The Real-Life Politics of White House Down

© Josh Sager – July 2013

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Conservatives are up in arms at the premise of the recently released movie White House Down because they see it as having a “liberal bias.” Having seen the movie, I think that these conservatives are wrong about their assertions of bias, but I do find that the movie presents an interesting caricature of different right wing factions.

White House Down is an action movie where the protagonist—an improbably indestructible Capital Police officer who aspires to be a Secret Service agent—fights off a small army of nameless villains who have taken over the White House. After a large series of explosions, fights, and snappy one-liners, the story concludes as all Hollywood action movies tend to—the heroes survive relatively unharmed, the baddies are captured or dead, and the main character has his personal/occupational problems solved by the events of the story.

Personally, I found the movie to be entertaining (Jamie Foxx plays a pacifistic black president who, in one scene, ends up firing a missile launcher out of the presidential limo while it does doughnuts on the White House lawn—I rest my case), if not a provocative start to a real-life political debate. This debate is over the real-life extremism in our right wing and just what the right wing fantasy of “watering the tree of liberty” looks like.

In regard to the assertion that the movie has a “liberal” bias, I have two responses:

  1. The hero of the story—played by Tatum—is a Republican veteran who is revealed not to have voted for the president he is currently saving from a coup. In and of itself, the fact that the hero is a right winger essentially scuttles the argument that the movie is pure anti-right wing propaganda
  2. Bias assumes that the portrayal of the right wing extremists is not accurate or is in some way unfair. Unfortunately, the right wing extremists portrayed in the movie have real-life analogues and this is one case where the movie villains are not entirely unrealistic.

Yes, the villains of this movie are right wingers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a bias against all right wing Americans baked into the story. This distinction is exactly how movies with radical Islamists as villains are not necessarily anti-Islam.

In my opinion, the reasons why the right wing in reality is so sensitive about this movie are twofold. First, they love to attack Hollywood as a liberal bastion and will do so under virtually any circumstances (ex. with the Golden Compass), even when there is no real evidence to support their case. Second, the real life conservatives have attached themselves to the extremists in their party in a way which puts them in close association with people who look almost exactly like the villains in this movie.

Don’t get me wrong, the right wing has not taken up arms against the White House in any way like what happens in the movie, but that doesn’t mean that many of the real life right wingers don’t fantasize about it. After all, how many times in the last few years have we seen right wingers in real life use the language of “fighting against tyranny,” watering the tree of liberty,” and “using 2nd Amendment remedies against an oppressive federal government?” In the abstract, these terms are just rhetorical tools but, in reality, they look a lot like what the villains of the movie White House Down did.

At its basic premise—behind the action movie special effects—White House Down identifies several key types of right wingers and accurately describes their motivations and goals. An inside man in the secret service organizes the capture of the White House by gathering the top right wing extremists on the “threat matrix” (the Secret Service list of people who are a credible threat to the president) and has them coordinate to achieve mutual goals. Included in these right wing archetypes, the movie focuses upon several distinct groups of right wingers: war-hawks, violent militias, political opportunists, and corporatists.

 

War-hawks

The inside man in the Secret Service and mastermind of the White House Down events is a right wing war-hawk who believes that the USA is becoming weak on defense; to him, the Democratic president’s push towards peace is a threat to national security because it makes us look weak to other countries and entices future attacks from middle eastern extremists.

In essence, this character embodies many of the right wing neoconservatives and “strong on defense” organizations. We have seen people who share the views of this fictional villain on the right over the last decade, including most of the high-level officials of the Bush administration and presidential candidate McCain.

Of course, the real life analogues of the fictional villain are not attempting to breach the White House, seize the nuclear football and incinerate the entire Middle East—they are content with using an endless series of pointless wars and drone assassinations to prove our power—but that doesn’t mean that their motives aren’t the same. Rather than an acute act of violence which is easily stopped by a single protagonist (though massive overkill with a 50-calibre machine gun), the real life manifestation of this type of extremism is long-term and facilitated through making it politically impossible to stop the wars.

 

Violent Militias

Most of the raw muscle used to take the White House belongs to a group of right wing militia members with white supremacist leanings. These people are well armed, self-trained, and have a hatred for the federal government because they see is as oppressive. Unfortunately, the portrayal of these people in the movie is virtually entirely accurate, only separate from reality by the fact that no group has yet attempted such an operation in real life.

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In reality, violent militia-members like those portrayed in the movie have attempted violence on a smaller scale (ex. the Hutaree militia and the Oklahoma City Bombing) and some have even planned to assassinate President Obama (the mold for the fictional president in the movie).When right wing militias talk about “watering the tree of liberty,” the events of the movie White House Down are an extreme but not unrealistic example of what they mean.

If they were given an opportunity to act against the White House by an inside man, it is undeniable that some of the more fringe militias in real life would act in a way consistent with the fictional villains of the movie. This isn’t to say that all right wing militia-members are like this, but the evidence shows that the fringe remains very violent and a significant risk to government officials (as explained by a risk assessment done by DHS on the risk of right wing domestic extremism).

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Political Opportunists

In addition to the people who actually storm the White House, the events of the movie are facilitated by a politically opportunistic Speaker of the House. The Speaker of the House is complicit in the coup attempted by the other right wingers and aims to gain power through getting them to assassinate the President and Vice-President (the speaker is the third in line of Presidential succession).

Nobody can argue that the current right wing political leadership is anywhere as violent or extreme as the right wing leader portrayed in the movie. That said, the current right wing leadership has shown itself to be willing to go to extreme and sometimes illegal lengths to perpetuate their own political power.

On the night that Obama was elected in 2008, the leadership of the right wing met and decided to become a fifth column in the American government by stopping anything from getting done in the federal legislature. This agreement has led to massive gridlock in the legislature—as the right wing has acted in a block to filibusters everything—and has virtually crippled the power of the President. In effect, the real life right wing has made the President unable to pass anything of import and has taken away much of his functionality. This diminishing of the President may not be an overt coup, as attempted in the movie, but it achieves a very similar goal.

Honestly, I don’t think that any real-life Republican leader would attempt what was done in the movie, but they don’t need to in order to seize power in our system of government.

In addition to conspiring to cripple the legislature, the right wing has attempted to implement anti-democratic and illegal voter-disenfranchisement measure in the states as well as redistrict areas in order to subvert democracy. These efforts may not be as exciting or violent as seizing power via force, but they are actually more effective in illegally seizing power—through these measures, one can still maintain a veneer of legality on an illegal power-grab.

 

Defense Contractors

The coup attempt in the movie White House Down is funded and outfitted by an unnamed group of defense contractors. These contractors are terrified at the prospect of peace and the exposure of their double-dealing of arms, thus they decide that their best option is to facilitate the ascendance of their political puppet (the Speaker of the House). While they don’t send any troops to assist the militia, they do supply the insurgents with powerful weapons, including anti-air missiles.

No defense contractor in real life has taken the step of financing a coup in order to perpetuate war—in the United States, that is—but that is simply because such violent steps are not necessary. In reality, they don’t need violence, as they can simply buy the politicians to support endless war and an endless stream of money into their pockets. By financing both political parties, defense contractors make every politician indebted to them and prevent any high-level politician from acting like the president played by Jamie Foxx.

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The actions of the fictional defense contractors are unrealistic only in that they are not necessary in our current political climate. We have seen real life defense contractors facilitate coups in South America and lobby to continue American involvement in the Middle East, thus it isn’t unrealistic to argue that they would be willing to commit violence in order to keep their profits flowing.

 

Conclusion

In a way, the movie White House Down is a very good caricature of the real life extreme right wing wrapped up in an unrealistic action movie.

The right wing dislikes the movie White House Down simply because it strikes a little too close to home for them to be comfortable. In recent years, the real life right wing has attached itself to the extreme of its base (ex. militias) and now they are wary of any negative portrayal of their political allies. The portrayals of the extreme right in this movie may be harsh, but they aren’t unfair and at no point does the director cast all right wingers as evil (after all, the hero of the story is a right winger). What the real life right wing should take from this movie is simply that they need to stop associating with extremists within their party who are look very much like the villains of a Hollywood action movie; if they can manage this, they can finally begin to enjoy this movie as the mindless action flick that it was intended to be.

Ironically, as a left winger, I see White House Down as much more damning to the left wing then the right: it is undeniable that there are right wing extremists in real life who parallel the villains of the movie, but there are simply no Democrats in power who share the bravery of the fictional left-wing president. Nobody in a leadership position for the Democrats has the bravery to propose a truly ambitious campaign to promote peace and root out corruption in the defense contracting industry.

15 thoughts on “The Real-Life Politics of White House Down

  1. Hi Josh,

    Great analysis of the movie…maybe I’ll go see it. But I found at least 6 typos…can you find them???

    Mom

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  2. I’m so dispirited by the relentless Marxist bias baked into the majority of Hollywood movies. This writer is such a twisted leftist either living in absolute denial or deliberately issuing one Alynskyite falsehood after another in service of the dystopian reality people like him are building. I would not see this movie even if the producers bribed me with $10,000 to sit through it. 21,000 + ISLAMIST terror attacks throughout the world since 9/11 and of course Marxist Hollywood makes an anti-terror movie in which white Christian rightwing extremists are the villains attacking America. Of course. Of freaking course. And hey, I’m Canadian, I’m no rah-rah pro-American. But I despise deliberate lies like this movie’s premise. And this is the sort of lie you get 24/7 from the current occupant of the White House. Can a society like America survive when it lies to itself endlessly about its most basic problems? America is destroying itself b/c the Left controls the culture and makes movies like this. Amerika’s music, its movies, its TV serials, its fiction publishing industry, its universities, its state and federal bureaucracies, are ALL leftist. Conservative opinion is demonized ad nauseam. And the writer of this article has the gall to suggest conservatives have power in the USA. What absolute garbage. The LEFT controls 90% of American culture pure and simple.

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      • That conflates terrorism in the US with anti-military attacks by Afghans and Iraqis who see themselves as simply trying to liberate their country from US occupiers–if we look domestically, there have been only a handful of Islamic terrorist attacks while there have been innumerably more right-wing attacks by anti-abortion crusaders and anti-government fringe militias.

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    • I the nature of your ideology attracts, racists, misogynists, homophobes, tribal nationalists, and religious zealots, to name but a few, and attracts them in droves, would it not be an idea to re-examine that ideology?

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      • That’s why until his sex scandal arose, Herman Cain was the front runner in the Republican primaries, even beating out Romney for awhile, right? That’s also why the two biggest tea party figures are Cruz and Palin, an Hispanic and a woman respectively. But go ahead and keep your silly echo chamber stereotype.

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      • Tokenism doesn’t mitigate a systemic bigotry.

        P.S. Palin, Cruz and Cain are all cultural jokes who failed because they are simply stupid mouthpieces for the same old racist lines that the old white GOP has been throwing out for decades.

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  3. The author of this story either so super liberal or writing this as a shock piece. He obviously never met a single conservative/libertarian in his life! Of the thousands of conservative/libertarian people I have met none have ever mentioned anything about racially clean militia to attack the white house! As far as wackjobs you supper liberals are out saving the world as long as it happens under your set of rules. Women right to have abortion you are all for it! A conservative group that wants to spend their money lobbying congress and abortion laws, they get shot up by a liberal nutjob. We firm the tea party to give the republicans a kick in their pants to do what we elected then to do. You progressives decide to spend the next few months living in a park not bathing using cop cars to use the bathroom then smearing it all other the cars with your hands! Stealing from each other much less the multiple reports of rapes that were going on all over each our your rallies. Plus the vulgar language and call to violence on a daily basis. I know the tea party was so bad we would get together and have our rally everyone would bring food so we could share with each other and THE CRAZY PAyWE WOULD CLEAN UP AFTER OURSELVES BEFORE WE WENT BACK TO OUR OWN HOUSES! WHITE GUILT and everyone yelling racism because they don’t have a valid argument is ruining the whole current generation. And don’t forget a huge number of the wall street slumber party guests we trust fund babies

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  4. I happened across this article through a link from a Cracked article (http://www.cracked.com/blog/4-organizations-everyone-hates-for-stupid-reasons/?wa_user1=3&wa_user2=News&wa_user3=blog&wa_user4=feature_module). Without getting into the discussion past the introduction of your article, I thought two points you made weren’t quite fair.

    First, you say “In and of itself, the fact that the hero is a right winger essentially scuttles the argument that the movie is pure anti-right wing propaganda.” If this were true, then the Colbert Report would be on Fox News and not Comedy Central. In both cases, you have a fictional protagonist who is described as a conservative/Republican. I haven’t seen the movie to know if Tatum’s character is a caricature like Colbert’s or if it’s an attempt at a sincere portrayal, but the fact that he’s described as a republican certainly doesn’t automatically mean that it’s not “anti-right wing propaganda.”

    Second, you say “they [conservatives/Republicans] love to attack Hollywood as a liberal bastion and will do so under virtually any circumstances (ex. with the Golden Compass), even when there is no real evidence to support their case.” Except that the example you cite, the Golden Compass is very patently opposed to a Christian worldview (and, by extension for many in that party, conservative worldviews). The movie itself was intentionally tamed down, granted, but Philip Pullman is very upfront about his opposition to Chrsitianity/theism and the presence of that message in His Dark Materials and the Golden Compass.

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    • I’d make the counterpoint that the movie and the Colbert Report aren’t the same thing. Colbert’s words and actions are specifically meant to parody that of a Republican, and thus make an obvious statement about how he feels about them. The protagonist in this movie, however, is shown in a positive light. His role isn’t to parody a Republican, but to show you can believe in conservative politics without being an extremist. He represents the REAL America. We’re all either democrat or republican (as far as the voting ballot is concerned) but we don’t all believe the other side is bringing about the end of America. In a political landscape of polarization and extremism, he’s the only rational one there.

      Secondly, the Golden Compass having anti-Christian beliefs has nothing to do with whether or not conservatives have the right to call Hollywood liberal garbage. Christian theology isn’t the only world view and Hollywood has no obligation to force its messages into films where they don’t belong. And there are plenty of places where it IS evident-take Les Miserables for example-where the characters’ relationship with religion is an important part of the story. It just isn’t an important part to EVERY story. It would also be good for conservatives to remember that pretty much every liberal politician is also a Christian. They aren’t magically made up of god hating atheists.

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  5. I think most of your points are quite reasonable.

    That said I think it is somewhat misleading to portray the hero as a right-winger when his politics are scarcely addressed at all; we simply have him mention that he didn’t vote for the liberal president who is the other hero of the film and whose politics are front and center, which itself was not a point you addressed very well.

    Again I’m not disagreeing with your points but I do think you cherrypicked your arguements and exaggerated a minor plot point (the hero not voting for the president) into a more conclusive character stance than really warranted.

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