Just over a year ago, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. I don’t like to talk about Trump. I don’t like to think about Trump. But I do like to talk and think and write about politics and pop culture, and Donald Trump is the President of the United States, so here we are.
Pop culture and the Trump presidency are hopelessly intertwined. First because Donald Trump is himself a major pop culture figure, second because the President of the United States is a major pop culture figure, and third because TV shows are tripping over themselves to take a crack at Trump, mostly in comedies, but often in dramas too. The “Trump episode” is a genre of its own at this point, whether it’s Broad City’s faintly embarrassing “Witches”, wherein Ilana realises she hasn’t orgasmed since the election, or black-ish’s “Lemons”, which featured an incredible monologue on black suffering and the Trump election by Anthony Anderson. Supergirl loves to tackle Trump so much that it didn’t even stop to think about the incongruity between a reference to the impending construction of the Wall and the fact that it’s set in an alternate reality where the President is a pro-immigration, pro-refugee Democrat woman that Supergirl voted for and whose Press Secretary is Supergirl’s liberal mentor. Saturday Night Live has apparently dedicated itself to being the Show Against Trump in what I’m sure is supposed to look like atonement for being the Show That Let Donald Trump Host While He Was Running For President, but just comes across as the desperate, cynical ploy for ratings we all know it is.
Even when TV shows don’t reference Trump at all, TV critics love to make every single thing they write about Trump, no matter how contrived or tangential. I couldn’t possibly count the number of times I’ve started to read a review or essay or article and felt the sudden sinking in my stomach as I realised it was about Trump – “the villain of this episode was a man, so of course it was impossible not to think of another man…the man who sits in the Oval Office,” they say, as my brain starts to dribble out my nostrils. More frustrating still are the TV critics who’ve appointed themselves Trump interpreters apparently on the sole basis they reviewed The Apprentice. James Poniewozik, chief TV critic of The New York Times, and previously of TIME, writes regularly about Trump, despite being repeatedly wrong about Trump’s political career before, during and after the election, including reaffirming his longstanding belief that Trump would never run for President just four months before Trump announced his candidacy.
I should say at this point that I don’t intend to single out James Poniewozik, a critic I admire, or even TV critics in general, who hardly have a monopoly on being wrong about Trump’s chances of winning the election. Everyone was wrong, especially the political pundits, analysts and pollsters whose only job is to understand this stuff, and it’s a testament to the inertia and arrogance of the entire media ecosystem in the United States that none of them lost their jobs in the aftermath of the election, just as none of the talking heads who cheered on the Iraq War every faced any consequences for doing so. I’m not a professional political writer, and I’m still embarrassed that I misjudged Trump’s chances, even though I thought he had a good shot at winning right up to the release of the Access Hollywood tape, so it beggars belief that any professional commentator who laughed off the possibility of a Trump presidency is shameless enough to show their face in public, let alone continue in their job as if they weren’t catastrophically wrong about the most consequential question ever put to their profession.
When they’ve bothered to consider it at all, these commentators have attempted to reconcile the gap between their claimed expertise and their utter failure in a variety of ways. Many concluded they’d underestimated the racism and misogyny of the electorate. Others simply passed the buck – pundits to analysts, analysts to pollsters, and so on. But the overwhelming theme among all such professionals has been to treat the Trump presidency (and other similar events, such as the Brexit vote) as an extreme and unprecedented break from reality that no one could have foreseen. This Age of Trump, This Age of Brexit is imagined as some uncharted frontier of political possibility, a grotesque caricature of the world we knew, where nothing is certain, and no one is safe. Once, we lived on an orderly and regular plane, where everything was ordinary and decent and civil, and now we live in a slippery chaotic void where all we can do is stamp around on feet bloodied by all the broken things scattered on the ground, endlessly tweeting at each other: “This. Is. Not. Normal.”
So, let’s talk about Veep.
Veep is a sitcom set in the Office of the Vice President of the United States, Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss), created by Armando Iannucci of BBC’s The Thick of It and produced and distributed by HBO. Much like The Thick of It, Veep is less focused on the business of governance than the business of public relations, as well as the business of campaigning. There are some legislative battles – season one’s Clean Jobs Bill, season four’s Families First Bill – but all questions of policy or principle are eventually subsumed by questions of perceptions and polls. While there are some recurring characters who are politicians, the main cast consists of Selina’s staff: her Chief of Staff, Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky); her personal aide and body man, Gary Walsh (Tony Hale); her Director of Communications, Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh); her Deputy Director of Communications, Dan Egan (Reid Scott), and her personal secretary, Sue Wilson (Sufe Bradshaw). There’s also Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons), the White House Liaison to the Office of the Vice President. He’ll be important later.
An episode of Veep typically revolves around the team’s attempt to manage some sort of crisis to protect Selina’s reputation (in seasons one, two and six) or further her campaign for the presidency (in seasons three, four and five) – examples range from Amy accidentally signing her own name instead of Selina’s on a condolence card, to Selina’s ex-husband being exposed for donating to the enemy party in the last election, to Selina unwittingly revealing her campaign was using private medical data to target voters, while their “solutions” have included blaming and firing innocent staffers (Dan goes down for the medical data) and imposing sanctions on China after blaming hackers for an inappropriate tweet from Selina’s account.
Veep occupies a strange place in the canon of American comedy. It is far and away the most vicious satire of American politics on television maybe ever, and rightly acclaimed as such, but it’s probably not as bloodthirsty as it could be. The show is set in an alternate reality to ours where history diverges somewhere after Reagan. It’s not a big part of the plot or anything, and the differences are fairly subtle, but not insignificant. Mainly, in the absence of the Obama presidency, the Tea Party never swept to power, so there’s no libertarian wing in the Republican Party, which becomes significant in season six, when a libertarian caucus is finally founded…inside the Democratic Party by Jonah, following his election to the House of Representatives.
Without the polarisation of the Obama years, the two parties are closer than they are in real life (already too close for politics to work properly), which I suppose could be mistaken for a softer take on US politics than The Thick of It offered on UK politics, but it seems mostly shaped by a desire to satirise the system rather than current events. I certainly don’t think it’s as soft on the system as some critics, possibly because I’ve never wanted to “root for a woman who would be the most disastrous president in American history”, which is apparently something other people do, even though Selina is an utterly vile person who no one in their right mind would ever want to succeed except as the lesser of two evils. “Veep may have started with Selina as a well-intentioned but powerless figurehead” is just about the craziest opinion I’ve ever read about Veep, but it’s also an opinion I’ve read numerous times, even though Selina is a bitter, fragile egomaniac with no real principles right from the start of the show. I think Veep is often unreasonably generous in how much of Washington’s dysfunction it attributes to incompetence over indifference, mistakes over malice. But, for the most part, as far as US television goes, it’s a quick, biting satire of American politics, though the (mostly British and/or left-wing) critics who think it’s too soft are closer to the mark than the more numerous (mostly American and/or liberal) critics who seem to think Veep is an over-the-top and unrealistic portrayal of US politics.
The Trump campaign and presidency have drawn numerous comparisons to Veep, so much so that when Julia Louis-Dreyfuss accepted her fifth consecutive Emmy for playing Selina, she apologised for Trump, saying “Veep has torn down the wall between comedy and politics. Our show started out as a political satire but it now feels more like a sobering documentary.” The idea is that Veep is a crazy, wacky, hyperbolic portrayal of the US political system, and This Age of Trump, This Age of Brexit is so extraordinary and bizarre that it’s either catching up with the zaniness of Veep or possibly outpacing it. But although Veep is a satire, it’s not the kind of satire that pushes reality to the point of absurdity – it’s certainly a heightened portrayal of reality, like any comedy, but it’s mostly heightened in so far as all the characters are slightly more vulgar and substantially quicker with a witty rejoinder than any of the real-life political operatives who work in Washington, DC. Probably the only character in Veep who arguably comes across like a parody is Jonah, who causes a government shutdown in season six because he’s confused by Daylight Savings Time. But in a world where Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) is just one of several Republicans to defend the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline on the basis that it’s a popular shagging spot for caribou, is Jonah really that strange? Is he really that weird?
The Thick of It was recognised in the UK as a fairly realistic look inside the government, with Tory MP Bernard Jenkin saying it had “more than a grain of truth”, while Ed Milliband, leader of the Labour Party, said it was “too much like reality” for him to stomach. Veep has essentially the same structure as The Thick of It, with each episode focused on the management of a public relations crisis, a kind of behind-the-scenes look at how what we see on the news comes to be. We watch Selina’s staff, primarily Amy, Mike and Dan, scramble to stop anything embarrassing or damaging from affecting Selina’s reputation, and their plans are often silly and extreme compared to the expectations created by more reverent shows like The West Wing. But, at the end of the episode, we also see Selina step out in front of the cameras and crowds of her world, and her public self is no different from any real-life US politicians – if anything, she’s unusually polished in front of the masses, both in-universe and in comparison to reality. Even though a typical episode of Veep is constructed to make you feel like you’re seeing the hidden world of a fairly normal US politician, that’s not how it’s been interpreted by American audiences or critics.
I’m not entirely sure why that’s the case. There’s certainly an undue reverence towards politicians in the United States, especially among liberals, who dominate both critical discourse and the viewing audience of HBO, but that just raises its own questions. Just two presidents ago, George W. Bush conspired with Tony Blair to manufacture justification for an illegal invasion of Iraq on the basis of false evidence. We live in a world where a sitting president pulled a war out of his ass in the last twenty years – and he wasn’t the first to do so. How can anyone think Veep is an outrageous portrayal of US politics because it portrays a sitting president covering up a data leak?
I don’t know. The instinct is to blame ignorance, and there’s some things I wouldn’t expect most people to know about. I’m not surprised, for example, that more people don’t know about the Independent Democratic Conference, a splinter group of Democrats in the New York State Senate who caucus with the Republicans in exchange for illegal payments. I’m not surprised people don’t know that Richard Nixon prolonged the Vietnam War to win an election, or that Bill Clinton blew up a factory that produced about half the medicine in Sudan for no reason.
But I know people know about the Iraq War, and Guantanamo Bay, and Abu Ghraib. I know people know that Bush built an unconstitutional surveillance apparatus to spy on US citizens. I know people know that Obama expanded that surveillance apparatus, oversaw a deportation regime so zealous he was known as the “deporter-in-chief” and extrajudicially murdered over one hundred civilians with his drone program, then left all that power in the hands of Donald Trump. I know people know that Obama filled his administration with Wall Street executives and reaped the rewards after his presidency. I know people know about Iran-Contra, and FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the March of Tears. Watergate is often described as the moment that America lost its innocent regard for the US political class, but it’s still so hopelessly blinkered that people think Veep is an absurd and ridiculous exaggeration of US politics rather than a largely realistic or even slightly idealistic portrait of its inner workings.
And so here we are, in This Age of Trump, This Age of Brexit, with headlines like “Is Veep Still Funny During the Trump Era?” and “How Donald Trump ruined Veep” on articles that question whether the show is still satire in this strange new era. But while the Trump administration is more incompetent, and more cartoonishly overt in its corruption, than previous regimes, it’s really no more fucked-up and bizarre than most. Trump might be one of the most odious people to ever occupy the Oval Office, but in practical terms, his presidency hasn’t even scratched the surface of the evil committed by George W. Bush’s so far. It’s not even that big a departure from Obama’s.
If you think we’re living in Veep’s world now, you’re wrong.
We’ve been here the whole time.