How 'House of Cards' Parallels the 2016 Election Season

The KKK isn't the only connection between the Underwood saga and the real-life race to the White House.
Getty Images; Courtesy of Netflix
Donald Trump, Kevin Spacey on 'House of Cards'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from House of Cards' fourth season.]

"I could have said: 'Drop to your knees,' and he would have dropped to his knees."

Who said it: Donald Trump or Frank Underwood?

Anyone who reads the news knows the answer is Trump, but it's easy to see that, if taken out of context, that line could have easily come from of the mouth of the villainous House of Cards character.

When Netflix launched House of Cards in 2013, the political thriller was ahead of its time. Weaving together masterful story arcs of political deception, corruption and even murder — and with Washington and, ultimately, the White House as its backdrop — the streaming series became a must-binge for viewers who simply couldn't get enough of the drama.

But the events of the series could never actually happen, right? Not so fast.

When the fourth season launched on March 4, current events somehow caught up to the alternate-reality controlled by the Underwoods, played by the duo of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, giving the once far-fetched storylines a more believable feel (murder aside, of course). A testament to creator and showrunner Beau Willimon, who penned the plotlines long before the current political climate began to unfold, House of Cards does mirror the 2016 election season in a handful of ways — some subtle and others, not so much.

1. The timeline: From the primaries to a brokered party convention

The fourth season opens up with President Underwood in the midst of his campaign for re-election. From the primaries to Super Tuesday and all the way to a brokered convention, the behind-closed-doors scheming long employed by the Underwoods all of a sudden feels more possible in a real-life scenario, given the media strategies and takedowns that have emerged from the GOP race. Like Trump (who is the frontrunner for the Republican party's nomination), Underwood is a divisive choice as the presidential nominee for his party, the Democrats. In the ninth episode, he rigs a brokered convention to secure himself as the presidential nominee and his wife Claire as his veep. In the history of the U.S., the country hasn't held a brokered or contested convention (when no single party candidate has secured a majority of the delegates) since 1952. However, if mounting opposition from inside the Republican party continues to grow, Trump could have to fight for his place as the nominee in a contested convention this July — a TV-real life crossover Willimon might have eerily foreshadowed. 

2. A first lady's quest to be President

Last season, Claire fought to be UN Ambassador and this season, she fights to be on Frank's ticket. While it took Claire some time to see how her own ambitions could become a reality, she has long been Frank's muse and behind-the-scenes string-puller, helping him to plot nearly every step of the way. When season four comes to a close, it's clear that her ultimate goal is to one day sit in her husband's chair, and an obvious Hillary Clinton comparison can be drawn. Equally as obvious are the other discrepancies between the Democratic presidential frontrunner and this TV alter ego (the scheming Claire is an accessory to murder, among other deplorable acts), but the heart of Claire's story this season is of a politician's wife stepping out from her husband's shadow in a very big way.

3. KKK controversy

On the day of his home state of Texas' primary, Frank Underwood is hit with a controversy even he can't spin: a billboard-sized photo of his father smiling and shaking hands with a member of the Ku Klux Klan, who is dressed in full Klan regalia. In episode three, Frank finds out that the photo was actually leaked by his wife Claire — an epic betrayal that serves as the first step to helping this broken pair ultimately find its way back to one another's sides, but not before doing serious damage to his campaign. "Of all the things we filmed I was, like, 'Well, this one won't happen.' And then low and behold, it does," Michael Kelly, who plays Underwood's Chief of Staff Doug Stamper, told The Hollywood Reporter about the KKK connection between Underwood and Trump. Two weeks ago, Trump came under fire for failing to condemn David Duke after the former KKK leader endorsed him (he blamed it on a faulty earpiece, but the story still hasn't gone away).

4. Debate over whether experience and elected office go hand-in-hand

Underwood's first (of many) political rivals this season is Heather Dunbar, an independently wealthy Democrat who is financing her own campaign and who has no prior political experience. She also serves as a formidable opponent (until Underwood ultimately takes her down). Sound familiar? Another Trump parallel, the former reality TV star and billionaire has been self-funding his campaign thus far and has had to answer to his lack of political experience. Later in the season, when Claire begins her bid for VP, the question over an elected official's lack of experience again becomes a major plotpoint as she sets out on her campaign.

5. Social media and the media

Once Frank secures his party nomination, the race has only just begun. Competing on the Republican ticket for POTUS and FLOTUS are the anti-Underwoods: the Conways. New York Governor Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) and his pretty wife Hannah (Dominique McElligott) are young and in love, have a picture-perfect family and document their every step on social media. By sharing videos, photos and personal moments, and posing on magazine covers, the pair open themselves up to the country in a way that the Underwoods cannot, and it works. Like the Conways, the candidates in the 2016 race have utilized social media like never before via Instagram, Snapchat and especially Twitter. Trending stories dominate the news cycle and media pundits contend that the success of Trump's headline-generating Twitter feed (which has 6.77M followers) translates into votes. On the final episode of the season, one Washington Herald story has the power to dismantle everything that the Underwoods have achieved, mirroring the power of the media in the current election season.

6. Transparency, domestic surveillance and ISIS

Some of the biggest topics determining the fictitious House of Cards presidential election are also front-and-center on the minds of the real candidates and voters in 2016. Conway is forced to use the transparency card and release everything on his phone in order to regain voters' trust, which calls to mind Clinton's email-gate. Towards the end of the season, Underwood puts campaigning aside to fight the terror group ICO (the show's version of ISIS) and enlists the help of his campaign hacker (who works for a Google-like search engine called Pollyhop) to track the location of the two extremists who are holding an American family hostage. The ripped-from-the-headlines storyline includes a beheading video, and the debate over the use of domestic surveillance feels especially timely, given Apple's standoff with the FBI over unlocking the phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters.

7. Fear

Ending on a most Machiavellian note, Frank and Claire save the series' most manipulative scheme for last when they launch the country into war only minutes before the season credits begin to roll. Their plan: cause widespread fear to overshadow the fallout from the Herald story that has the power to destroy them. By going to war to save themselves, and with Claire breaking the fourth wall in the show's final moments, it's safe to say that the Underwoods will reach new lows when the series returns. But just as House of Cards goes dark, inflammatory comments from Trump continue to make headlines. Only yesterday, Trump, who has been called out for playing on the country's fears to advance his political agenda, responded to multiple comments comparing him to Adolf Hitler. Perhaps the real-life election race is headed down an even darker path than the one we can expect from season five of House of Cards.

Check in with The Live Feed for full House of Cards coverage, including a binge-watching guide to the season.

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