Trump vs Underwood: What happens when fact overtakes fiction?

BBC's North America editor Jon Sopel analyses the parallels between House of Cards and the Trump presidency

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Who needs the Underwoods when you’ve got the Trumps? Who needs the absurdity of extraordinary twists when you’ve got the real thing? Who needs the palace intrigue of the Underwoods and their faithful Mr Fixit Doug Stamper, with all their nefarious doings, when we’ve got the extraordinary manoeuvring that is unfolding on a daily basis? And does Frank Underwood even know what Twitter is?

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Even so, I am thrilled a new season of House of Cards is here. Frank Underwood – the fictional American president played by Kevin Spacey – all-calculating, that evil, knowing glint in his eye, plotting the next piece of skulduggery so that he will prevail over his enemies. And the sumptuous Claire – immaculate, stylish, never a hair out of place – but for all her inner turmoil she is every bit as devious as the president. They are drama’s most formidable and sinister power couple since Shakespeare’s Macbeth and his first lady.

“It was art imitating life, imitating art. All very confusing.”

One of the most fun events that I have been to in Washington was the unveiling at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery of a brilliant portrait of “President Underwood”, by the fabulous British artist Jonathan Yeo. Kevin Spacey was there for the event – but he stayed in character throughout, and the whole thing was lmed for a future episode. Jonathan Yeo was there, but as himself.

The invitees were by and large the real members of the White House press corps. While we waited in the covered atrium of the museum, giant screens showed the presidential motorcade drawing up, and “the President” getting out. There was then the formal unveiling, with President Underwood offering his thanks to the artist, the museum and the American people. It was art imitating life, imitating art. All very confusing.

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Frankly, after three glasses of wine and some choice canapés, I didn’t know where I was. Actually, thinking about it for a minute, that was all that was missing from last year’s battle for the presidential nomination – can you imagine Frank up against the Donald? We already had him variously calling his rivals “low-energy Jeb”, “little Marco”, “lyin’ Ted”. I wonder what moniker he would have given Frank Underwood – “evil Frank”? “Devious Frank”?

And look at the real plot twists that we’ve had from the moment Donald Trump was sworn in as President. After his dark, isolationist inaugural address, I went to the specially called evening brie ng the next day – a Saturday – at the White House, where we were subjected to a tirade from the President’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, about how we were all dishonest. And told that more people had been at the Trump inauguration than Barack Obama’s eight years earlier. (The photographs taken from the Washington Monument looking to the Capitol tell a different story.)

At the end of this nger-wagging lecture, Mr Spicer turned on his heels and walked out, refusing to take any questions. A friend from a British newspaper sitting next to me, who’d previously served as his paper’s South Africa correspondent, said cheerily, “Oh, it’s just like being back in Zimbabwe.” The day after that, when challenged on TV about the incontrovertible evidence provided by those photographs, a senior aide to the President said they were proving “alternative facts”. “You mean falsehoods,” the interviewer insisted.

Then we’ve had the whole Russia plotline that has already led to the ring of Trump’s national security adviser, General Michael Flynn. He lied about what he had discussed with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador. Then we had the Attorney General having also been a little economical with the truth over his contacts with Ambassador Kislyak. And if only it ended there. We then had the shock ring of the FBI director, James Comey, and Trump meeting the Russian foreign minister in the Oval Office. It has since been claimed that the President disclosed highly classified information to his Russian guests, to the horror of more or less everyone in town.

We’ve also had the President tweeting that Barack Obama wiretapped his phone before the inauguration – and then the suggestion that it was done by British agents operating from GCHQ. No evidence has been provided. Wouldn’t the team working on House of Cards have discussed that at a script meeting and said, “You’re ‘avin’ a laugh” – or whatever the non-cockney version of that is. 

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Separating fact from fiction is one of the great challenges of covering this administration. At least with House of Cards we know where we are. Take the extraordinary news conference that the President held at short notice, where he ranted about the media being fake news. This was the wildest – and far and away the most riveting – “presser” I have ever been to.

The President had claimed that his victory in November’s election was the biggest since Ronald Reagan. A reporter pointed out that simply wasn’t true – that both Barack Obama and George HW Bush had notched up much bigger wins. The President didn’t quite give a Catherine Tate “Whatever,” but he gave a nonchalant shrug, as if to say, “Am I bovvered?” I found myself – inadvertently – having a cameo role. I was called by the President to ask a question. I had managed to get one word out when he interjected. “Where are you from?” “The BBC,” I said. “Another beauty,” he said scornfully. “Impartial, free and fair,” I replied. And so it went on.

I slightly had to pinch myself that I had been sitting in the East Wing of the White House, going back and forth with the President of the United States. It was a similar out-of-body experience when I interviewed President Obama 18 months earlier in the Roosevelt Room of the West Wing, and afterwards when we walked through the Rose Garden together.

“House of Cards is politics as Machiavelli understood it.”

One reason that it was out-of-body was that you never expect to be interviewing the most powerful man in the world, but the other reason was that it all felt so familiar. The president and the presidency have been depicted in drama so often that we feel as though we know intimately the layout of the West Wing and the Oval Of ce, the Press Brie ng Room (far smaller and shabbier than it looks on TV), and all the other function rooms in the East Wing.

There have been the Vaseline-round-the- camera-lens depictions of the president. So The West Wing, by Aaron Sorkin, was the most brilliantly written drama depicting life under President Jed Bartlett, and his team of lovable characters all doing their best for America, but ghting against-the- odds battles to win through. This is politics as you want to believe it can be. It is feel- good, smart, witty and full of personalities who are trying to make the world a better place. There is no cynicism or darkness in it. House of Cards is at the other end of the scale. So much of it is dark – literally and figuratively. It is politics as Machiavelli understood it. It is about staying in the saddle and stopping people from unseating you and taking your place.

And then there is the depiction of politics with characters who are slightly hopeless and inadequate. Where decision-making and implementation are marked by slapstick and chaos. And for that there is the endlessly hilarious Veep, created by Armando Iannucci. There we follow the travails of Selina Meyer, the frustrated and ignored vice-president who is just desperate to be noticed and taken seriously – but who somehow ends up commander-in-chief.

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So into which of these three genres does the Trump presidency fit? Well, let history decide that. But we have a president who can remember the delicious slice of chocolate cake he was eating when he ordered a missile strike on a Middle Eastern country, but can’t quite remember the country he attacked. President Trump’s actual quote from the interview was: “We’re now having dessert, and we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen. And President Xi was enjoying it… So what happens is, I said, ‘We’ve just launched 59 missiles… heading to Iraq.”

The interviewer then corrected him, asking if he meant “heading to Syria”.

“Yes, heading toward Syria, and I want you to know that.”

Or there was then the firestorm that Mr Spicer found himself engulfed in when, at a press brie ng, he said that at least Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons on his own people. Hmm. Close, but no cigar. He would later have to go before the cameras and eat a huge portion of humble pie.

So it’s Veep, then?

Frank Underwood stared knowingly and directly into the camera lens, and with the merest hint of a smile playing on the corner of his lips said, “You might say that, I couldn’t possibly comment.”

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Jon Sopel is BBC North America editor, whose book If Only They Didn’t Speak English – Notes from Trump’s America is published in September