It’s expressive of the series’ renewed intellectual energy that the Designated Survivor: Season Three finalé ends not on a traditional cliff-hanger, but on a provocative ethical quandary. It’s the sort of quandary that should resonate with many of those struggling to contain the spread of the extreme right in the United States (and elsewhere) today.
As the presidential election that dominates Season Three nears its conclusion, it’s revealed that senior advisors to President Tom Kirkman’s (Kiefer Sutherland) Republican challenger, front-runner (and former president) Cornelius Moss (Geoff Pierson), were complicit in a plot to develop a bio-warfare agent targeting non-Caucasians (a white supremacist’s dream tech). The guilty advisors were arrested and the plot foiled, yet the question lingers: was the Republican candidate himself involved? Did he know what his underlings were doing? Was he involved in the plot, or guilty by association?
Kirkman, running for re-election as an Independent, publicly denounces him as guilty, yet evidence is inconclusive. Finally, Kirkman’s loyal aide Emily Rhodes (Italia Ricci) uncovers evidence showing Moss didn’t actually know what his senior staff were doing. She shares it with Kirkman, assuming he’ll acknowledge the truth and publicly apologize to Moss for proclaiming him guilty.
But he doesn’t. He allows the public to continue believing Moss is guilty. And maybe Moss
is guilty, because the question reveals the moral complexity of responsibility and accountability in this political moment.
Moss might not have directly approved or ordered the white supremacist plot, but his campaign — which relied on race-baiting and thinly veiled appeals to white nationalism — created the moral vacuum in which a violent plot against non-whites emerged. At least, that seems to be Kirkman’s reasoning. He allows his accusations to stand (fully aware they’ll damage Moss’ election chances).
In Kirkman’s view, Moss bears responsibility for the plot, because he incited racist violence even if he didn’t directly coordinate it. Kirkman’s assistant, Rhodes, doesn’t agree. She feels he should come clean to the American people (so do a number of viewers, judging by online discussion forums). Kirkman’s belief in Moss’s guilt is not based on police evidence but rather on the ethical reasoning that incitement to violence means culpability for violence. Kirkman doesn’t see any need to nuance his accusation with factual detail, since he wants the public to blame Moss as well.
In this, like so much else in Season Three, the show enacts a sort of running commentary on the Donald Trump presidency. In Designated Survivor, the roles are reversed — Donald Trump’s race-baiting incitement is personified in the form of presidential challenger Moss, an arrogant white man who may have more dignity and gravitas than Trump but ultimately stoops to the same level. It falls to Kirkman, as the beleagured yet honourable president, to assign blame to the divisive, white-nationalist, violence-inciting Republican candidate.
The question around Moss’s guilt or innocence resonates with ongoing debates about Trump’s role in inciting violent division in America. “Could Donald Trump be held legally responsible for inciting violence at his rallies?” asks Philip Bump in The Washington Post (14 Mar 2019). “Don’t blame politicians for violence they don’t encourage” counters Hugh Hewitt in the same publication, arguing that “‘Incitement’ is a concept dangerous to free speech.” (28 Oct 2018)
“Trump Will Have Blood on His Hands” warns Bret Stephens in The New York Times, referring to Trump’s demonization of news media (3 Aug 2018). Meanwhile, Andrew Restuccia and Gabby Orr put the situation in broad context for Politico: “Trump decries ‘political violence’ after years of stoking it.” (24 Oct 2018) Kirkman’s dilemma — the question of Moss’s guilt and what to do about it — has very real roots in the present.
The “Mobilizing Passions of Fascism”
US historian and political scientist Robert Paxton, in his classic analysis of fascism, refers to the “mobilizing passions” of fascism, and it is this sort of notion that Kirkman’s reasoning evokes. “[F]ascists propose anything that serves to attract a crowd, solidify a mass following, or reassure their elite accomplices,” Paxton writes — and a leaked recording of Moss reveals that even if the Republican didn’t directly lead the plot, he certainly helped to mobilize his deputies’ passions in that direction. (“The Five Stages of Fascism“, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 70, No. 1, March 1998.)
Yet Paxton goes on to say this definition of mobilizing passions by itself is overly simplistic, because “Ideas count in fascism, but…they count more at some stages than at others.” He observes that fascism differs fundamentally from other political ideologies (conservatism, liberalism, socialism) because of the “ambiguous relationship between doctrine and action in fascism.” Fascism is not simply an intellectual set of ideas — it is about seizing power. This means that ideas and speech carry a completely difference valence in fascism than they do in other political discourse. Ideas are meant to become actions when and where opportunity permits, where they will further the cause of fascism and lead to power.
For this reason, there is no such thing as an abstract fascist idea. All ideas are also potential actions. To identify as fascist — which is also to identify as racist — is to enact violence by one’s mere affiliation with the cause. Moss, by making rhetorical flourishes about eliminating the growing non-white American population which will inevitably vote his party out of existence, is implicitly calling for the literal elimination of those non-white voters and potential voters, whether he actually says those precise words or not.
Henry Giroux, cultural studies scholar at McMaster University in Canada, places Trump directly at the heart of these “mobilizing passions of fascism,” which he also links to neoliberal America. “[U]nder Trump, the spectacle reigns supreme, harking back to an earlier time in history when bravado, armed ignorance and theatrical performances provided a model of community that squelched memory, domesticated thought and opened the door for a strongman’s followers to disavow their role as critical agents in favor of becoming blind, if not willful, spectators. With regards to the present, it is crucial to recognize the ascendancy of Trump politically within rather than against the flow of history,” Giroux writes. “Fascism in the United States has arrived slowly by subversion from within. Its roots have been on display for decades.” (“Neoliberal Fascism and the Echoes of History“, TruthDig.org, 2 Aug 2018.)
“In addition,” Giroux continues, “Trump consistently promotes extremist policies and surrounds himself with far- right-wing ideologues…hard-liners on just about every issue. Steve Bannon’s early presence in the Trump administration was symbolic of the extremism Trump brought to the White House. Bannon, who served as former senior counselor to the president, ran Breitbart, a white nationalist tabloid. Now freelancing, Bannon continues to normalize white supremacist ideas in his endless speeches and public appearances.
Trump shares Bannon’s allegiance to white supremacy and has relentlessly catered to the racial fears and economic anxieties of an abandoned white working class. Moreover, he has created a new synergy between his authoritarian demagoguery and an array of fascist groups that include the alt-right, white nationalists, militia groups, and others who embrace his militarism, race-based law and order agenda and his overt contempt of undocumented immigrants and Muslims.”
In Designated Survivor, Moss (who presents himself as a decisive, action-taking strongman in opposition to Kirkman’s more thoughtful, intellectual liberalism which Moss derides), also promotes extremist policies and surrounds himself with far-right-wing ideologues. Kirkman has compelling cause to hold Moss guilty when his extremist associates take action on behalf of Moss and the vision of America they believe they share.
Kirkman’s dialogue in the final episode with his therapist Dr. Adam Louden (Tim Busfield) on this subject is worth reflecting on, for what it says about the broad flaws of American democracy.
“Moss is in league with the conspirators in a larger sense,” says Kirkman. “He accepted huge amounts of money from one, paid a lavish salary to another. These men’s views were widely known. Dettweiler was quoted as saying ‘immigrants were turning America into a third world country’. Brunton tweeted out ‘we can’t save our civilization on the backs of other peoples’ babies’. Moss knew exactly who he was getting into bed with. And if he wins this election, they’re who he’ll be accountable to.”
Throughout the final episode – an excitingly cerebral one, in a pleasant digression from series final norms – Kirkman doubts himself and his intentions, and debates his motives with his psychologist. Was he taking a stand against bigotry for the sake of the country? Or was he just trying to ensure his own re-election? Yet he returns, repeatedly, to the compelling fact of his opponent’s mercenary ethics. Moss isn’t even a truly villainous character – yet it is, as usual, the banality of his evil which renders him so dangerous.
“Moss isn’t a right-wing extremist. Hell, his record shows he governed as a moderate,” says Kirkman.
“But he changed?” suggests Dr. Louden.
“I prefer ‘cynically pivoted.’ Moss wanted to become president again…he rebranded himself a hard-line conservative, surrounded himself with bigoted zealots…he didn’t believe in their nativist bullshit. But he knew that the hardline conservatives would vote in a bloc, and in a three-way race that just might be enough to win.”
(There’s a prescient warning here, for the many real-world politicians affiliated with right- and centre-right parties who fail to use their role to prevent the rise of fascist tendencies, and instead seek to take advantage of them. Several scholars have articulated the responsibility held by politicians on both the left and the right to act as gatekeepers within their parties, keeping neo-fascists out. See my article, “Is This the Death of Democracy in America?, PopMatters, 19 Apr 2018.)
But from Kirkman’s position, why go after Moss this way? If Kirkman was so convinced of Moss’ culpability, why didn’t he take his compelling argument to the American people? That’s what Rhodes believes he should have done.
“You learn pretty quickly that politics doesn’t run on reason,” explains Kirkman. “It runs on emotion. People vote their instincts and backfill arguments to fit them. If I’d [shared the evidence of Moss’ ignorance of the plot] the voters that Moss would have lost would have had enough cover to sit on their conscience regardless of what point I would have made…I know I’m sounding undemocratic, but let’s be honest, how democratic is this country really, with the Electoral College, gerrymandered districts?”
Kirkman goes for broke in the finalé, implicating the broad sweep of America’s flawed democratic institutions in his condemnation. His indictment of Moss’ “cynical pivot” reminds us again of Paxton’s definition of fascism:
“Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
Designated Survivor articulates this process masterfully. By casting Moss as the cynical, ambitious moderate who falls hapless victim to the racist ideologues around him, the show reminds viewers of the “uneasy but effective” collaborative creep which characterizes fascism in its early stages.
Photo by Ben Mark Holzberg/ABC – © 2017 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved. (IMDB)
Thinking Outside the Two-Party Box
The intellectually compelling finalé fit nicely into Season Three, which demonstrates a renewed energy and intelligence following the show’s shift from ABC to Netflix. After a moribund Season Two, in which episodes lurched formulaically from national crisis to crisis and in which President Kirkman sought to navigate a centrist presidency by appealing to both Democrats and Republicans, Season Three sees his administration discard non-partisanship and centrism and take a hard turn to the left. After rejecting leadership overtures from both parties, Kirkman decides to run for re-election as an Independent. He rolls up his shirt-sleeves (literally) and takes to the stage in front of a group of unemployed workers to declare himself the candidate of the working class.
His vice-presidential running-mate, Aaron Shore (Adan Canto), emerges from a lifetime of suppressed Latino identity to embrace his heritage (inspired by his militant Puerto Rican partner Isabel Pardo, played by Elena Tover), and even admits to having helped bring undocumented Mexican migrants into the US when he was younger, in the ultimate slap-in-the-face to the Trump administration’s shameful immigration policies.
The series also revisits its sexual and gender politics. Insufferably cis- and straight throughout the first two seasons, a welcome bevy of queer characters floods Season Three, ranging from gay black White House staffers to the introduction of President Kirkman’s own trans sister-in-law, Sasha Booker (Jamie Clayton). Not just ornamental, these characters explore complex and important issues, ranging from the politics of informed consent in queer and HIV-positive relationships to whether or not the president’s trans sister-in-law has a public responsibility to use her influential position to challenge transphobia.
In addition to the program’s challenging of Trump-style politics, it explores more thoughtfully the question of how to fulfill America’s democratic promise in a political system that has come to be dominated by two parties. The politics of non-partisan independence is intelligently explored. Kirkman is forced to confront the reality that party politicians on both sides are more interested in gaining political ground for their respective parties than in improving the country as a whole. His efforts to find reasonable common ground are continually rebuffed. He earnestly considers whether perhaps the best way to achieve some minor improvements for the country is to surrender his independence and align himself with one of the parties.
Yet he resists, because his values and sense of personal dignity tell him that partisanship is not what democracy is supposed to be all about. Even the Democrats, with whom he is most closely aligned on policy issues, are at their base a party run by millionaires, and this does not align with the vision of American democracy that he ascribes to.
One can’t help but wonder whether Designated Survivor has tapped into a real political zeitgeist in a country that is deeply committed to democratic politics yet exhausted by the divisive morass which hyper-partisan elites have made of it. By pursuing a progressive, independent course, President Kirkman is able to both steer and criticize ‘the system’ at the same time. He is both a thoughtful observer and an agent of action; an Other and an insider. As an outsider seated at the inner sanctum, he’s a critic who is able to reshape the system from within, albeit neither as quickly nor as easily as he would like. There are of course limits to such a role, and this is what makes his character and the series so interesting, in addition to his fundamental sense of decency and virtue — increasingly rare commodities among politicians, it seems. It will be interesting to see him navigate these limits if the series continues.
Running as a political independent may pose financial and other challenges for many, but it certainly has its attractions as well. Earlier this year, two prominent former Canadian federal cabinet ministers – Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott – were expelled from the country’s ruling Liberal party after a widely publicized political dispute between themselves and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which also centred broadly around political ethics. After widespread speculation about whether they would continue in politics, and if so with which party – it was rumoured they might join the Green Party, which has been on a bit of an uptick in Canada – they both announced they would be seeking re-election…as Independents (“Wilson-Raybould, Philpott to seek re-election as Independent MPs“, by Kathleen Harris, CBC News, 27 May 2019).
In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, the Brexit apocalypse that’s paralyzed that country’s politics led to a defection from both Conservative and Labour parties earlier this year to what has been labelled The Independent Group. The notion of Kirkman founding his own party is one that inevitably occurs to the viewer as Kirkman wrestles with his independent status throughout the show, yet one he ultimately resists.
Whatever the case, it’s a timely moment for a show like Designated Survivor to explore the role of non-partisan independents in the democratic system, and the series does a superb and creative job of this. Has it exhausted the possibilities inherent in this theme? If the series continues, let’s hope it continues to use its position to offer creative and progressive suggestions for moving beyond real-world partisan polarities.
The Canadian Connection
The irony, of course, is that Kiefer Sutherland, who plays President Kirkman, is not even American. He’s Canadian, and in fact is the direct descendant of Canada’s most beloved socialist. His grandfather, Tommy Douglas, was a former premier of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, a founder of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) which eventually morphed into the New Democratic Party (NDP), and is often considered the person responsible for Canada’s system of universal public health care, for which role he was in 2004 voted ‘Greatest Canadian’ in a national CBC poll.
Sutherland is an actor, not a politician, but he isn’t afraid to take on politicians when occasion warrants. Earlier this year he got into a well-publicized Twitter dispute with Ontario’s extreme right-wing premier Doug Ford (“Stop using my grandpa’s name, actor Kiefer Sutherland tells Doug Ford”, CBC News, 10 Jun 2019). Ford’s Progressive Conservative Party had been invoking Tommy Douglas’s name in association with their ultra-conservative policies, to which Sutherland fired back at the premier, stating in part:
“In addition to balancing the budget of Saskatchewan, he also provided the province with paved roads, healthcare and electricity. He did it all within four years. Contrary to your argument, it was never at the expense of social and human services to those in need. I personally find your comparison of your policies to his offensive. So I can only ask, as the grandson of this man, for you to stop posting his picture and using his name as part of your political agenda. After all, I knew Tommy Douglas and you Sir, are no Tommy Douglas.
“P.S. You’re lucky my mum’s not active on Twitter.”
With its complex intersections between fictional narrative and real-world politics, Designated Survivor: Season Three hits all the right notes. It’s shorter than previous seasons, but far more intelligent and compelling than Season Two. CIA (former FBI) agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q) is finally written out of the show, and while viewers will no doubt miss the plucky and headstrong agent, from a narrative point of view it’s probably for the best. Wells’ role was central to the riveting conspiracy which drove Season One, but once that was resolved the show began to bifurcate into two separate shows: the adventures of President Kirkman in the White House on the one hand, and the adventures of Agent Hannah Wells pursuing assorted evildoers on the other. For the show to move forward, it had to commit to one of those storylines and give up on the other.
Now that Netflix has righted the series’ sinking ship, and set it on a positive and exciting new course, let’s hope it sees fit to continue.