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The Creeping Tyranny of ‘Designated Survivor’

Kiefer Sutherland returns for another round of neoconservative revenge fantasy.

By Jared Keller


Designated Survivor. (Photo: ABC)

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln ordered a blockade against major ports along some 3,500 miles of Atlantic and Gulf coastline belonging to the new Confederate States of America. It was an act of non-war, in a way: According to Bern Anderson’s BySea and by River: The Naval History of the Civil War, Lincoln believed that asking Congress to formally declare war against the seceding states would grant them de facto recognition as a sovereign nation; on the other hand, merely declaring them “belligerents” and punishing rebellious ports would complicate the Confederacy’s diplomatic efforts to gain support from European allies. Lincoln’s order, upheld by the Supreme Court in the Prize Cases (1863), held that, in Justice Robert Grier’s words, “the President was bound to meet it [the war] in the shape it presented itself, without waiting for Congress to baptize it with a name.”

The Prize Cases mark one of the earliest signs of the imperial executive (or the “imperial presidency,” as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put it) — the expansion of the president’s executive powers. Sovereignty, in German political theorist Carl Schmitt’s formulation, lies with the ones who decide “the exception” — that is, those who declare when it’s time to suspend the rule of law in order to save it (think the Roman general Cincinnatus, appointed dictator for 11 days to repel a barbarian invasion before returning to his farm). In the United States, per Dana Nelson, congressional government has given way to “presidential government”: The Framers never intended one man to rule over everyone else, especially not with a giant, unelected staff and ambiguous constitutional power.

Designated Survivor is the spiritual successor to 24 as the preeminent vision of the imperial executive and its inevitable conclusion, the abrogation of civil liberties.

Designated Survivor, the second post-9/11 governmental drama to star Kiefer Sutherland, differs from the political ideal of the Prize Cases in more ways than I can name. Mainly, there is no Congress around which to baptize anything: All three branches of the federal government are decimated by a devastating attack on the Capitol during the State of the Union, leaving the un-elected (and under-qualified) Housing and Urban Development Secretary Tom Kirkman (Sutherland, doing Jack Bauer with a Ph.D.) as the “designated survivor” as part of the Continuity of Operations Plan. As Kirkman assumes the presidency, the decapitation of the federal government by anonymous terrorists represents the epitome of a crisis the executive branch is designed to meet, with all its might and without the explicit authorization of the other branches of government (which, well, don’t exist anymore). The refrain for the first two episodes (and, likely, the entire season) is simple: “We’re at war.” Cincinnatus has been called up from the farm.

On an entertainment level, it’s a sensationalist, almost pornographic treatment of terror, with Kirkman joining the likes of Sutherland’s hard-nosed Bauer on 24, the quixotic Carrie Mathison on Homeland, and other counter-terrorism yarns in the favored political narratives of the post-9/11 era. (House of Cards and Scandal, themselves focused on the expansionary nature of power, provide a more personality-driven lens for the examination of the imperial executive.) It was 24 that had the greatest effect as a reflection of conservative attitudes toward terrorism in the years following 9/11: Co-creator (and George W. Bush supporter) Joel Surnow envisioned the series as “a patriotic show,” one that harkened back to “America in its glory days,” something of a post-traumatic revenge fantasy. “It was soothing to see Jack Bauer torture these terrorists, and I felt better.” Surnow joked to TheNew Yorker in a 2007 profile. “We love to torture terrorists — it’s good for you!”

No wonder the show was a favorite of White House officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff praised the show as “a reflection of real life,” lauding Bauer as a man “who knows sometimes there’s only bad choices, and you’ve got to make the least bad choice.” Congressman Tom Tancredo, during a 2007 Republican primary debate, said (to major applause) that he “would be looking for a Jack Bauer” in the event of an imminent terror attack. Pat Buchanan even pronounced Bush the “Jack Bauer in the war on terror.” Where the West Wing was a liberal pipe dream of idealistic Clintonian bureaucracy in action, Bauer’s enhanced interrogations (to put it lightly) and “ticking time bomb” motifs treat the government as a gun to the head of a suspect — while glorifying the unbridled power of True Blue Americans on a mission to protect our way of life.

Designated Survivor is the spiritual successor to 24 as the preeminent vision of the imperial executive and its inevitable conclusion, the abrogation of civil liberties. It’s not that the Kirkland’s response isn’t unjustified: The fictional destruction of the Capitol is the worst attack on the federal government since British Major General Robert Ross torched Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812. But it’s the casual reproduction of the post-9/11 surveillance society under the auspices of a counter-terrorism nail-biter that makes the series difficult to swallow. Law enforcement officials casually drop references to the terror attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, and Orlando as a reminder that the world they occupy is ostensibly “real”; there’s even a casual, lighthearted reference to PRISM, the National Security Agency Internet communications dragnet (and historic middle finger to the Fourth Amendment) revealed by Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaks. Where Bauer’s torture of terrorists was “good for you,” in Surnow’s terms, the growing powers of the executive branch and their consequences are here reduced to something harmless — a joke.

That PRISM is now a pop-culture Easter Egg rather than a source of public concern is unsurprising. A 2003 study in the American Journal of Political Science examining the post-9/11 public trade off between liberty and security found that “the greater people’s sense of threat, the lower their support for civil liberties,” although trust in government was a major factor in shaping individual views. As I wrote in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks, Americans seem relatively unnerved about government surveillance in general, despite a short bump in disapproval. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey revealed that, while Americans are generally worried about bulk data collection and a lack of clear limits on what sorts of information agencies can vacuum up, they generally support the monitoring activities of the modern surveillance state. “Americans’ commitment to democratic values,” the AJPS authors write, “is highly contingent on other concerns and that the context of a large-scale threat to national or personal security can induce a substantial willingness to give up rights.”

Habituation, mainly through media exposure, is the main psychological process by which this fear and concern is engendered without inducing an outright public meltdown, fertile ground for the imperial executive to creep like kudzu through American institutions. The phenomenon has been long observed in countries with histories of terror and political violence. In Northern Ireland, citizens became “remarkably phlegmatic” about frequent terror attacks during the Troubles, according to the 2016 edition of Evolutionary Psychology and Terrorism — increasingly alert but rarely panicked. In the aftermath of a foiled terror plot in 2009 (and a successful one in the United Kingdom in 2007), Australians became “more likely to believe that a terrorist attack would occur … but felt less concerned that they would be directly affected by such an incident” than in previous years, per a 2011 study in BMC Public Health. Research into the psychological impact of terrorism in Israel after the outbreak of the Second Intifada reveals a similar trend: Despite “moderate” levels of anxiety among the Israeli public from 2000 to 2002, survey respondents in 2003 who “showed distress and lowered sense of safety … did not develop high levels of psychiatric distress.” The British government’s infamous 1939 motivational poster in the run-up to World War II comes to mind: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.

Shows like Designated Survivor, despite their undeniable narrative appeal, habituate and desensitize us to the reality of this power: They make us more likely to forget that there is such a thing as too much government.

The habituation to terrorism and related receptiveness to the imperial executive through surveillance and other extraordinary measures is almost certainly exacerbated by the mass media’s inherent tendency to distort and desensitize, and shows like 24 and Designated Survivor reinforce this pattern with the narrative flourishes and dazzling production we’ve come to expect from prime time television. Torturing people and joking about shredding the constitution is actually kind of good for you, somehow: By commodifying and deprecating the lived consequences of both terrorism and its responses, the public learns to come to grips with the horror of post-9/11 modernity. “Its reality had to be contained,” as the late British media theorist Roger Silverstone put it, describing the media’s response to the 9/11 attacks. “It had to be dragged, kicking and screaming into the as-if of daily mediation, for without that containment, the containment of metaphor, of cliché, of stereotype, it would outrun our capacity to make enough sense of it; and without enough sense of it, our lives would be unlivable.”

But don’t be fooled: Bauer’s one-man jihad against threats foreign and domestic might make you feel good, but it’s merely a more modern (and literal) equivalent of Thomas Hobbes’ figurative Leviathan—a singular imperial power mobilized to kick ass and take names. To his credit, Bauer’s Kirkland in Designated Survivor is more of a foil to the imperial executive than its avatar: The former HHS secretary is “an academic,” not a politician, and creator David Guggenheim presents Kirkland not as patriotic Übermensch, but as rational and collected in a mild reflection of President Barack Obama, tasked with warding off both future attacks and the bloodthirsty generals clamoring for revenge. His Secret Service codename before the presidential “Phoenix” is the pedestrian “Glasses.” Kirkman is, in some ways, the anti-Bauer.

But Kirkman’s gentle nature immediately evaporates under the awesome power of Article II. Designated Survivor glorifies the imperial executive, softening governmental power into something to be enjoyed with buffalo wings and a few beers. Designated Survivor is nowhere near as egregious as 24, preferring the imagery of a smoldering Capitol (the U.S. military prepares to wreak retributive havoc off-screen) to footage of enhanced interrogations. It’s the perfect transition for an audience that’s moved on from boots-on-the-ground to invisible drone strikes and anonymous NSA analysts reading your email. Yes, Guggenheim frames his attempts to address widespread backlash against Muslims with a clear concern for social justice (including some West Wing-esque jousting between federalists and states-rights supporters), but it rings hollow and hackneyed amid the vengeful glee of an executive with his finger on a button.

Power, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and the history of the imperial executive since the Prize Cases indicates that the federal government will tend to envelop its citizens in every possible mode of state power. Shows like Designated Survivor, despite their undeniable narrative appeal, habituate and desensitize us to the reality of this power: They make us more likely to forget that there is such a thing as too much government, especially when it fits in your smartphone or your bedroom. In his dissent in the Prize Cases, Justice Samuel Nelson noted the “disturbing consequences” of Lincoln’s blockade, the de facto shift in constitutional power such that “the right of making war belongs exclusively to the supreme or sovereign power of the State.” The counter-terrorism revenge fantasies propagated by TV networks isn’t just bad entertainment, but a covert strike in a war against American civil liberties.