House of Canards: Parallels between Donald Trump and Frank Underwood

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Simultaneous with the release of the fifth season of the Netflix series House of Cards, scandal and corruption have plagued the White House and the Trump administration. The hunger for power of Frank Underwood, the star of House of Cards, parallels the behavior of President Donald Trump and the newest developments in the Russia probe.

In House of Cards, main character Frank Underwood and his wife Claire are master political operators. Without remorse, they manipulate and exploit their adversaries for political gain. The Underwoods’ struggle for power began when the president-elect broke his promise to name Frank the Secretary of State. Embittered by the president’s betrayal, Frank and Claire vowed to topple the president and claim the oval office for themselves. Using his manipulation skills, Frank ascended from House Whip of the Democratic Party to President of the United States. In their ascension to the White House and during Frank’s presidency, the Underwoods have been ruthless. They pressure their enemies, orchestrate their downfalls, form countless ultimatums, search desperately for political leverage, and manage to hide most of their corruption from the public. The allure of the show derives from the almost impossible political know-how of Frank Underwood and his constant battle to conceal his fraudulence.

A characteristic of Frank Underwood was his rather obscure policy positions. He contradicted his own party in his decision to cut entitlements, limit collective bargaining, and promote school voucher programs, but he also displayed contempt for the gun lobby. His opposition to the liberal education bill introduced in Season 1 derived not from ideological differences but rather from his intention to sabotage the president. And he decided to cut entitlements and disaster relief funds to bankroll a transformative jobs program because he knew he could use it to show he was succeeding. (His America Works program, in real life, would be implausible). A president with less political ambition than Frank would shy away from such rapid change.

Although his positions are more clear than Frank’s, President Donald Trump’s ideology is also fairly ambiguous. From the beginning of his campaign, the now president made bold promises to overhaul the actions of President Obama. His massive skimping on the EPA and appointment of climate change skeptic Scott Pruitt were symbolic gestures to override the environmental work of the Obama administration and establish himself as an uncompromising leader. In isolation, however, his vow to bring rapid, massive change to the White House does not reveal much. However, the current President often fumbles over policy, rarely divulging specific plans or legislation, and he has altered his position on several topics multiple times. The fact that there is some mystery surrounding Trump’s actual beliefs in spite of his “big plans” means that it is unlikely that he ran for president because he wanted to pursue a detailed, ambitious political agenda. If he did, he would know more about policy than he knows.

Moreover, both presidents have attempted to exploit the fears of Americans so that they can brand themselves as heroic leaders. In House of Cards, President Underwood spread fear and then declared war on the fictional Islamic Caliphate Organization to gain popularity during his campaign. Likewise, President Trump promised a travel ban and the introduction of discriminatory counter-terrorism protocol to capitalize on the fear of his constituency. For Frank Underwood, a lack of core principles originates from a yearning for power. For Donald Trump, a blatant lack of knowledge and policy plans suggests that he, like Frank Underwood, sees policy as irrelevant and concerns himself only with power. 

President Trump, like Frank Underwood, has demonstrated an unwillingness to compromise with the other branches of government and his opposition. However, in Frank’s political prowess, he understands the necessity of compromise in achieving political goals. Still, President Trump has similar motives to Frank Underwood, but he fails to recognize the need for compromise due to his political incompetence and emotional immaturity. Nonetheless, both want to retain absolute authority: When President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressed hostility to the federal courts that blocked the travel ban, they bespoke a troubling disregard for other branches of government. Similar to Frank, President Trump has sought to consolidate power into the executive branch, subverting the influence of Congress and the judiciary. 

The political acumen of the two presidents is where they differ. Donald Trump’s proclivity to self-destruct became apparent when he made ill-advised tweets during a fragile judicial battle over the travel ban. On the other hand, in an ordeal which a special prosecutor interrogated Frank about corruption accusations, the then vice president demonstrated his political savvy by purporting to be transparent and offering the prosecutor his travel logs. In giving the travel logs, Underwood never disclosed anything that could confirm suspicion about himself. However, his decision to release the travel logs forced the president to do so as well, implicating the president in the corruption scandal and allowing Underwood to ascend to the oval office.

Therefore, while the two presidents have similar intentions, only the fictional president has the political astuteness to manage judicial battles and prevent the public from discovering his malice. Considering the destructive policies that Trump has sought to implement, political incompetence is good news. 

A shared trait of Frank Underwood and Donald Trump is their tendency to form enemies. While Underwood targets anyone that may obstruct his power, President Trump engages in petty feuds with various politicians and celebrities, including Rosie O’Donnell, London mayor Sadiq Khan, former California governor and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Fox News host Megyn Kelly, and fellow Republican Party presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz. He publicizes his feuds via Twitter, demonstrating to the American public his struggle with emotional stability. In contrast, Underwood manages to keep his disputes furtive. The contrast in the two presidents’ abilities to conceal their personal feuds further represents the difference in political intellect.

The most damning parallel between Frank Underwood and President Donald Trump is their desire for absolute control. The thrill and appeal of House of Cards derives from Frank’s Machiavellian persona, but there is comfort in the fiction of the show: viewers convince themselves that a politician as evil as Frank would never be able to act with such impunity.

While Trump’s actions do not nearly amount (at least not yet) to the utter malevolence of Frank Underwood, his desire for control is similar. From his attempted suppression of the media, the judiciary, and the FBI, President Trump is beginning to resemble Frank Underwood more and more each day. By using canards, which include wiretapping allegations and illegal voting claims, Trump aims to manipulate the minds of the American people and distract them from the allegations of Russian collusion.

And with the recent news that suggests Trump tried to bully former FBI director James Comey with his presidential power, it is becoming clear that the president is willing to undermine the system to stave off threats to his political power. Fortunately, the president’s gross political ineptitude will likely cause the Trump administration to fall like a house of cards.

Featured Image: https://www.theodysseyonline.com/frank-vs-underwood

 

About the author

Matt Walsh is a VI Form day student from Southborough, Massachusetts. He leads Openly Secular, plays trumpet and French horn, and leads the young Democrats club. His academic interests include public policy, political science, and chemistry, and he plays baseball and runs cross country. In his free time, he curates Spotify playlists and pets his dog, Portia. Matt hopes that The Parkman Post can be a hub for intellectual thought, ideological diversity and meaningful debate.

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