You’ll need a machete to hack through the thickets of think pieces that have encoiled House of Cards’ fifth season: piece after piece drawing comparisons between the scandal-cloaked administrations of the fictional Francis J. Underwood and the all-too-real Donald J. Trump. And there are, truth be told, some striking similarities.
The new season opens with President Underwood (Kevin Spacey) hijacking a House of Representatives meeting debating whether or not to appoint a special committee to investigate his actions. “I am on my way to the funeral of an American patriot. A good man—a husband, a father—who was beheaded on American soil,” proclaims the president. “And this chamber chooses to debate me?” That man was beheaded by members of ICO, the show’s stand-in for ISIS, and Underwood is fervently advocating for a “formal declaration of war” against the Islamic terrorist organization in order to shift the nation’s focus away from his myriad scandals.
President Underwood thus imposes a Trumpian travel ban of sorts, much to the chagrin of his Secretary of State Cathy Durant (Jayne Atkinson). There are hostilities with Russia and its obstinate, treaty-violating leader Viktor Petrov, a dead ringer for Vladimir Putin hell-bent on dividing the West, as well as a terribly close presidential race between Underwood and Republican Gov. Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), where damaging private recordings, WikiLeaks dumps, and FBI meddling play a sizeable role in swaying public opinion. “It’s unthinkable to assume the FBI would involve themselves in an election,” testifies Nathan Green, deputy director of the FBI, doing his best Jim Comey impersonation.
If that weren’t enough, the president becomes obsessed with plugging leaks, installing a system that allows him to monitor every cellphone call and computer transmission going in and out of the White House, while also spying on staffers through their computer cameras. Later on, there are even internal clashes between White House Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) and Special Advisor to the President Mark Usher (newcomer Campbell Scott), bringing to mind the alleged infighting between Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon.
But House of Cards isn’t about the Trump administration. Hell, it debuted on February 1, 2013, back when our current president preoccupied himself with containing Gary Busey’s crazy on The Celebrity Apprentice. Topical scandals aside, the crux of the popular Netflix series has always been the ruthless ambition that bonds Frank and Claire Underwood, the latter played to cunning perfection by the brilliant Robin Wright. And in that way, the show has always represented the far-right’s distorted view of Bill and Hillary Clinton: two politicians who embody establishment corruption and will do anything to cling to power—even commit murder.
From the very moment they set foot on the political scene, the right viewed the Clintons as an existential threat to their party. They were scary-smart centrists who, like Bill’s idol JFK, had designs on creating a new political dynasty; and like the Kennedys, they came with certain flaws, from shady investment schemes to Bill’s womanizing, culminating in a handful of sexual-assault allegations and almost-impeachment. While Bill was the charismatic, slick face of the operation, Hillary was painted as its Lady Macbeth, pulling various strings behind the scenes.
In the midst of Whitewater and Travelgate, the death of Vince Foster made conspiracy theory-minded right-wingers go nuclear. Foster, a close childhood friend of Bill Clinton’s who’d been appointed deputy White House counsel and one of the key figures leading his presidential transition team, committed suicide on July 20, 1993. Depressed and struggling with his duties—including the constant media scrutiny surrounding Travelgate and Whitewater—he was found dead in Fort Marcy Park from a single bullet through his mouth.
The police, FBI, and Congress all concluded that Foster had committed suicide, but the Clinton’s enemies screamed bloody murder. Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) gave a speech on the House floor in which he claimed to have recreated the Foster murder in his backyard—using a cantaloupe as his head—which led him to believe that Foster was murdered. Rev. Jerry Falwell funded the 1994 documentary The Clinton Chronicles, which contains a bunch of unsubstantiated claims and faked testimony accusing the Clintons of a wide range of of crimes, but is most famous for perpetuating the conspiracy theory known as the “Clinton Body Count”: a list of associates allegedly assassinated by the Clintons. This idea was further spread via the Arkansas Project, a series of reports in the American Spectator funded by the Clinton-hating conservative Richard Mellon Scaife, as well as the book The Strange Death of Vincent Foster: An Investigation, which none other than Ann Coulter called a “conservative hoax book.”
The senseless “Clinton Body Count” theory has continued to this day, with the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich being used as a political football by the right. And in May of last year, then-candidate Donald Trump even reignited the Vince Foster conspiracy theory, calling his death “very fishy” and saying, “I don’t bring [Foster’s death] up because I don’t know enough to really discuss it. I will say there are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely a murder. I don’t do that because I don’t think it’s fair.”
While denying that they were direct “stand-ins” for the characters, series creator Beau Willimon, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign, did nevertheless confess that the characters of Frank and Claire Underwood were informed by the Clintons. “The Clintons are fascinating. 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,” he told NPR.
Lord Dobbs, creator of the original British House of Cards, took it a step further, telling BuzzFeed that he sees Hillary as the closest thing to a real-life version of Claire Underwood. “I’m fascinated by Hillary of course, because she comes with so much baggage,” he said. “That baggage is her strength but also her vulnerability. We just have to wait and see where the balance lies on that.” Onetime Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina even made the comparison last summer while stumping for candidate Trump. “The protagonist, the hero, the main character let’s say, is a Democrat politician who has spent their entire life in pursuit of a single ambition to become the president of the United States,” Fiorina remarked, later adding, “I think we’re living in a series of House of Cards.”
Bill Clinton, meanwhile, didn’t do himself any favors. According to Kevin Spacey, the former president reportedly told the actor, “Kevin, 99 percent of what you do on that show is real. The 1 percent you get wrong is you could never get an education bill passed that fast.”