American President in Film and Television: Myth, Politics and Representation, is available from Peter Lang Oxford.

Email: g.frame@bangor.ac.uk


US2016 - Section 7

Section 7: Pop Culture and Populism

The election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States has been interpreted as evidence of a backlash against globalisation and the unfair distribution of its fruits, and an indulgence of the perception that the metropolitan elite (in collusion with big business) have stolen the American Dream and rigged the political system and the economy in their favour. The establishment are viewed as ‘out-of-touch’ with the concerns of ordinary people. I have been researching and writing about the fictional presidency in film and television since Barack Obama took office in 2009. I have observed its development and evolution since the early 1990s, from a desire for a return of the Reaganite, militaristic strongman during Clinton’s presidency, to the hope for an intelligent and sober leader to replace George W. Bush in the 2000s. 

The most recent examples in film and television have positioned the President within archetypes previously unimaginable in this particular cultural repository: in Olympus Has Fallen (2013) and White House Down (2013), the President is recast as the ‘damsel-in-distress’, requiring rescue from dastardly terrorists by the heroic, musclebound white male. In Scandal and House of Cards, the institution is shown as rather weak; unable to bend the world to its will any longer, it is dependent upon underhand tactics, corruption and criminal behaviour in order to achieve anything. In House of Cards, President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), assailed from all sides by his opponents, resorts to grotesque levels of manipulation and corruption to keep his place in the White House. In Scandal, President Thomas Fitzgerald Grant III ponders abandoning his position for love; he only ever pursued the position to best his father. Popular television appears to be suggesting that the presidency is a feeble and irrelevant institution, incapable of standing on its own.

Designated Survivor, which premiered this autumn, appears to represent something of a resurgence for the notion of the President as ‘strongman’. President Thomas Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) is installed to the nation’s highest office after the Capitol Building is blown up during the State of the Union Address. Previously the Secretary for Housing and Development, he is entirely inexperienced and unprepared for the role. Kirkman proceeds cautiously, and refuses to bow to the more aggressive forces within the military. Unlike Sutherland’s iconic character Jack Bauer 24, Kirkman is reasonable, measured and careful in his execution of power. He will protect the nation, but he will not do so at the expense of liberal values.

If all this sounds hilariously out-of-step with what the United States has just inflicted upon itself and the world, that’s because it is. Kirkman is a ‘normal’ leader; safe, stable, even boring. He is an intellectual (something of which he is slightly embarrassed, it seems, when he discovers that his secret service codename before becoming President was ‘Glasses’). He responds calmly to chaos, he enforces the rule of law and refuses to allow the country to become consumed by fear, intolerance and hatred. In reality, America’s Electoral College system has delivered a President who has been swept to the White House by inciting these unpleasant emotions. The equation has been flipped on its head: in my book, I argued that presidents in film and television tend to indulge the populist fantasies that we know (or, rather, knew) could not be enacted in reality. Films from Mr Smith Goes to Washington to Dave give us the idealised image of the non-politician wielding political power; Independence Day and Air Force One posit the notion that the great President is one who rides into battle himself to face down the nation’s enemies. Until now, it always seemed to me that the fictional presidency provided a release valve to our dissatisfaction with the real candidates for President, and a safe revolt against the bargaining and compromises necessary when in power.

So while contemporary film and television have explored the notion that the presidency cannot have it all its own way in a more diffuse and complex global environment, it seems the electorate have rejected such hard truths. Trump’s promise to ‘Make America Great Again’ was seductive enough for the groups of people to whom he appealed that he was able to win the White House on the basis that the President can change the way America, and the world, is run. He was elected on a fiction. While the President in film and television now might appear ‘out-of-touch’ with contemporary politics, we should continue to monitor its development as a critique of the institution. If Donald Trump wants a primer of what is expected of him now he is President, he could do worse to look to the sobriety and moderation of Designated Survivor for guidance. That said, I’m not holding my breath.