BY Andrew Durbin in Opinion | 30 APR 19

The President Who Hates the United States

In its final season, ‘Veep’ satirizes the heartless ambition driving US politics

BY Andrew Durbin in Opinion | 30 APR 19

When David Dinkins defeated the incumbent New York Mayor Ed Koch in 1989, Koch – famously adroit at communicating the miseries of governance – declared he would never run again: ‘The people have spoken. And now they must be punished.’ The sentiment is common among American leaders who crash out of power. George W. Bush promised to ‘restore honour’ after Bill Clinton’s many deviancies; Bubba responded by mucking up the 2000 transition. Donald Trump, a berserker in the field of democratic norms, threatened, endlessly, to ‘repeal and replace’ the entire post-war Democratic and Republican establishment; that establishment launched a counterstrike with the appointment of a rather buttoned-up, but effective Special Counsel. Every president has tried to undo some part of his predecessor’s accomplishments, actually or rhetorically, only to find himself partly undone in the process; they are spokes of a wheel under which all losers, including themselves, are crushed. But it is the electorate that almost always finds itself first beneath it, as nearly every public programme meets pasture in favour of new sorts of missiles.  

Selina Meyer – the accidental first female president at the centre of HBO’s hugely successful political satire Veep, now in its final season – is a creature of this scrub cycle of power. Her show’s correct bet has been, since it premiered in 2012, that nothing is funnier to the American people than the stupidity of the American people. As President (and, this year, as presidential candidate), Meyer meets the sexism and sneers of the Washington elite with witty cynicism and flagrant corruption. We find her, in the final season of the show, back on the campaign trail during primary season as she strives to take back the office she once held, only this time she faces her sometime lover, Senator Tom James, and a young, promising black woman whom Democratic primary voters, and more importantly major Democratic donors, much adore. She cringes through stump speeches, lies about her finances, wonders aloud whether she really serves ‘all Americans’. She makes unforced error after unforced error, but still she treks on, determined to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. 

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep, 2012-9, film still. Courtesy: Colleen Hayes and HBO

America is unhappy. Meyer’s main reason for running is that its unhappiness works well for her. Unhappiness is the sludge that moves an electorate, and she hopes to toboggan down its foul slopes back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Interestingly, Veep is not concerned with tracing the economic or philosophic conditions underpinning the malaise of the United States today, as other recent Oval Office shows have done. While The West Wing and House of Cards grappled with the exigencies of power and the ‘sobering reality’ of how a chief executive addresses any number of real-world crises, from terrorism to disease outbreaks, Veep treats the big-picture events outside the claustrophobic press-and-staff pool ever trailing Meyer as irrelevant to the structures of power. There is only one crisis they are concerned with, and it is continuous and unsolvable: the American voter. Whenever some lonely caucus-goer strays into view – with, say, a sculpture made of butter, as in the show’s third season – Meyer is disturbed by her presence and awaits, uneasily, for someone to shoo her back to the sales rack at JC Penney. 

Veep is best-known for its acidic twist on Sorkinian dialogue. Characters castigate one another, in rapid succession, with vicious, expletive-laden insults. They banter and plot on private jets and at donor retreats, always failing upwards or down. Fucking up, and fucking each other up, is a way of life. Washington, in Veep’s world, is hierarchy for hierarchy’s sake (insults for insults’s sake, too), but ultimately it doesn’t accomplish much: everyone likes the sound of their own voice and the title attached to their names too much to do anything that might risk silencing one or losing the other. What they do say and do, especially those with a Constitutional mandate, scarcely matters, or matters only insofar as it helps decide who’s next in line for the Resolute Desk. Meyer hangs with Buzzfeed reporters and junior staffers as easily as she does with senators and world leaders; for her, they are all parts of her most important campaign strategy, which is to avoid, at all cost, the people she hopes to serve. In this, the show, for all its high-octane comedic dialogue, tips ever closer, with every season, toward a more bitter Mar-a-Lago realism. Meyer’s own sales pitch is never clear, to her or anyone else. Why Selina? Nobody knows. The presidency means nothing to her outside her naked ambition for it, but in a town where meaninglessness sits at the heart of its politics, nothing is everything.

Main Image: Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep, 2012-9, film still. Courtesy: Colleen Hayes and HBO

Andrew Durbin is the editor-in-chief of frieze. His book The Wonderful World That Almost Was is forthcoming from FSG in 2025.