It was supposed to be a short-term solution, a therapeutic release amidst an election cycle that would not end. Queued up on my Netflix to calm my frantic pulse as I watched a man embodying every hateful, chauvinistic traits inch closer to taking power. I expected normalcy to return by November 9th and Aaron Sorkin’s liberal fantasia The West Wing could hold in it a preview of what we might be able to accomplish. Now I sit here, days away from Donald Trump’s inauguration and having just completed my binge, feeling lost like so many others in this country. Is there anything lasting to be taken from this television show that might offer a key to surviving these next four years with some modicum of idealism still intact? Or is it now a security blanket, promoting complacency by offering an escape?
It was probably too much to expect a leader like West Wing’s intelligent, compassionate, and incredibly human depiction of President Jed Bartlet. Despite the struggles his position and obligation to his country placed him, viewers would watch a man emerge from almost every crucible he faced having at the very least attempted to do the right thing. To put it bluntly, there was no Jed Bartlet on the ballot. Hillary, while perhaps the most qualified candidate we’ll ever see, was rarely able to seem human amongst a news cycle that so often simplified her existence to her political baggage. Trump on the other hand used whatever human charm he had to cultivate anger before manipulating working class voters into thinking he felt their pain. And while some may wonder if any contenders were destined to pale in comparison to Barack Obama’s charisma, it’s hard not to watch West Wing and be envious of a leader that could inspire such devotion from their staff. But that’s the trouble with fiction’s clarity, we know who to trust because they’re the one who gets the inspiring music under their speeches and emerge with effortless text to answer the questions no other character could. In a world without a show runner, it’s so much harder to know whom to trust.
Is there anything lasting to be taken from this television show that might offer a key to surviving these next four years with some modicum of idealism still intact?
Yet, for as much as the show is often viewed as liberal wish-fulfillment, especially consider its original run came during the Bush 43 administration, there is something attractive about the respect offered to the show’s political opponents. The Republican voices on the show weren’t mustache-twirling villains, but grounded individuals with differing viewpoints on the roles of government. From Bartlet’s dual appointments in season five of a staunch conservative and a progressive liberal Supreme Court justice to the Republican nominee for President joining the Democratic victor’s cabinet in season seven, the show does subtly speak to the value of debate within our two-party system. It’s here that the show seems most foreign compared to the seemingly endless political division within our culture. One way or another, come November 9th, one large section of the country was going to wake up terrified over the election's outcome because the notion of political civility no longer seems to exist. It’s this inversion and fear that gave rise to Trump and the Alt-Right and at this moment feels irreparably damaged as both sides now dig their heels in, unable to compromise. It was never perfect on the show, but there were enough moments of optimism to give a viewer like me of something more than anger and gridlock. Maybe just being able to see it is enough of a start for right now.
This era hasn’t even started and Jed Bartlet and his team already feels like a throwback to simpler times.
More than anything, the show offers a vision of a world of could be instead of what necessarily was. There were no Super PACs or backroom deals capable of derailing the ideals of the Bartlet administration and their belief in America’s fundamental decency. What defined the characters of The West Wing wasn’t the pursuit of glory or a legacy, but the idea of service. In season four, when characters like Communications Director Toby Ziegler and Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman come across a working class father fearful about being able to afford his daughter’s college tuition, they take it upon themselves to try and make tuition tax deductible. And sure, the plot development may be a little sappy, but it fits within the show’s argument that a government’s role was to take action to help its citizens. This simplistic idea feels all the more resonant as we face our first modern President who has never acted towards anything other than their financial self-interests. Someone who harnessed hateful rhetoric and prejudices to buoy their aspirations without thought of the consequences it might have on citizens' day-to-day lives. And while I understand the hope some have that taking office might show him the light, it also offers a man a majority of voters did not trust to lead seemingly unlimited access to shape America’s new world order. And to put it plainly, I am afraid of this nightmare scenario like so many others of living through the presidency of a man who seems the very antithesis of the term “presidential.” This era hasn’t even started and Jed Bartlet and his team already feels like a throwback to simpler times.
So what do we do now, sit in our bunkers watching the series on loop till Trump leaves office? If you have the income to equip a bunker with enough supplies to last at least four years go right ahead, but for the rest of us we cannot hide in Bartlet’s America. Instead use it to educate ourselves and prevent us from normalizing him. Use the show to keep the flames of the its decency alive as you fight for policies and institutions that are most at risk. And though this will likely be the hardest fight many of us have had to endure, all we can do is keep the show’s legacy alive by uniting to help American progress towards what’s next.