In “Designated Survivor” Hollywood dreams of a good president, the anti-Trump

Summary: The TV show Designated Survivor shows Hollywood’s response to Trump, envisioning a good liberal President facing a devastating vast right-wing conspiracy seeking to overthrow the Republic. This tells us much, as fiction provides a mirror to people’s beliefs and values. It reveals the shallowness and poverty of our dreams. Perhaps that is why the reform of America seems so unlikely.  Spoilers galore!

In dark times we need a super-Jimmy Carter as President!

Kiefer Sutherland in Designated Survivor

Beware: spoilers!  — Imagine an attack on America far more devastating than 9/11. The Capital is bombed during the State of the Union speech, killing the entire Congress, Supreme Court, and White House leadership. The “designated survivor”, Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), becomes president. He combines the personal strength and political innocence of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with the virtuous nerdiness of Jimmy Carter.

He’s a liberal super President, even better than President Bartlet in the liberal-award winning seven seasons of The West Wing (almost as good as SuperPresident in the 1967 cartoon)! As Neil Genzlinger at the NYT says in “‘Designated Survivor’ Pivots From Thriller to Political Mirror“…

“President Kirkman is supposed to be an independent, but he generally sounds like a Hollywood Democrat, and the show increasingly seems like both a plea for an alternate reality and a lament that even blowing up the government and starting over won’t fix it. Kirkman is being shaped into the ideal president …interested in rising above self-interest and doing what is best for the country.”

To see the Hollywood perspective, read “Kiefer Sutherland Explains How ‘Designated Survivor’ Is Taking on Trump” in The Hollywood Reporter. He says “I believe there’s a lack of common sense in governing now…”  Oddly, the common sense the writers describe reflects only liberal policies. Such as the need for government funding of the arts, the need to bring in refugees from Syrian, and especially gun control (a full episode, then another one). As Sutherland explains…

“The reason why the NRA specifically, the biggest lobbyist group to prevent that — it’s all about economics. It’s not about civil rights or the right to own a gun, it’s about selling guns and the impact that will have on that industry. OK, capitalism versus public safety — that’s a great discussion to have.”

Oddly, the writers of DS do not show their ideal liberal president championing the causes that help defeat Clinton. No mention of bathroom rights for the transgendered, aggressive wars in the Middle East, restarting the Cold War, new enforcement powers for Social Justice Warriors, and programs to fight the fake campus rape epidemic, With one exception: in the President’s climatic speech in the season’s climax, the President describes the most serious threat facing the Republic since the Civil War — weirdly concluding with a pledge to open America’s borders to immigrants (a policy that ended in 1882).

Designated Survivor: ruins of the Capitol

A good show needs great villains

The villains are the usual suspects. Machinations of a white male Republican Senator (Mark Deklin as Jack Bowman) seeking personal political advantage hampers rebuilding the government. A white male Republican governor (Michael Gaston as John Royce) goes full-Nazi, rounding up Muslims — encouraging police to beat them in the streets. And of course, there is a white male warmongering general (Kevin McNally as Harris Cochran). No stereotypes!

For the first few episodes the show threatened realism, with the attack apparently staged by jihadists — like those staging attacks around the world since 9/11.

Fortunately, viewers were saved from reality. We learn that a vast right-wing conspiracy of white men seeks to overthrow the Republic. A defense contractor’s CEO leads them (Terry Serpico as Patrick Lloyd). Assisting him are an un-diverse group of white male traitors: an Army veteran turned assassin (George Tchortov as Nestor Lozano), an Army veteran become Vice President (Ashley Zukerman as Peter MacLeish), and a Homeland Security Advisor (Richard Waugh as Jay Whitaker) — plus a horde of militia (mostly white).

While politically satisfying to liberals, the villains are otherwise uninteresting. As Zack Handlen says

“The show has struggled with through its entire run so far {with} an inability to create bad guys who register as more than just plot obstacles who are as good or as inept as the story needs them to be in that moment. That hinders suspense, but it also makes for some profoundly uninteresting enemies. Everything about Pax Americana is generic, a vaguely realized hodgepodge of fears that never developed into a danger that was plausibly credible, even as they accomplished horrifying things.”

Only the Scooby gang can save us!

Italia Ricci as White House Chief of Staff Emily Rhodes
Italia Ricci as WH Chief of Staff Emily Rhodes.

In our world this conspiracy would get crushed quickly. The NAS would monitor their communications and tap their computers. The FBI and a dozen other security agencies would monitor their movements and cash. Satellites of the National Reconnaissance Office would watch their base.

But in Hollywood’s reality America’s institutions are corrupt or ineffective. In Designated Survivor the security services are ineffective. The conspiracy has computer technology far superior to that of the NSA. Although the Coast Guard and Navy know a freighter’s approximate location off our coast, they cannot locate it. With two hours notice, the FBI cannot get police to a specific dock in Baltimore and so arrest the bad guys. Federal agents frequently display stunning incompetence.

America’s only hope in DS is the typical Scooby Gang. A lone wolf Irish-Polish-Vietnamese-American woman FBI agent (Maggie Q as Hannah Wells), her computer genius FBI side-kick (Jake Epstein as Chuck Russink), and an African-American disgraced FBI agent (Malik Yoba as Jason Atwood). America would be toast without them.

This fetish for individualism reveals one of our greatest weaknesses: our inability to rely on our institutions, or even form effective movements (see posts listed below for details). Our fiction mirrors this sad reality, as seen in the Occupy and Tea Party movements. American cannot reform until this changes.

Designated Survivor
Available at Amazon.

Conclusions

We all have our own taste in fiction, with no gold standard for comparisons. But what we enjoy reveals much about our values and beliefs, our hopes and fears. In a society undergoing rapid and deep changes, our fiction provides a set of milestones to see how we have changed.

TV shows like Castle and NCIS: Los Angeles show our changing views of romance and marriage, as the girls take the guy’s role — and marriage occurs only after alpha males are broken into pitiful betas (including casual physical abuse).

Designated Survivor employs many common tropes about US politics, effective because so many Americans (left and right) believe them — as described in my review of the show.

DS shows the Left’s reaction to Trump (Hollywood is its voice): a retreat to fantasy. Their enemies are evil incarnate, intending to overthrow the Republic — mirroring their rebuttal to Trump by chanting NAZI NAZI NAZI! Their ideal President is apolitical and naive, neither needing nor seeking a political organization (or even expert assistance, since his liberal ideals suffice).

DS has less political sophistication than the Star Trek: Enterprise series, which described how the United Federation of Planets formed. The galaxy was a cesspool of hatred and violence, where the strong preyed upon the weak. A few strong species allied to change that, acting from a combination of ideals and rational self-interest.

DS has less political sophistication than E. E. Smith’s 1934 novel Triplanetary. It describes a future in which Virgil Samms looks at a world in which good people live in fear of the evil and powerful. While evil cannot be eliminated, he decides to reverse this relationship. It shows an idealism inferior to that in Robert Heinlein’s 1948 young adult novel Space Cadet, which describes a global organization using its monopoly of nuclear weapons to keep the peace (they cannot prevent aggressive nations from starting wars, but they guarantee to end them — which prevents them).

Our futures are limited by the scope of our dreams. Today that is bad news. But there is always hope for tomorrow.

For More Information

You can buy or rent copies of Designated Survivor’s episodes.

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7 thoughts on “In “Designated Survivor” Hollywood dreams of a good president, the anti-Trump

  1. At least they got the chief of staff right. I used to get to wander around in the congressional office buildings and I noticed all the 7-8’s women working there.

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  2. Hollywood in one corner, reality in another. Today it is the left seeking to overturn a democratic election using every tool in its arsenal including violence and mass hysteria. Elections have consequences, as the past eight years have shown us in terms of doubling of an already massive debt, almost a hundred million thrown out of the workforce, and violent flareups of racial violence financed by leftist organizations. Where were the riots then? Only peaceful protestors who cleaned up after themselves.

    Wish fulfillment is powerful in Hollywood and in the deep corridors of bureaucratic power.

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    1. Molly,

      While I broadly agree with you, details matter.

      “Today it is the left seeking to overturn a democratic election using every tool in its arsenal including violence and mass hysteria.”

      Yes. But the political violence of today is microscopic, little more than a trial balloon. it’s trivia compared to the Leftist violence of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Massive riots in our inner cities, thousands of bombings, etc.

      “almost a hundred million thrown out of the workforce”

      The workforce — technically the “labor force” — has not declined (see here). The percent of adults employed or looking for work peaked in January 2000 at 67.3% (under Carter; see here). It has been declining for the past 17 years, for reasons not well understood (aging of the Boomers is a factor, but only partial).

      “Wish fulfillment is powerful in Hollywood”

      That’s a powerful observation! “Why” is usually the key question. Why do people find the fantasy of Designated Survivor of interest?

      Like

  3. WHAT A SURPRISE! Hollywood makes a thriller where the ultimate bad guy turns out to be…
    wait for it….. an old rich white guy!!!! THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY’S FAVORITE VILLIAN!

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  4. Here are some errors in the writing: “In our world this conspiracy would get crushed quickly. The NAS [NSA?] would monitor their communications and tap their computers [the show clearly explains that they operate very analog so, no, they wouldn’t.]. The FBI and a dozen other security agencies would monitor their movements and cash [You have to know your enemy to be able to track them. The enemy isn’t discovered until partway through the season, after the attack has already occurred.]. Satellites of the National Reconnaissance Office would watch their base. [This happens, so I’m not sure where you’re getting the “would” from.]”

    Your nit pickings–although mostly inaccurate– are nonetheless just criticisms of the realism of almost any given fictional entertainment. They are not useful for a political conversation.

    Also, I find it interesting (i.e. hypocritical) that you call out the “fetish for individualism reveals one of our greatest weaknesses: our inability to rely on our institutions” when conservatives traditionally favor individualism over institutions, which includes government.

    Maybe try to formulate a coherent personal political ideology before attempting to uselessly interpret a fictional television show through an unnecessarily and inappropriately politicized lens next time?

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    1. Nicholas,

      “Your nit pickings”

      That quote you give addresses the core assumption of the show. That is the opposite of “nit-picking.”

      “although mostly inaccurate”

      While hearing your judgement is enlightening to us lesser folk, it would be more interesting if you explained what was inaccurate and why.

      “are nonetheless just criticisms of the realism of almost any given fictional entertainment.”

      You have missed the entire point of that section. I’ll repeat it for you. Hollywood reality is the opposite of reality, because a large fraction of Americans believe that “America’s institutions are corrupt or ineffective …the security services are ineffective.” It is an article of faith for many Americans that the government can’t do nothing. This is both false and cripples our ability to act together.

      “They are not useful for a political conversation.”

      You must be trolling us when saying that this is not “useful” for a political conversation. Let’s replay one section as an example to show the absurdity of your statement.

      “This fetish for individualism reveals one of our greatest weaknesses: our inability to rely on our institutions, or even form effective movements (see posts listed below for details). Our fiction mirrors this sad reality, as seen in the Occupy and Tea Party movements. American cannot reform until this changes. …

      “DS shows the Left’s reaction to Trump (Hollywood is its voice): a retreat to fantasy. Their enemies are evil incarnate, intending to overthrow the Republic — mirroring their rebuttal to Trump by chanting NAZI NAZI NAZI! Their ideal President is apolitical and naive, neither needing nor seeking a political organization (or even expert assistance, since his liberal ideals suffice).

      “DS has less political sophistication than the Star Trek: Enterprise series …DS has less political sophistication than E. E. Smith’s 1934 novel Triplanetary. In vision it has an idealism inferior to Robert Heinlein’s 1948 young adult novel Space Cadet …Our futures are limited by the scope of our dreams. Today that is bad news. But there is always hope for tomorrow.”

      “I find it interesting (i.e. hypocritical) that you call out the “fetish for individualism reveals one of our greatest weaknesses: our inability to rely on our institutions” when conservatives traditionally favor individualism over institutions, which includes government.”

      It’s not hypocritical because I’m not a traditional conservative. Speaking of “mostly inaccurate”, heal thyself.

      “Maybe try to formulate a coherent personal political ideology”

      Your critique makes little sense. You appear to have ignored most of the content of the post and made numerous invalid (even weird) assumptions and conclusions. In short, it is incoherent. Heal thyself, critic.

      Like

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