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Morgan Jones: 'Kind of cool, but not really' - Fascism in Succession

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Trite as it is to say, we are in an age with few cultural universals. We don’t all watch the same programmes or listen to the same music. If not quite endangered, the zeitgeist is certainly harder to get a handle on. Succession is one of the few exceptions. The show details the travails of the Roys, as they fight for control of their family-run media empire when patriarch Logan’s grip begins to loosen.

Succession is broadly a comedy (if not a broad comedy), but one thing it is serious about is its consideration of the line between sincerity and irony, and how when it comes to sexist, racist, fascist comments and expressed beliefs, there is very little distance between a purportedly ironic comment and one that is sincere. This is germane to the events of the show on two counts: first, that the Waystar Royco media empire traffics in the rhetoric of the extreme right (“We do hate speech, and rollercoasters”, jibes Roman, the family’s glib youngest son). Second, the protagonists of the series are consistently awful people. A litany of slurs laces their language. The question of how much of what is said is meant simmers behind everything that happens. It is a programme about people being sincerely insincere, about both the personal and the political. “I don’t actually think that, I’m saying what you think I think”, Kendall Roy, played by Jeremy Strong as a kind of tech bro Hamlet, tells his staff after making a joke about government employees being stupid.

Succession approaches these difficult intersections honestly. Will Arbery, the playwright best known for Heroes of the Fourth Turning, is a writer on the 3rd season of Succession. Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a play about Conservative Catholics in the age of Trump, set a few days after the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. It sees four characters return to their small Conservative Catholic college, where their teacher and mentor has become principal. The characters—particularly the character of Teresa, one of the two female leads, who is coded as a Bannonite—talk in often gratuitously offensive ways, constantly edging the line between shock factor, ironic bigotry and a steely undertow of sincerity. Zoe Winters, who plays Logan’s assistant Carrie in Succession, played Teresa in Heroes of the Fourth Turning’s New York run.

Arbery's influence in Succession is particularly clear in an episode where the Roys attend a Republican political gathering, and Roman takes a shine to extremist congressman Jeryd Mencken (an “integralist nativist fuckhead,” according to Shiv, Logan’s only daughter and a corporate Leaner-Inster). There is not a lot of room in popular television for discussions of integralism (in summary: belief in government by Catholic theocracy) and it is clear that the people who make Succession seriously weigh up the politics of its characters’ actions. Trying to sound out how deep Mencken’s far right convictions go, Roman begins his questioning by saying, “fascists are kind of cool but not really”. Weaving between the episode’s unceasing offensive gags you sense the ideas laid out most clearly in Sartre’s 1944 essay ‘The Antisemite and the Jew.’ The anti-Semites, Sartre writes, “are completely aware of the absurdity” of their speech; “they know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words.” In short, flippancy is the lingua franca of nascent fascism; a kind of Teflon armour that makes those who question it sound humourless, literalistic and self righteous.

Succession, more than most television programmes, interacts with the real world and with other fictional realities. The Roys might be the Murdochs; their news channel ATN is maybe Fox, and Shiv works for Senator Eavis, who may or may not be Bernie Sanders (and who fires her for making a joke about needing to wash his hands after meeting a supporter in the street—‘; "I’m saying what you think I think’"). The Vice President is played by the Vice President from House of Cards; the Roys’ mother is marrying aspiring British politician Peter Munnion, and given that Jesse Armstrong, Succession’s creator, co-wrote In the Loop, we can reasonably assume that the link to the fictional MP Peter Mannion is intentional. It is also a television programme in conversation with culture; the presence of Arbery and Winter says something. However, another presence sends a more alarming message.

Dasha Nekrasova, best known as the co-host of the Red Scare podcast, plays Kendall’s PR person Comfry in the third season. Nekrasova has had acting roles, but her fame—admittedly a specific, online kind of fame, the kind of fame endemic to the age of the endangered zeitgeist—comes from the brand of dirtbag leftist anti-liberalism that she and co-host Anna Khachiyan have forged, which delights in a rejection of liberal feminism and liberal orthodoxy. This is all very well, but they have listed from the contrarian to the outright reactionary, with Jordan Peterson, Steve Bannon, and Alex Jones all appearing as guests. More recently, Khachiyan has courted controversy (and also death) by refusing a covid vaccine, subsequently succumbing to the disease and developing a serious autoimmune condition.

The path from study of reactionary or fascist movements to sympathy and even participation is not entirely untrodden. Angela Nagle, author of the 2016 book Kill All Normies, is a frequent guest on Red Scare. The book was prescient in its documentation and dissection of what was then generally termed the alt-right. In the book, Nagle posits herself as a critic, on the left; and, it is worth noting, as a woman investigating an online space defined in large part by its antifeminism. However, in more recent years her writing and positions have listed into a kind of reactionary anti-liberalism. In the words of political scientist Adolph Reed, she’s been ‘got’ by the far right. There is more to this, I think, than a kind of academic Stockholm Syndrome, or even the simple law of diminishing returns on ‘edgy’ material. What made Nagle’s writing, or Nekrasova’s discussion, on these topics insightful was their ability to see and describe the appeal of the ideas at hand. As such, set apart from bloodless social democratic critiques by their ability to ‘get the joke,’ Nagle et al. became absorbed by their own USP. Irony, as the David Foster Wallace quote goes, is the song of the bird who has learned to love its cage; or, in this case, the song of the grifter who has learned to love being in on the joke. But if you are so in on the joke that you’ve given yourself Stills Disease, are you really joking?

Nekrasova is this insincerity principle incarnate; what is the difference between being knowingly pictured smiling with Alex Jones, and agreeing with what Alex Jones says and does? Is Sandy Hook trutherism funny, and if it isn’t, who exactly can’t take the joke? Her presence on Succession (where elsewhere Roman is planning to fill ATN with “e-girls with fucking guns and Juul pods” and “a deep state conspiracy hour but with like a fucking wink—you know, funny”) feels a little like a live round where there should be a blank, reality spiking through to fiction—or perhaps the other way around. Unsettling though they are, Nekrasova’s frequent appearances add a certain verisimilitude to proceedings: Succession may be fictional, but the ideological faults along which it treads are real, and they can hurt you. Or maybe it’s just a bit, idk.

Morgan Jones lives in London and works in Labour politics. She is originally from Ireland and is a contributing editor of Renewal.