Succession: How a Cable Network Can Crown Jeryd Mencken President
ATN's early call for President Jeryd Mencken on Succession resembles real life more than you may realize.
This article contains spoilers through Succession season 4 episode 8.
One of the things that makes Succession so special is the keen way creator Jesse Armstrong satirizes real world events and people. Most of the characters we see on screen draw from something tangible, a landmark moment that can be downright hilarious, or even somewhat traumatic. The show’s third-to-last episode “America Decides” takes these mirrored resemblances to a whole different level when the Roy children and associates oversee a hectic election night at the ATN headquarters. Politics have been a common theme throughout the entirety of the show, but never before has an entire hour been dedicated to the ongoing landscape of who is going to become president like this episode does.
Much of the plot revolves around the desire of Roman (Keiran Culkin) to get Logan’s (Brian Cox) right-leaning candidate Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk) into the White House. This is beneficial to Roman and Kendall (Jeremy Strong) because they believe Mencken will aid them in their quest to remain in control of Waystar Royco in the aftermath of their father’s death. Shiv (Sarah Snook) vehemently disagrees with her brothers, preferring left-leaning candidate Daniel Jiménez (Elliot Villar). Shiv has a background in Democratic politics, and her quest to backstab her siblings with Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) in her corner makes it even more vital for her rooting interests to lie in the opposite camp of Mencken.
It’s vital to understand the atrocious viewpoints of Mencken to fully put all of the pieces together while watching “America Decides.” Roman is even more of a jackass than usual, going fully unhinged in his decision-making to support Mencken. After Mencken’s voters have presumably been the culprit behind a voting center being burnt down in Wisconsin, Roman jumps at the chance for ATN to call the swing state in favor of the Republican candidate. This is not only unethical journalism, it also closely resembles some real-life callbacks to how media can play an uncomfortably powerful role in influencing or even deciding presidential elections.
Here are a couple of examples and how Jeryd Mencken fits into Succession’s view of the political landscape.
George W. Bush Wins Florida in 2000
The state that went on to determine who won the 2000 presidential election was Florida. Bush ended up winning the Sunshine State by a mere 537 votes after a recount, but Fox News claimed Bush was victorious in the state before anyone else and before all of the votes had been counted. The anchor who announced the result was John Ellis, a first cousin of Bush. Beyond the obvious fishy implications of a family member making such a strong journalistic decision on his own in favor of his kin, this premature news break created confusion around the United States about who actually won. When they went back to recount the votes, many Americans were already under the impression that Bush should be the winner.
Initially, several outlets reported that Gore won Florida. After more votes were counted, Fox was the first to flip the state to Bush before the several weeks-long recount and Supreme Court decision finally officially made Bush the president, creating a chaotic, confusing situation for the average TV news viewer. The moral of this story to this day is the way journalists and news sources can muck up the reality of a situation, especially in politics. TV channels don’t control the election, but they do create the impression the public has of one.
The decision by Roman and Kendall to proclaim Mencken as the president-elect while potentially thousands of votes were up in the air in Wisconsin was not only ethically evil, but incredibly biased in the same way Ellis’ decision was back in our real world in 2000. For viewers old enough to remember watching that election unfold, the hysteria unraveling on the screen had to be an uncanny memory transporting them back to the dawn of the 21st century.
Fox News Calls Arizona Early in 2020
A more recent similarity Succession may have drawn upon was the 2020 election between incumbent Donald Trump and Democratic challenger and current president Joe Biden. Fox News proclaimed that Biden had won the state of Arizona before any other outlet, a blunder that led to conspiracy theories and other nut job analysis online. Fox ultimately got the call right but many election experts concluded that they made the determination too early and eventually got bailed out by luck. Every other major network did not end up calling Arizona for Biden until nearly all votes were counted. Released text messages from Fox News personalities due to Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit against the network revealed that several high level Roy-esque execs even pressured Fox’s number crunchers to rescind the Biden Arizona win.
While Biden did actually win down in the desert, this early proclamation was the start of a scary campaign by Trump supporters to convince the world that their candidate had been robbed in some way. Some right-wing voters still believe Trump had the election stolen from him, partially because of what Fox did that night. We probably won’t have time to see whether the same conspiracies fly on Succession surrounding Mencken, but we do know that the episode’s manic nature conjured up some PTSD for those who were emotionally and mentally enthralled in the madness of the real thing two and half years ago.
Is Mencken Supposed to Be Donald Trump?
Jeryd Mencken has been shown to support far-right political views during his off-and-on appearances on Succession. He gets his voter base riled up over his authoritarian leanings in an eerily similar way to the man who recently occupied the White House from 2016 to 2020. Donald Trump made certain demographics feel like they were under attack. Many who don’t support Trump felt his opinions and voterbase associated with fascist tendencies. Trump used the media to proclaim he was treated unfairly, and often spoke about the “fake news” pushing propaganda against him.
With Mencken being declared president by ATN, Succession is setting up a similar scenario where their autocratic candidate can claim the media is against him when the result is revealed as undetermined. And despite these similarities between Mencken and Trump, the actor who portrays the fictional president says “the former guy” was never used as a template for his performance. Justin Kirk detailed this in an interview with GQ.
“We didn’t talk about ‘the former guy,’ as I say… or you can say 45, that’s a fun way to do it. No, we didn’t talk about that. I remember doing that speech, the acceptance speech, and the only vague note was, ‘keep it cheery.’ Because of these terrible things I’m saying, they wanted to make sure that it was couched in a happy land, which I think is smart.”
The way Succession straddles the line between fiction and reality leads to a special alchemic blend of parody and actuality. Kirk’s performance is just different enough from the way Trump would speak to the media that it makes it easy to believe Mencken is a different kind of beast. He takes similar nativist views, but spins them with the charisma of a younger man. As the last two episodes are about to unfold, we can never be too certain about our predictions. Jesse Armstrong might continue to allude to our real world, or he might spin it around in his mind and spit it out in a completely contrarian manner. He talked on the Succession Podcast about his thought process when it comes to imitating reality compared to conjuring fantasy.
“We use real-life analogs, and we think about them a lot, but we hopefully don’t slavishly follow the jumping off point for what we want to do in this fictional world. It’s a curiosity [of the American system] that the news organizations have this out-sized role in calling the election. You’re not hearing the election result; you’re hearing news organizations predicting the election result, and that’s an interesting pressure point that they have on the system.”
Armstrong uses structures from real life as templates, but the shapes and sizes of objects that fit in these outlines are as unpredictable as anything on TV. You can never be too certain what will happen in the world of Succession, and we’ll be on the edge of our seats for the next two weeks ready to find out!
New episodes of Succession premiere Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.