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Do TV Shows Elect Presidents? The West Wing and Game of Thrones

by Ira Livingston

The TV series The West Wing (1999-2006) did some groundwork for the election of Barack Obama in 2008.  During the eight long, depressing years of the presidency of George W. Bush, the show kept liberal hope alive that another more progressive future was possible.  If you watch it now, it’s embarrassing to see how blatantly the show works as Ethics Porn via the fantasy that politicians are defined by their principled tightrope act, balancing power politics and ethical commitments.  The porn part is the little surge you’re supposed to feel when Machiavellian maneuvering allows high-minded motives to triumph, or when jaded professionalism and irony open up to reveal depths of fellow human feeling.  It’s a relative of the momentary rush you get when you hear that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has survived another would-be fatal illness: there is a god after all!

The final season shows the campaign and election as president of a liberal Latino Democrat, Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits).  Like Obama, Santos is in some ways progressive enough to be the underdog, but also bipartisan to a fault.  These similarities were more than coincidental.  In plotting the final season, according to Executive Producer John Wells, “our political consultants all said a ‘minority president’ was much more likely to be elected before a woman was.  People started mentioning this extraordinary junior senator from Illinois.  So Santos was modelled on Obama.”  The season aired two years before Obama’s election.  Actor Richard Schiff remembers Obama campaign workers telling him “You’re the reason we’re here” (Guardian 9/20/19).

West Wing U.S. President Santos (Jimmy Smits) with Illinois Senator Barack Obama in 2005.
 

I’ve always felt that Game of Thrones (2011-2019) laid the groundwork for the election of Trump with its fascist aesthetics, Wagnerian melodrama of family and tribe and nation, turgid court intrigues of obedience and betrayal, glorification of violence, overwhelming whiteness.  The subtitle of the George R.R. Martin books on which the series is based– “Song of Ice and Fire”– gets at the show’s Teutonic structure of feeling.  To Fire and Ice we might add Blood, suggesting the centrality of both violence and an underlying toxic mythology of race.  

Just to be clear, I became a big fan of the show.  I could say I loved and hated it, but that’s a bit too easy.  Part of its complexity (the way such texts are often valorized by literary critics) is its overlapping and sometimes contradictory constellations of meaning.  As queer readers and viewers know, often as a reader– as in the world at large– you find ways of living and finding pleasure in a world that is dangerous or negating to you– or as African-American novelist Samuel Delany once said when asked if he didn’t think a sci-fi text he’d said he liked was racist, if I only liked non-racist texts, there’d be nothing for me to like at all.  That it is possible to find pleasure in such a text says something about its complexity– and may even enable you to maintain that it also critiques what it eroticizes or aestheticizes– but it probably doesn’t make it politically useful, except perversely.

The simplest way of understanding how the show helped make the Trump election possible is to ask in what world does the election of Trump make sense?  The answer is Game of Thrones.  Walter Benjamin’s famous definition of fascism as the aestheticization of politics nails the common modus operandi of Trump and Game of Thrones.  There may be ethical questions on the show, but that’s not the point.  Should a father burn his teenage daughter at the stake if it serves a greater political purpose?  If she has a disfiguring skin condition?  The point is the Sturm und Drang.   

As it happens, the show includes one spitting image of Trump: the spoiled, sadistic, misogynist boy-king Joffrey Baratheon.  Even when he is poisoned, the point is not that bad people come to bad ends.  In an interview with George Martin, the interviewer laments the loss of Joffrey as “such an entertaining character,” notes how “you really had such fun with that character” and praises the actor’s performance as deliciously malevolent.  The literary-critical principle here might be follow the pleasure.  Martin’s point about Joffrey’s death is simply that “every once in a while you have to give . . . the guys who are perhaps a lighter shade of grey . . . a victory over the guys who are a darker shade of grey” (Entertainment Weekly online).

If the show’s reluctance to offer ethical through-lines is part of the cold eye it casts on the ongoing failure and breakup of liberal ethics in the sharkish world of financial capitalism and its voracious ascendancy over human lives– it is also part of its failure to imagine otherwise.  In these paradigmless choppy waters, the show can only throw us a bone every now and then: characters who sometimes find ways to honor their better natures, situations of existential threat dire enough to convince enemies to work together (especially in the war with the White Walkers, an allegory of climate change)

Most critics and fans agree that the show went badly awry in the last season.  In its drive to complete character and plot arcs, it violated the integrity of both, making a hash out of any deeper meanings and messages.  The great liberator white lady Daenerys suddenly goes crazy, indulging her rage for absolute domination: rather than liberating or even conquering Westeros, she incinerates it along with most of its civilian population.  When she is subsequently unrepentant, she has to be killed off.  The show’s failure to imagine viable female leadership is one it shares with The West Wing, the 2016 election and the current Democratic primary race.

We have striking new evidence of some of the wider repercussions of this.  Nations with female leaders– notably Iceland, Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan– have done especially well with managing the pandemic, while the highest death tolls (at this writing) are in nations with flailing, narcissistic male autocrats: Trump’s USA, Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Boris Johnson’s Britain.  It is not just that female leaders are more likely to be guided by a disciplined balance of psychological, political and scientific realism and compassion, but that so are the countries able to elect them.

I had congratulated myself on making what was admittedly a facile (but, I thought, amusing) parallel between Daenerys — before her crazy turn in the final two episodes — and Elizabeth Warren.  But now I discover that the series had lured Warren herself into hitching her wagon to Daenerys’s star in an article she published in New York Magazine (4/21/19).  Warren outs herself as a GOT fan and quotes Daenerys saying she wants to “destroy the wheel” of kingship and power politics that “has rolled over everyone” and to dethrone the wheel’s villainous queen Cersei Lannister, whom she quotes at her Trumpish best: “I don’t care about checking my worst impulses.  I don’t care about making the world a better place.”  Warren ends the article with a kind of campaign speech: “We’ve got five episodes left to find out if the people can truly break their chains, destroy the wheel, and rise up together and win.”  Cersei would be defeated, but the wheel would roll on, and we know what happened to Daenerys and (at least for the time being) to Warren.

Upon Daenerys’s death, Drogon (her remaining dragon), in grief and rage, roars fire at the Iron Throne– the longstanding object of her ambition– and melts it down to nothing.  The message is clear: kingship be damned; break the wheel!  If you want even a brief and mostly symbolic revolutionary moment– something on the order of the police station being torched in Minneapolis– then better grab it fast (Drogon for President!), because immediately thereafter, a group of movers-and-shakers–  a kind of electoral college– get together and select Brandon Stark as king.  We are meant to see that this is an overdetermined and wise choice, though they laugh dismissively at the prospect that people might select their own leader directly.  Bran the Broken, as he is called (he’s in a wheelchair– long story), is a member of the Stark family, the old guard in the North.  The show’s final scenes show that he is too other-worldly to be much of a king; he leaves the work of governing to his council.  Maybe all this is meant to show the transition from personal kingship to something like bureaucracy.

Does the selection of Brandon provide any clues as to who our next president might be?  Let’s see: he is the choice of those who deem the world not ready for democracy, a member of the old guard in the North, likely to be a ruler-by-committee, and his name begins with B and ends with N.  Hmm.

Okay, just joking now–  the Brandon/Biden parallel doesn’t bear much scrutiny (after all, Bran is a mystical philosopher-king type, and Biden– isn’t)– but I’ll stand by my claim that Game of Thrones conjured Trumpworld.  The idea that television shows elect presidents is a politically and philosophically reckless claim, but it’s not a throw-away satirical premise for that reason: that’s what feels right to me about it.  I’ve dressed it out here in somewhat realistic cause-and-effect logics, but if there were a theory behind it, it might have to be some kind of Magical Lacanianism, and that strikes me– much more than any classical political realisms– as what time it is in U.S. presidential elections.  As Derrida wrote about Levi-Strauss, “discourse on myths . . . must itself be mythomorphic. It must have the form of that of which it speaks”– or to translate this into Americal electoral politics, shitshows require shitshow theories.  

To make the next step,  we have to change gears.

The many failures of the final season of Game of Thrones can themselves be understood as prognostications: dominant narrative arcs fail us; we live in a world where it is as if the books on which the script used to be based ran out a couple of seasons ago.  Who will be president?  Maybe Biden; on the one hand, nobody wants him as president, on the other, he’s been effectively endorsed by everyone from Angela Davis to John Bolton.  Just sit with that fact for a moment: it’s fucking scary.  The stakes of the election are huge, the existential threat of four more years of Trump is all too real, but even so, that is not where our hearts and minds are focused.  

Where should we turn our attention instead; in which direction should we look for “the sun which is dawning in the sky of history”?

Gil Scott-Heron’s great 1970 anthem is as prophetic of this dawn as it ever was: “Black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day”— and still, 

                        The revolution will not be televised!

One reply on “Do TV Shows Elect Presidents? The West Wing and Game of Thrones”

I have a lot of thoughts on this, not the least a visceral reaction to the use of “imagine otherwise” in relation to Game of Thrones, as I have been writing about the “otherwise possibility” of ASOIAF for years now and have identified repeatedly why Dan Weiss and David Benioff are unable to “imagine otherwise” and that is what makes the show decidedly un-radical and normative. I agree with you that Game of Thrones presaged many aspects of Trumpism, but I think the television series and the book series are quite different entities with very different creators and intentions. There is optimism and hope in the books–otherwise possibility–that is entirely absent in such a nihilist show. Abused characters in the books go in many different directions, but A Feast for Crows drives home that the abused characters and reaffirm their commitment to forgiveness and empathy are the moral victors. The memory of Ned Stark versus the lack of grief at Tywin Lannister’s death is the most definitive examples of how the books attempt to answer the Machiavellian question of ruling through love or ruling through fear. The show cut this really important theme and subplot entirely because the show runners had an entirely different interpretation of the books than the author’s intent. As one critic put it after the critical failure of the finale, there is a reason the show is called Game of Thrones while the books are called A Song of Ice and Fire.

Furthermore, the show runners repeatedly demonstrate their inability to understand the radicalness of its female characters. They deride Sansa’s time in King’s Landing as entirely her crying all the time, when in fact Sansa’s internal monologue in the books demonstrate her remarkable resilience in the face of abuse; rather than verbalize this monologue through the expanded role of Shae in the show, they reaffirmed their interpretation of Sansa as stupid rather than naive. With Brienne, they neglect to explore or inform the audience that a key reason Brienne adopts a masculine persona is the fact that she is ugly and derided for being so unfeminine: she does not actively choose masculine performance but adopts it when feminine roles are cut off from her by the society she lives in. Yet the show depicts Brienne’s embrace of masculinity as empowering, as it often depicts the female characters as empowered only through adoption of masculine traits rather than the diversity of power demonstrated by the female characters in the books. Benioff and Weiss cannot conceive of this diversity because as able-bodied, cisgendered, upper-middle class white men (one of whom is the son who worked for one of the Bush Adminstrations), they have not needed to find otherwise forms of empowerment. There are numerous ways in which Daenerys is coded as a racial other in both the show and the books, yet the white savior imagery of “mhysa” is entirely an aesthetic choice made by the showrunners. And most importantly with Cersei, the de-fanging of show Cersei and Benioff’s recorded comments that her defining quality is being a mother covers over the fact that book Cersei is incredibly narcissistic and cares for people who look like her because she believes them to be a part of her; her love for her children and her twin brother are entirely products of a narcissistic personality that by its very nature would prevent her from being a good mother. But Benioff and Weiss struggle to conceive of a woman who is a bad mother.

In terms of Trumpism, your argument calls to mind Siegried Kracauer’s argument in the late 1940s that Weimar Cinema has fascistic imagery that conditioned the German public for fascism. As this is a central component of my doctoral research, I’ve given this thesis a lot of thought, and I oscillate between agreeing with his argument and advocating for a revised reading that really art always reflects the culture which produced it. Therefore as a society swings rightward, as US culture has done through the entirety of the neoliberal era, art would logically reflect this. The backlash to Barack Obama’s election began pretty swiftly, and the 2010 midterms affirmed the contemporary Tea Party; McConnell famously said his goal was to limit President Obama to one term. But the effort to limit Democratic leaders to one term is a phenomenon we’ve seen since the assassination of JFK. LBJ knew he could not run in 1968 due to the unpopularity of the Vietnam War. Jimmy Carter’s re-election chances were thwarted in 1980 and the Reagonomics marked the full-scale de-regulation of a neoliberal agenda. Republican efforts to limit Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to one term may have failed, but those efforts still existed in the 1990s and early 2010s.

The hollowing out of democratic norms under the Bush-Cheney era, and the fact that Martin began discussing the television show with Benioff and Weiss in the mid-2000s, tells me that the failure of Game of Thrones to demonstrate otherwise possibility for an audience is a result of the culture at large.

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