Pop Culture Resents ‘The Establishment’ Too

How American movies and TV shows help to explain the rise of Donald Trump—and the rebuke of Hillary Clinton

Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Amazon)

Dave is a peculiar movie. It’s a fairy tale at its core—a Cinderella story, only with the princess who’s rewarded for her patience and kindness being, in this case, a middle-aged guy named Dave. The film goes like this: Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline) runs a temp agency outside of Washington, D.C. Because he bears an uncanny resemblance to the sitting president, William Mitchell, Dave is tapped to stand in for Mitchell as he’s leaving public events and whatnot, for “security” purposes. But then, one evening, Mitchell has a stroke, and suddenly the president’s body double—on the advice of administration officials who don’t see a coma as a reason to relinquish their hard-fought power—finds himself playing the role of … the actual president. Yes, of the United States.

Are you ready for the extremely predictable spoiler? The outsider—the guy who has no political training at all, and who’s never run for office, let alone been elected to one—ends up being a much better politician than the man who was duly elected to the presidency. Bill Mitchell is cold and calculating and criminal and (even worse, in the movie’s eyes) uncaring about the needs of ordinary Americans; “Bill Mitchell,” though, is compassionate and dedicated. He’s also really fun! He likes performing! He does the hula with a robot at a factory as the workers cheer him on! He does, in the end, the thing that politicians so often claim they do: he cares about people’s lives. Dave, the movie named for him argues, is constitutionally, if not Constitutionally, fit to govern the nation. He is good at politics precisely because he is not, in any of the ways that end up mattering, a politician.

Dave, an otherwise airy confection of a movie, manages nevertheless to articulate one of the most enduring paradoxes of American political life: the simmering assumption that the only way to succeed in politics is to avoid, when at all possible, actually becoming a politician. In the earliest days of the Republic, campaigning—and, really, any declaration of one’s intention to represent the people at all—was considered improper. You didn’t seek office; office, the logic went, should instead seek you. It was a vestige perhaps of a system that assumed that leaders were selected for mortals by the hand of the divine, but it’s an idea that lives on in contemporary pop culture, whose products, for decades, have both celebrated the Dave-style outsiders and, at the same time, resented them. Movies and TV shows may be fantasies and fairy tales and fictions, but they also prime people in their approach to a world that is non-fictional. In the assumptions they’ve made about the morality of politicking, movies and TV shows may shed just a little bit of light on why, in the most recent presidential election, the outsider won … and the insider was rebuked.

In the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election, some readers and colleagues at The Atlantic and I got together to watch a series of politics-themed movies. We called it Political Theater. My boring-but-constant takeaway from the exercise was the depth of mistrust those movies and shows had for establishment politicians, often simply on the basis of their being establishment politicians in the first place. Again and again, the films (selected by readers, for the most part, and ranging in decade from the ’70s to the aughts) took for granted three things. First, that the American political system is fundamentally broken. Second, that those who are inside that system are fundamentally part of, and to blame for, the brokenness. And, third, that the other two things being true, the only hope for redemption must come from the outside.

There was Dave, yes, with its Beltway Cinderella story, but there was also The Candidate, the semi-satire that found an outsider running for a California Senate seat (against an establishment opponent named Crocker Jarmon, to hint at his Peak Establishment-ness). There was Head of State, which took a similar story—the political outsider, proving to be better at politics than any establishment candidate ever could hope to be—and applied it to the highest office in the land. Even The West Wing, the ultimate endorsement of the power of political institutions, morally ratified the presidency of Jed Bartlet by making clear that his campaign for that office was also an insurgent one. Bartlet, too, was an outsider candidate. Bartlet, too, earned office by … not, in the hierarchical manner preferred by the establishment, really earning it.

The movies we watched also realize that same logic in reverse: Instead of celebrating the political outsiders, they simply assume the worst of the insiders. Wag the Dog, the dark satire of the late ’90s that is perhaps the most cynical vision ever presented of American democracy, reduces the idea that politics is pageantry to an ultimate absurdity, with its president creating a Hollywood-produced war simply to win re-election. Its fellow product of the late ’90s, Election, takes for granted the age-old idea that political ambition itself must be evidence of selfishness and moral turpitude and unfitness for office. Dave, too, takes an inside-out approach to outsiderism: Just as Dave himself is successful as a politician precisely because he’s not political, the cronies that put him in power manage to be at once obsequious and power-hungry. The “pit-vipers,” as Dave’s First Lady calls them, are so corrupt that it never crosses their minds that “puppet government” is generally understood to be an insult. Washington corrupts, gradually but absolutely.

Washington, the swamp in dire need of draining. Congress, the cesspool where nothing gets done. American government, bloated and dirty and contagious. These are themes that find reflection far beyond the handful of movies we happened to watch for Political Theater. There’s All the President’s Men, which takes as evidence for its mistrust of politicians the facts of history itself. There’s Legally Blonde: Red, White & Blonde, which finds Elle as the principled outsider fighting against corrupt Congressional leaders. There’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And The Manchurian Candidate. And The Distinguished Gentleman. There is, on television, Veep, which rivals Wag the Dog in its cynicism about the efficacy of the federal government. And Designated Survivor, which is premised on the Dave-like idea of the relative political novice (Kiefer Sutherland) ascending to the leadership of the country, literally overnight—and (spoiler!) proving to be more principled than any establishment politician could ever hope to be.

These are, yes, fairy tales, though they’re more akin to the Hans Christian Andersen versions than to those stories’ happily Disneyfied updates. They are dark and bleak and often end in death. Some double as articulations of the political exceptionalism of ordinariness itself. Most, though, do something more basic, and more pessimistic: They assume the fundamental dirtiness of politics, and the related idea that any hope we’ll have of purifying the system must come from outside of it. They leave very little room for optimism about the hulking beast that is “the establishment,” very little room for hope that the system in place—one populated by career politicians—can take compassion and make it scale. They prefer Dave Kovic over Bill Mitchell. They prefer Jed Bartlet over John Hoynes. They prefer, yes, Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Not because they are partisan, but because they are biased against partisanship itself: They mistrust politics. They mistrust the system. They want, in some small but meaningful way, a revolution.

During the climactic scene in Head of State, Mays Gilliam (Chris Rock) debates the sitting vice president—and the consummately establishment politician—Brian Lewis (Nick Searcy).

“When it comes to paying farmers not to grow food, while people in this country starve every day,” Gilliam says, “yes, I’m an amateur.”

The crowd, at this, erupts into cheers.

“When it comes to creating a drug policy that makes crack and heroin cheaper than asthma and AIDS medicine—yes, I’m an amateur.”

More applause.

“But there’s nothing wrong,” Gilliam continues, “with being an amateur. The people that started the Underground Railroad were amateurs. Martin Luther King was an amateur. Have you ever been to Amateur Night at the Apollo? Some of the best talent in the world was there!”

He has a point. And it’s a point that bleeds over from pop culture into political culture. Governing is dirty work: It demands compromising and selling out and never being, fully, satisfied. “Politics as usual” may be the only way for government to work; “as usual,” though, is neither inspiring nor gratifying. That’s in part why nearly every victorious presidential candidate in recent memory has won with an outsider platform. Bill Clinton, the Southern insurgent who ran on a motto of “for people for change.” George W. Bush (“reformer for results”). Barack Obama (“hope and change”). Donald Trump, with his pledge to dismantle the system from within. Americans are, by their nature, dissatisfied with the status quo; we are impatient and indignant and convinced, above all, that the world can be so much better than it is. “A more perfect union” may be the founding paradox of American political life; it is also the most enduring one. It plays out in politics, and in pop culture—in voting booths and on screens.