The Real-Life Politics of White House Down

Posted on July 12, 2013

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© 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.