It’s easy to watch House of Cards – especially the latest season – and draw parallels to the Trump administration. The Russia relations, tense couple dynamic, terrorist group ICO (the show’s version of ISIS), a proposed travel ban, tons of administration leaks, and election hacking all seem to mirror events we’ve seen play out over the last year or so, and it’s not far off. Star Robin Wright has even spoken about Trump stealing “all their ideas” for future seasons – but the show debuted back in 2013, before we had an inkling that the host of The Apprentice might become our Commander-in-Chief. The Macbethian Underwoods were not inspired by any Republicans – they represent the way the right has viewed Bill and Hillary Clinton since their time in the White House.
If Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) was a Republican, the show may not have had as large a reach as it currently maintains. The fact that the series’ heart of corruption is a Southern Democrat gives it a unique style, a strange lens into the fickle dealings of government that allows House of Cards to remain interesting and dramatic for audiences on both ends of the political spectrum. The merciless ambition of the Underwoods is reflective of the distorted view of the Clintons that has plagued conservatives for years; these career politicians are willing to do anything to stay in power, and they are known as an innate threat to their opposing party. How could anyone hope to stop a demented duo hellbent on creating their own unstoppable dynasty? By putting a couple like the Underwoods – a charming, charismatic Frank (Bill) aided by a scheming, silently lethal Claire (Hillary) – front and center on House of Cards, the series allows their right-leaning viewers to see their biggest suspicions about the left manifested on screen.
Some of these inspirations have not necessarily been subtle; the political drama has employed storylines that seemingly mirror many of the scandals that have plagued the left, as well as simple developments that bear a striking resemblance to historical events. Even Claire’s third season arc saw her become unsatisfied in the role of First Lady and pursue a UN ambassador position à la Hillary. The Underwoods, like the Clintons, are enduring fixtures of the political landscape, and while it’s fun to root for them when they do shady things, we understand that they are representative of what unquenchable ambition can do to people. Former showrunner and series creator Beau Willimon has been questioned many times about the parallels and welcomes any that are drawn, though he’s denied that Frank and Claire are direct stand-ins for Bill and Hillary, as that would limit the show’s potential and force them into a corner of telling stories in a satirical fashion. “The Clintons are fascinating,” Willimon told NPR in 2015. “They are an enduring, decades-long aspect of the American political landscape and we would be insane not to think about them the way we think about all the other politicians alive and dead that we look at.”
Willimon’s acknowledgement of the Clintons’ importance in creating the Underwoods is crucial, but certainly doesn’t sum up the way that this ruthless couple has affirmed the long-standing suspicions of the right about the left. For years, they’ve been perpetuating conspiracy theories like the “Clinton Body Count“, an idea that implies Bill Clinton secretly murdered a handful of people who possessed incriminating evidence about him. This is played out again and again on House of Cards, surely to the delight (and horror) of anyone who believes theories like this. Bill certainly hasn’t helped in convincing these eager believers otherwise – he apparently told Spacey that “99 percent” of what he does on the show is real. For the right-wingers who have been claiming the left is overrun crooked behavior for years, this can only serve as ammunition.
The aesthetic similarities of Frank and Claire to Bill and Hillary – which excite those who want everyone to believe that the Clintons are as conniving and corrupt as the Underwoods – only scratch the surface. Their apparent ease of persuasion and unpredictable reception by the public further paints them in the Clintons’ shadows, and the fact that many of the Democrats (and a fair amount of Republicans, but who’s paying attention?) are willing to forgo their moral compasses in favor of a quick ascent in power is surely satisfying for the left-fearing right-leaners. For a group that’s been fighting to claim moral superiority and righteousness over liberals for years, seeing the left portrayed as openly malicious on House of Cards can only be a satisfying exercise of catharsis.