Following Barack Obama’s consecutive election triumphs, cultural commentators lined up to congratulate American TV for paving the way towards national acceptance of an African-American President. Among those frequently cited were 24’s David Palmer (played by Dennis Haysbert), TV’s first African-American President outside of a comedy skit or cartoon. Though Hispanic, The West Wing’s Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) represented a minority rising to the Presidency with producers claiming (retrospectively) the character was based on Obama. As Donald Trump takes office, which TV portrayals will be deemed responsible for his ascension to power? Here are some of my personal predictions.
Though only a few weeks into its pilot season, ABC’s Designated Survivor projected that someone who was drastically under-qualified for the Presidency coming from outside the Washington establishment could successfully take office. Given that the 2016 election went right down to the wire and polls were offset in the final couple of weeks before voting, it’s not unthinkable that this fish-out-of-water political drama normalized the idea of a Trump presidency for some swing voters. Although since Tom Kirkman’s lack of fit with the job derives from his liberal bent and academic background, this is where any resemblance to Trump ends.
24 should not be let off the hook either. Palmer had become President by the show’s second year, yet subsequent seasons undercut the legitimacy of his administration, much as Republicans and their affiliated media outlets would eventually do to Obama. Dead-in-the-water after one term, Palmer’s administration is mired in scandal while the Democrat is deemed incapable of handling rising national security threats, and capitulates to an ignominious, seemingly inevitable assassination. As many have viewed 24’s later seasons as a (more) fictional extension of Fox News, the synonymy of their respective rhetoric for debunking an African-American Commander-in-Chief cannot be a coincidence.
24 may have overreached in its predictions of Palmer being succeeded by Romney-clone John Keeler (whose fate, thanks to uneven storytelling, we remain unsure of) and later the first female President, Alison Taylor. Although, to be fair, Romney was a close call and Hillary Clinton was twice a foregone conclusion for the office. But the series was right on the money when it prophesized that the US Presidency would fall into the hands of a treasonous, spineless egomaniac engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russia who demonstrated a reckless regard for weapons of mass destruction. Charles Logan was a trailblazer.
Indeed it’s hard to believe that 24 didn’t have a psychic consultant on staff when it aired scenes of a newly sworn-in Logan rushing former President Palmer into his office to advise the new Commander-in-Chief how to do the job in spite of utter incompetence and inconsistency, before shunning his predecessor and claiming all the credit for their successes. While many looked back to Nixon (especially considering actor Gregory Itzin’s astounding physical resemblance to the man himself), Logan looked into a Trump crystal ball, which is not only a metaphor but an actual domestic good produced by the Trump brand.
With his rank outsider status, any consideration of what brought Trump into office must also consider what kept Hillary Clinton out of it. CBS’s The Good Wife had a lot to say about that. In the latter seasons of the hit legal drama, Alicia Florrick runs for the political office of Illinois State’s Attorney, having witnessed her husband Peter’s consecutive electoral victories which propelled him to Governor. Despite winning outright, Alicia is forced to resign her office after an election fraught with allegations of vote tampering and concerns about the integrity of the Democratic Party image. Starting to sound familiar?
What The Good Wife saw, that most in politics would not, was the inevitability of a woman failing to succeed to the offices that their male peers had risen to against worst odds. Peter is an adulterous ex-con with a reputation as one of Illinois’s most corrupt politicians, yet he glides effortlessly from State’s Attorney to Governor, and even runs for President. Alicia is an outstanding lawyer with no stain on her character, and yet is forced to be the fall guy for a party at war with itself, despite her achievement. Similarly, Hillary Clinton shoulders two unsuccessful bids for the Presidency in the shadow of her philandering, ethically dubious two-term President husband while the marital indiscretions of former Congressman Anthony Weiner provided the impetus for the FBI to besmirch her name just prior to election day. She lost to an inexperienced African-American male and won to an internet troll.