Soon after George W Bush was elected in 2000, David Kaplan published a biography called The Accidental President, its title alluding to the number of obstacles that the candidate had overcome to claim the highest office. These included the family’s plan that his brother Jeb should be the one to follow their father to the White House, and the need for the intervention of the US supreme court to award the second President Bush victory over Al Gore.
If, however, Donald Trump is voted the nation’s 45th leader in November, political journalism may, like traffic cops, have to start distinguishing between severities of accident. It seems likely that, when he launched his campaign, the real estate tycoon and reality TV star envisaged no more than an ego-burnishing skirmish in the primaries, before withdrawing with a speech about how the system was rigged to give victory to Washington insider idiots.
But the Republican nominee’s for the USA Election surprise at where he finds himself may be trumped by that of Jeremy Corbyn, who, if he is re-elected next month, will have won two more Labour leadership elections than he could ever have envisaged.
While Trump and Corbyn – and, just behind them, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who unnerved Hillary Clinton with his closeness to the Democratic nomination – are the most apparent examples of unlikely political rises, the era of unmeant legislators reaches deeper. Theresa May is an accidental prime minister, claiming No 10 as the only plausible candidate left standing after the crashes of three more apparently likely candidates to be the next Tory PM: George Osborne, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
Before that, it can be argued that David Cameron’s 2015-16 administration was also accidental, as it is widely thought that he did not expect to win an outright Tory majority last year. The one consequence of his unpredicted win was that he felt forced to hold an EU referendum that he had never expected to be in a position to schedule. So, in this sense, the May government is a result of a succession of unlikely circumstances.
As a result, September’s political calendar – from the Labour and Conservative party conferences to the official start of the 2016 US presidential general election – is filled with unforeseen leaders. But if, in their hotel suites or campaign buses, these unplanned candidates seek illuminating entertainment on their circumstances, American cinema offers a small but eloquent corpus of movies, made across eight decades, that dramatise or satirise outsider assaults on the political crown.
The founding father of the genre is Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), in which Governor “Happy” Hopper, following the sudden death of a senator from a western state, is required to nominate a successor. He selects Jefferson “Jeff” Smith (played by James Stewart, in one of his career stand-out roles), who has become a local hero for saving victims in a fire. It is a mark of more innocent times that Jeff’s unimpeachable integrity derives from his devoted leadership of a pack of Boy Rangers, a detail that, in a modern movie, would set up expectations of a scandal of hypocrisy.
When Senator Smith arrives in DC to take his seat, he suddenly goes missing, to the concern of colleagues, although the audience knows that Capra has sent him on a wonderstruck tour of Washington’s political sights, including the Lincoln Memorial. This sequence establishes a love of American democracy that is threatened when the naive, idealistic Smith becomes a pawn in party power games fought on behalf of entrenched interests.
Yet, even though it effectively suggests, against the tenor of its respectful times, that politics is no job for the honest, this is a film that politicians tend to like. The now glittering print was restored by the US Library of Congress as part of its scheme to conserve key works of culture.
A close second among the best-known and most-referenced political movies is The Candidate (1972), directed by Michael Ritchie. Bill McKay (Robert Redford) is a sort of latter-day Jeff Smith, an environmental campaigner in California, who is persuaded by Democrat power brokers to run for a US senate seat against a three-term Republican incumbent. The passage of a candidate from idealism to trimming pragmatism at the hands of political aides has become commonplace in political fiction and fact, but the film got in early with its pessimism about consensus politics and portrayal of the candidate as a puppet of funders and image manipulators. Aaron Sorkin’s later classic TV series The West Wing seemed to acknowledge it, by making presidential aide Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) a visual and linguistic ringer for Peter Boyle’s Marvin Lucas, the campaign manager who makes Redford’s character more electable.
Seen now, the film is still filled with scenes that would surely resonate with members of the Trump, Corbyn and May teams, such as the flinch of the political professionals when McKay answers a reporter with the words “I don’t know”. His response leads to a tremendous sequence in which the senatorial wannabe is prepped on future likely lines of questioning and the “right” answers to them. A key line – “What do we do now?” – is often quoted sardonically in real political offices.
The Candidate has latterly acquired an unlikely running-mate in The Campaign (2012). Although its chosen genre is gross-out comedy, Jay Roach’s film adapts the premise of the Redford-Ritchie one, with the twist, probably aimed at the box office in Middle America, that a Democrat, Congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is the corrupt incumbent and a Republican, Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), the stable-cleansing challenger.
Scenes in which Brady inadvertently has phone sex with a devoutly Christian family and punches a baby during a photo op reflect the broad nature of the comedy, but there is sharper satire when a stump speech reference to “The greatest American who ever lived – Jesus Christ!” wins wild cheers from the crowd. As Brady becomes more desperate, his rhetoric – accusing Huggins of having “Chinese dogs” and being an Al-Qaida sympathiser because he has a moustache – is now impossible to view without wondering if Trump watches a DVD of The Campaign as debate prep.
Trump’s metaphor about building a wall to keep out Mexicans seems to have been taken as an actual blueprint by many of his supporters. As such, he might also usefully stream Being There, Hal Ashby’s 1979 adaptation of a novel by the Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosiński. Peter Sellers is Chance, a gardener with an autism-spectrum condition whose horticultural observations – “There will be growth in the spring” – are misunderstood as sagacious economic predictions. As a result, and with his name and trade misheard as “Chauncey Gardiner”, he becomes an adviser to an American president and candidate to replace him. The fictional American electorate’s response to Chauncey’s “simple brand of wisdom” has subsequently been echoed at the ballot box.
A prophecy of Trump can also be seen in Bob Roberts (1992), written and directed by Tim Robbins, who also takes the title role of a rightwing country singer, a “crypto-fascist clown” who challenges veteran Democrat Brickley Paiste for a US senate seat in Pennsylvania. Bob’s songs – including the paranoid-patriotic “This Land Is My Land!” and various anti-PC satirical numbers – were intended as savage exaggeration of what have now become fairly mainstream attitudes on the American right. There is also a memorable supporting performance by Gore Vidal, greatest of 20th-century American political commentators, as the threatened Senator Paiste, whose warnings about the dangers of “the politics of emotion” also serve as a soundtrack for our times.
One of the most celebrated cinematic anti-politicians is never seen. The multiple storylines of Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) are converging on a rally organised by a local businessman for Hal Phillip Walker, a populist outsider running for president on the Replacement party ticket. Walker’s Godot-like tendency to remain always in prospect is part of the satire of politics, encouraging viewers to construct an image of the democratic saviour and put their faith in him, as, by implication, voters are prone to do.
The accidental politician genre is mainly American because the US political system requires no party affiliation or representation in the legislature from those who seek to run the country. Britain’s parliamentary structure makes emergency insurgency hard to achieve. Corbyn and May, though both surprise leaders of their parties, served in the House of Commons for 32 and 19 years respectively before achieving power.
One reason that The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, a 2006 BBC1 series with Jane Horrocks as a supermarket manager who makes a populist assault on British politics, proved less successful than other work by writer Sally Wainwright (Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley), was that the character’s rise lacked credibility. The UK archive, though, does hold Bill Brand (ITV, 1976), a provocative Trevor Griffiths drama, with Jack Shepherd as a lecturer who is persuaded to become a northern Labour MP. Its depiction of the presentational emasculation of a conviction politician makes it a conscious transatlantic cousin to The Candidate. Griffiths’s dramatisation of a stand-off in the parliamentary Labour party between socialism and social democracy gives it fresh contemporary relevance.
The American movies, like colleagues on the senate benches, often nod appreciatively to each other. Apart from the many shared platforms between The Candidate and The Campaign, senior political figures in both The Candidate and Being There are played by the same actor, Melvyn Douglas, while the shamanic passivity of Sellers looks like a deliberate nod to Stewart’s Mr White. The characters in Nashville include a rabidly patriotic country singer, who surely influenced Bob Roberts.
And, as might be expected, Washington-outsider films have tended to appear at particular moments in American political history, although the movies can be divided into two types, being deliberately or prophetically topical.
On the eve of the second world war’s testing of the strength of western democracy, Mr Smith Goes to Washington fretted about the integrity of the heart of US government. Its interesting tensions perhaps reflect the Italian-American Capra’s shared heritage from a nation notorious for political instability and one that boasted of its inviolability.
Also impressively prescient is The Candidate: released in the year of Richard Nixon’s landslide re-election, it anticipates both the American suspicion of liberalism that would doom Nixon’s Democratic opponent, George McGovern, and the newly ruthless methods of campaigning that led the Republicans to bug their opponents’ offices in the Watergate building. This would cause Nixon to resign in 1974, which bequeathed America an accidental president in Gerald Ford.
Redford’s Bill McKay – likable, intelligent, but uncomfortable with the muddying effects of power – can also be seen to have anticipated the presidency of Jimmy Carter, elected in 1976 to make the presidential residence look white again after Watergate.
Unsurprisingly, it was in the era of Nixon and his aftermath that explorations of alternative politicians polled highest. Chauncey in Being There is even more of a holy innocent than McKay, as, we suspect, would Hal Philip Walker have been, had Altman let us see him. And, if Senator McKay rehearsed the Carter presidency, Gardiner and Walker seem now to have been previewing Ronald Reagan’s folksy-populist takeover of the Republican party.
The genre then became quiescent until the next wave of American anti-political populism in the early 1990s. Spookily, Bob Roberts was released in the year that the Texan oilman H Ross Perot became one of the most successful outsider presidential candidates until Trump, and a joke in the film about the incongruity of a “rebel conservative billionaire” skewers both late-vocation politicians. The Campaign clearly drew on the ascendancy of the neo-con Tea Party wing of the Republican Party and its throwing up of non-traditional candidates, such as Sarah Palin, vice‑presidential nominee in 2008.
In such prediction-defying times, it is probably sensible to say that Trump and Hillary Clinton are expected to contest the November election, rather than that they will. As the most elderly and unpopular pair of candidates of modern times, is it just possible that either might still have to be replaced by an emergency accidental stand-in? Democrats will dream of a Jefferson Smith; rightwing Republicans of a Bob Roberts. Hollywood, widely seen as an enclave of liberalism and other un-American activities, has often been an easy target for rabble-rousing candidates. But the movie business offers an illuminating archive of the dream and nightmare candidates across the electoral spectrum.