'Scandal' Brilliantly Parodies Trump: 'No Matter What He Does, America Loves Him'
Philosophers, writers and artists have long debated whether art imitates life (mimesis) or life imitates art (anti-mimesis). In his famous essay “The Decay of Lying,” Oscar Wilde influenced many modern perspectives of this ongoing argument when he wrote, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.”
This election year has at times come across like a work of fiction—art—and one that has inspired the plot of some episodes in Shonda Rhimes’ ABC television show Scandal.
Scandal, which centers on the professional and personal circumstances of the high-profile former White House staff and crisis manager Olivia Pope, is no stranger to using current social conversations and political events to center the show’s plot and dialogues. Last season, Scandal dedicated one episode, “The Lawn Chair,” to tell a story that resembled Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. This season, Scandal parallels Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump with a character called Hollis Doyle (played by Gregg Henry), with little, if any, ambivalence.
Like Trump, Doyle is a wealthy, white businessman in the run for the Republican nomination despite being seen by his peers as unqualified for the position. To make the comparison blatantly obvious, Scandal employs Trump-like rhetoric in the aptly named “Trump Card” episode, which aired last Thursday. In the episode, Doyle gives a press interview in which he talks about “giving America back to Americans.” He mentions “south of the border types with their greedy little hands” and “shady fellows with mustaches looking to blow up our buildings." Trump has infamously said that Mexican immigrants are rapists and has proposed that the U.S. ban Muslims from entering the country. Clearly, there is no ambiguity in the parallels being made on the show. But if there are any doubts, Scandal goes further in its imitation of some of our current political players.
Pope—who is running the campaign for Doyle’s Republican opposition, Mellie Grant (the current president’s ex-wife)—joins forces with the other Republican campaign, Susan Ross, the sitting vice president, to stop Doyle. But as one of Pope’s associates puts it, Doyle is “the devil you’d love to have a beer with.” (Perhaps a beer that goes by the name America.) Doyle, like Trump, has galvanized a certain section of the American public that is loud and getting louder as they feel represented. Doyle’s opponents try to unite fiscal conservatives, women and “decent people” everywhere against him by accusing him of tax manipulation, sexual assault (rape), and racism. Doyle is even accused of spending time with a former KKK leader and accepting his campaign donation. Sound familiar?
Trump has more or less found himself at the center of similar conversations and incidents, and yet as another Pope associate states with regard to Doyle, “No matter what he does, America loves him.” The same can be said of those who support Trump. Trump himself has said he could shoot someone in public and he would not lose any supporters. Additionally, in true Trump fashion, when answers are demanded from Doyle regarding his offensive statements, Doyle insists, at least in public, that he is simply a defender of free speech, and that “political correctness” is what is really hurting America.
In the episode, however, Trump-hating viewers can cheer and live out the fantasy of squashing his campaign, because Olivia Pope outsmarts Doyle. She records a private meeting between the two of them in which he admits that he doesn’t believe in what he is saying. Doyle exclaims, “You don’t think I believe any of that racist crap I spew out there in the boonies? I’m a businessman just giving the customers what they want.” He goes on to say that his speeches are for a “specific market,” and after he clinches the nomination, he’ll have to change his rhetoric and his followers will believe that it would have been necessary to win the general election, but they’ll think they know the real him. (We shall see if Scandal ends up not only imitating life but also prophesying it.) The recording is later revealed to the public, and the show leaves this storyline with the sense that Doyle’s campaign is essentially over.
Trump’s candidacy however, is still alive and well. While it has been touted for months that Trump doesn’t believe in what he says, one wonders if Trump’s supporters would in fact cease to support him if it was made public that he didn’t believe in his proclamations. Or would they simply find a way to spin the situation as somehow the fault of the “politically correct left” or the establishment elite or “the liberal media”? Moreover, this episode reveals a sad reality of how the American electorate and supporting institutions such as the media are so easily swayed by a showman even if he lacks substance.
Aside from performing a cathartic takedown of a fictional version of Trump, the episode also included another insightful potentially life-imitating storyline in the black Democratic nominee, Edison Davis. Davis, who initially wants to respond to Doyle’s racism, is prevented from doing so by the man who controls his campaign, Eli Pope (Olivia’s father). Eli Pope advises him against this by mockingly reminding him that as a black man running for president, he needs his white constituency to forget his blackness. Perhaps this storyline shows the delicate situation President Obama finds himself every time he discusses race. Arguably, it also critiques white liberals’ or white Democrats’ colorblindness expectations of the president where race is concerned.
Toward the end of the episode, Davis ignores Eli Pope and goes on a powerful rant dismissing Doyle as a racist, sexist xenophobe who wants America to return to a past that was only good for people like him. He even criticizes Doyle’s slogan, “Dare to be great again,” a thinly veiled play on Trump’s “Make America great again.” In being so publicly bold on the social issues, Davis knows his campaign is all but over. But this scene can also be perceived as a fantasy of the speech that some would like President Obama to give on Trump, as well as the speech we know he will likely never be able to give even in his second term as president.
Whether art imitates life or vice versa, I leave to the philosophers and other writers and artists to decide, although I think Scandal does an exceptional job of mimesis where Trump and America’s current politics are concerned. But I am more interested in another clichÃ© in Scandal’s portrayal of Trump and American politics in 2016: Is truth stranger than fiction, or are they both equally peculiar? This election seems to support the former, and for at least some of America and the world in general, it is deeply unsettling.