How the fictional House of Cards unintentionally captures the very real cognitive dissonance in US media narratives that the same corrupt power hungry elites who run US domestic policies magically pursue a relatively altruistic policy abroad (where there is even less oversight.)
March 7, 2016
Prologue: What House of Cards is About
The highly acclaimed Netflix original series House of Cards released its fourth binge-watch-pioneering 13-episode season on Friday, March the 4th.
For those unfamiliar with the basic storyline, the series follows Frank and Claire Underwood, a power-hungry, (literally) pathologically corrupt and (literally) deadly political power couple in Washington DC. Season 1 starts with Frank as a highly feared and effective backroom-deal-making Democratic Whip in the US House of Representatives who (literally) kills his way to a mid-cycle Vice Presidency by its end; then in Season 2 works to undermine his own President leading to the latter’s resignation and thus his own ascendancy to President by the last episode; followed by more machinations in Season 3 and Season 4 to engineer an unprecedented husband-wife ticket as the party nominated Democratic choice for the 2016 Presidential elections.
Season 4 ends on a cliffhanger note with weeks to go before the 2016 general elections in November. The Underwoods, their past misdeeds in their relentless march towards power having been exposed and almost certain to lose the election to a charismatic (equally corrupt) Republican, seem to be on the verge of taking advantage of a terror attack (that they inflamed) in as yet unspecified – but expectedly sinister – way to keep from relinquishing power. (An all out war in The Middle East to create the patriot us to win the election? Or Declaring a state of emergency to postpone them? Tune in for Season 5 in 2017!)
House of Cards has a gripping storyline with a superb main and supporting cast and direction, and while many of the scenarios are obviously exaggerated (and defy belief) for dramatic effect, they manage to convey the essence of the corruption, cronyism, and generally sleazy deal-making in Washington by politicians across both parties, business leaders, lobbyists, law enforcement, the media all of whom operate less out of altruistic principles they espouse than for power, money and fame (and apparently sex – which is liberally sprinkled throughout). It even doesn’t spare some of the simplemindedness of the citizenry who are taken full advantage of these unscrupulous characters.
In short House of Cards shows Washington to be a cesspool of scheming interests where those who succeed are the vilest and most corrupt psychopaths while the principled either succumb to the system or are forced to exit.
Russian President “Viktor Petrov”
As Frank Underwood becomes President, the show also deals increasingly with International politics. His nemesis on the World stage is the Russian President Petrov who debuts in Season 3. This character, compelling played by the Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen, is – unlike Underwood who is a dramatized composite of various Washington insiders – unabashedly based on the popular Western view of Vladimir Putin.
Petrov is a charming, sharp, chauvinistic, womanizing, paranoid and ruthless ex-KGB spy (one who in this version served in Afghanistan, and after taking bullets and a bayonet, beheaded his attacker, carting the head around to intimidate his enemies); with steely unblinking dead blue eyes above stony hard cheekbones, looting Russia while rewarding all his cronies and clamping down on dissent; passing a “medieval” gay rights law (which he admits he himself doesn’t believe in), willing to use the FSB to kill Russian civilians and soldiers in false-flag attacks to further wars and determined to thwart American interests throughout the world.
In other words Petrov is pretty much the character the much of Western propaganda paint Putin to be. (The Anti-Putin Moscow Times a year ago had an article called Putin vs Petrov – Fact vs Fiction in House of Cards).
In Petrov, the Underwoods seem to have met their idealogical match – an equally ruthless villain with no scruples who only understands crude toughness. A major plot point has Claire Underwood, acting as the US Presidential emissary, trying to get Petrov to accept a reasonable deal to bailout Russia (which in this alternate universe is facing a dire economic crisis with crippling international debt requiring a combined IMF/Chinese/private bailout to the tune of $100 billion despite record oil prices that threaten the US domestic economy – and hence Presidential popularity – and Petrov facing a popular revolution/military coup within 6 months). After exhausting reasonable arguments and faced with a sneering Petrov, Claire finally snaps at tells Petrov:
I’m done letting you have your dignity. The truth is you’re a beggar on your knees, and you will take whatever we shove down your throat
– Claire Underwood to Viktor Petrov
Petrov, angry but chastened like a bully being stood up, accepts (and gains immense respect for Claire’s gumption, an important point that pays off later for Claire.)
Foreign Policy in the House of Cards Universe
As a dramatic series, a certain license is required to make the characters interesting. Petrov would have been boring if he was made out to be a uncharismatic pedantic bureaucrat (as Putin in many ways is) tackling varied factions in a vast multi-cultural/multi-ethnic country with decades of institutional and social corruption and a raw resource dependent economy.
It’s much more entertaining basing Petrov on the standard Western propaganda version of Putin – a sort of Bond villain who only understands toughness and not reasoned diplomacy. And of course this show is about the Underwoods and Washington and not about its supporting cast.
So from a sheer Entertainment value, Petrov’s devilish character – as a foil to the Underwoods themselves – is not just understandable but needed.
However what is revealing is this: while the Underwoods and Washington insiders are shown as scheming power-hungry psychopaths where every domestic policy is driven by ulterior motives, their Foreign policy motives are surprisingly relatively altruistic.
Indeed the viewers are shown that the Underwoods are genuinely trying to partner with Russia, going out of their way to wine-and-dine Petrov, cater to his every whim and alleviate his paranoia about US intentions, ensure that they don’t support individuals plotting to overthrow him. They lobby him for peace in the Middle East; try to get an American gay activist released in Moscow; work to save Russia from imploding.
(This also matches the widespread narrative in the West that the US Government who its own people don’t trust, has nothing but the best of intentions for Russia and its people if only Putin wasn’t so obstinate, paranoid and villainous from preventing this.)
And while House of Cards does have Claire expressing regret for the USG-led invasion that created the show’s ICO (Islamic Caliphate Organization i.e. ISIS), and is sympathetic to the argument that Air Force bombings just create more extremism, wryly seem to agree that “Freedom and Democracy” are used to radicalize soldiers, the Underwoods – these most pathologically power hungry people in existence – are surprisingly altruistic in their approach to the World apparently having no imperial ambitions beyond the US.
In other words, the viewer is simultaneously asked to believe the Underwoods – representing the worst of the power hungry, corrupt in Washington – will do anything to gain power domestically; while simultaneously preferring internationally to be a honest broker in deals working for the betterment of various countries instead of taking full advantage of their World dominance of military, economics, intelligence, information spheres.
The Fundamental Cognitive Dissonance
The above contradiction – domestic machinations to gain power combined with an even handed foreign policy – can be dismissed as simply a weak plot point in a TV Show: after all looking for logical consistency in a fictionalize universe is futile (and even sometimes interferes with enjoying the drama).
Yet in the real world, this is the fundamental operating assumption of even the so-called Liberal media in the US (which unlike Conservative media sees itself as more thoughtful, rational and objective.)
In other words, while freely admitting that Washington politicians lie, cheat, spin, obfuscate in order to gain power and money in enacting domestic policy, the media on the whole is credulous as to the motivations of the SAME PEOPLE internationally preferring to unquestioning believe their foreign policies are driven by altruistic principles.
So for example Iraq was at worst a “mistake”, not a gratuitous war crime by an unaccountable elite. The “mistake” in the Western narrative is that Iraq was destabilized, not the fact that International Law was broken and hundreds of thousands killed. Which is of course why no one was charged let alone went to jail. That key elites made tens of billions of dollars – including billions literally missing – is blamed on just the usual inefficient bureaucracy and middlemen siphoning off some money and not an obvious motivation for a corrupt elite to start wars to enrich themselves to begin with.
US Foreign Policy then is essentially seen even in the real world as well-intentioned spreading of Freedom and Democracy by an altruistic US Government but foiled by a combination of inexperienced execution; the backwardness of peoples in the target countries; and malignant actors like the Russians who apparently desire chaos (a Petrov line to Underwood in explaining why he opposes UN troops in the Middle East is “Russia does not care about peace in the Middle East”.)
Why Russia Is the Enemy
In this cognitively dissonant world view, where an admittedly corrupt Washington – who Americans in reality don’t trust domestically – is the Guardian of World Peace and Prosperity, any nation who is not an obedient vassal and calls for negotiations as equals is a threat.
Take Ukraine: pre-maidan, Russia called for tripartite talks with the EU and Ukraine to try and figure out how to accommodate the potential EU-association agreement with the reality of Ukraine being heavily dependent on a free trade agreement with Russia. The EU – backed by the US – refused and said it was none of Russia’s business.
When the maidan backed openly by the USG and EU reached a climax, Russia on February 21, 2014 backed a peaceful Settlement of Crisis in Ukraine (full text) between Yanukovych and the Opposition along with France and Germany for elections later in the year.
Within 24 hours, on February 22, 2014, the Right Sector denouncing the sighed deal, stormed the Presidential Palace, Yanukovych fled and the Germans and French simply announced that the deal was now null and void. Meanwhile Victoria “Fuck the EU” Nuland – who surely can give the Underwoods a run for their money in the power hungry ruthless psychopathy business – was busy musing with her Proconsul in Kiev about who was a suitable appointee.
This fairly naked grab for power of course set off a chain of events from Crimea to the Donbass (not to mention the current basket case that Ukraine is 2 years on ). Even Putin was astonished publicly stating on March 4, 2014 that instead of waiting a few months as the Feb 21 deal would have allowed, when Yanukovych would surely have been peacefully voted out, the West backed a violent take over by West Ukrainian nationalists setting off a confrontation with their East Ukrainian compatriots.
Yet it is Russia that is portrayed in the West as the enemy for resorting to “aggression” and working against “Freedom and Democracy”. One is supposed to believe that neocons like Nuland, who if they ever ran for domestic office would be vilified as agents of special interests, are Saints abroad.
Indeed consider which is easier for a power hungry psychopath: corruption within the United States where there is a lot more scrutiny from a host of federal institutions not to mention the media of at least the opposing party; or internationally where there is relatively lesser scrutiny and things can be hidden as “national security” and the entire media spectrum toes the line?
While the House of Cards is very good fiction, it not only captures the essence of the corruption in Washington but in a deeper unintentional way captures the fantastic Western narrative that these same unprincipled psychopaths who will stop at nothing for power domestically, magically run an altruistic Foreign Policy which would surely spread peace throughout the world if not for villainous characters like the Russians.