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Blissful evenings with the AntiTrump

April 15, 2018

I’m a sucker for disaster movies. Asteroid strikes, volcanoes in LA, the earth freezing over – I can’t get enough of them. I’m also into political drama. Our Friends in the North, House of Cards (British version), A Very British Coup, Homeland and, more recently, The Post.

So if you present me something that features disaster and politics, you can be pretty sure that I’ll at least give it a try.

Thus it was with Designated Survivor, a series on Netflix that features Keifer Sutherland as an accidental president of the USA. Accidental – and here’s where the disaster comes in – because some fiend manages to blow up Congress just as the elected president is giving his State of the Union address. The result: the president, vice-president, both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court meet a fiery end.

The last man standing, the eponymous Designated Survivor, is Tom Kirkman, a junior member of cabinet, who is required to sit out the event in a safe place so that there will be someone available to take over the presidency in the unlikely event that everyone else in the line of succession is wiped out. Not so unlikely it turns out, though I suspect that the framers of this procedure anticipated that the disaster would be a nuclear strike on Washington.

My wife and I watched enthralled as the new president struggled throughout Series One to stabilise the government while the fiend, who turned out to be a wealthy alt-right businessman with a serious chip on his shoulder, continued to wreak havoc.

Now we’re into Series Two, and Kirkman’s job doesn’t get any easier. He has to deal with all kinds of nasty threats, both political and military. So far he’s come though them with flying colours, thanks to his valiant praetorian guard of enthusiastic millennials and thirtysomethings who occupy most of the key roles in the White House.

At this point I should note that this the most absurdly unrealistic White House saga of all time. Kirkman is a man of cast-iron integrity, the like of which the United States has probably not seen since Washington, or certainly since Lincoln. He is absurdly bi-partisan, and he’s determined to stay that way.

His aides are impossibly young and attractive. None of the grisly relics and venal trolls that haunt Trump’s White House. Unlike Trump’s rabble, they will, as one of his elves says, walk through a wall for him.

Apart from unfailingly doing the right thing, even at the risk of his presidency, Kirkman has one quality in uber-spades: empathy. Empathy that enables him to charm and cajole political opponents, and inspire puppy-like loyalty among the millennials.

Playing Kirkman must be a special challenge for Sutherland. How do you give a character who is so ridiculously virtuous, so impeccably courteous and so meltingly people-focused some bite, especially when you’ve just come from wasting everybody in sight in 24? He does so pretty well. Kirkman does get angry, but it’s righteous anger. He has a strange and rather distracting tic, a sort of semi-sigh that he lets out every time he faces some crisis or moral dilemma, of which there are plenty. Tics aside, though, he carries it off, though I do wish he would stop calling his daughter little pea.

But here’s the point.

Tom Kirkman is so virtuous that he makes Josiah Bartlet from The West Wing look like Gollum from Lord of the Rings. What does that make Donald Trump appear by comparison?

That question offers a clue as to why a gnarled old cynic like me would sit through episode after episode of a political drama that’s so at odds with reality.

The reason is simple. Designated Survivor is balm. The fact that it’s well-plotted and fast-paced is important, but relatively incidental. Watching Tom Kirkman and his idealistic cohorts struggling to do the right thing is a reminder that US administrations don’t have to be as incompetent, corrupt, partisan, and self-interested as Trump’s White House.

Look back at any president over the past 70 years, and you will not find anyone as squeaky clean as Kirkman. Politics is dirty and US presidents do dirty things some of the time. But until Trump, even the most notorious presidents, even Nixon, managed to get some things right and to comport themselves with a modicum of dignity.

Tom Kirkman may be impossibly moral, but to watch a drama in which the president is effectively the AntiTrump is like taking a warm bath in an alternative reality. A reality in which people go into politics for the right reasons – all that soppy stuff like serving those who put them there and making the world a better place.

When the real president is spewing his narcissistic vomit on Twitter, firing his staff like a medieval potentate, causing fear and uncertainty both within his own country and outside it, and pandering to every special interest prepared to grease his palm with campaign dollars, it’s comforting to think that there might be another way, even if it’s in the imagination of a TV scriptwriter.

And yes, there was another way before Trump, however imperfect, and there might be after him.

Or, as Paul McCartney sings in the Beatles’ White Album:

Once, there was a way to get back homeward

Once, there was a way to get back home

Sleep, pretty darling, do not cry

And I will sing a lullaby


Golden slumbers fill your eyes

Smiles awake you when you rise

Sleep, pretty darling, do not cry

And I will sing a lullaby

From → Film, Politics, USA

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