‘There’s a Complete Destruction of Reality’
The man who wrote “Death of Stalin” and “Veep” struggles to come to grips with Trump’s dysfunction.
Last weekend, as U.S. President Donald Trump’s doctors lined up in white coats in front of Walter Reed Medical Center to issue opaque, often confusing statements about Trump’s health, it drew comparisons to the film The Death of Stalin, the darkly comedic portrayal of the chaos unleashed within the Soviet Politburo following the death of the generalissimo.
The British satirist Armando Iannucci, who wrote and directed the film, is no stranger to political comedy, having created the HBO series Veep, the BBC’s The Thick of It, and the film In the Loop. Foreign Policy spoke to Iannucci about the role of satire in turbulent times, the State Department’s ill-fitting chairs, and how he’d react if the events of 2020 were handed to him as a script.
What follows has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Foreign Policy: You filmed Death of Stalin in 2016 before Trump was elected. What do you think you would have said then if a time traveler from 2020 had come and told you, by the way, people are going to be comparing this movie to the health of a U.S. president, and that president is Trump?
Armando Iannucci: I think I probably would have thought, “Right, let’s make sure we get this on film!” It’s not that we knew Trump was going to happen, because obviously that was a complete shock to everyone. But the reason I looked at that story was because that kind of strong leader, authoritarian, the “I’m not a standard politician. I’m an outsider. I want to be tough.” That was happening a lot. It was happening with Putin. It was happening with Erdogan in Turkey. It was happening in Hungary. Le Pen in France. We had UKIP in the U.K. That sense of politics is just going in a strange 1930s way. And it’s just bizarre that it’s happening again, and most of the people who experienced it the first time are no longer with us. I kind of thought that actually it would be a good time to look at, you know, what that can lead to.
FP: When you were writing Veep and The Thick of It and also The Death of Stalin, what did you learn about politics and power?
AI: A lot of it is about show. A lot of the buildings either in Whitehall or in Washington, they look grand, they look like they were from ancient Rome. They look like power is centered there. But when you go inside, you realize that they’re just a set of dingy offices. And there’s a lot of office politics going on.
When I was going around the State Department, I could see that none of the chairs fitted the desks because they were under so much pressure to cut costs that they would just buy some cheap chairs and buy some cheap desks. But the chairs were too high to fit under the desks. I was going around the West Wing and it’s such a tiny warren of small corridors. And yet, there was a four-star general just sitting on a tiny stool with a laptop because he wanted to say he was working from the West Wing. He could have an enormous suite of offices across the road … but no, he’d rather say that his address was the West Wing. So he was quite happy to sit in the corner with a laptop.
And also what was interesting was just how young people were. When America invaded Iraq, the constitution for Iraq was being drawn up by some 24-year-old who had just come out of Georgetown University.
AI: Exactly! Yes, it’s that. That for me was eye-opening. And therefore, you begin to realize, they’re human beings, but they’re a strange breed of human beings who get off on talking about politics all the time. But they fundamentally share the same kinds of petty concerns and ambitions as everyone else has, really.
FP: Do you think that it will ever be possible to write a satire about the Trump administration?
AI: Possibly, maybe in about 15 years. Or instantly. It’s like every day is a whole new kind of episode really. Today he’s turned into this snake oil salesman doing videos like, “I’m cured. You can be cured too, if you just take my special regimen of cocktails.” It’s absurd. And nobody saw that happening even a week ago.
FP: If somebody had handed you the story of 2020 from the perspective of Washington as a script for, say, Veep the Movie, what would you say?
AI: I’d have to try and work out what the theme was, because it feels so random. I think the theme is the complete destruction of reality. It’s any authority figure is no longer regarded as credible. Because he’s so worn down our belief in words and facts and information. And what the internet has done is put all these words and facts in a larger field of other words and facts that are nonsense, and it’s very difficult to pick one out from the other.
FP: Do you think that you’d be able to write Veep now, or has it been surpassed by reality?
AI: I’m glad I’m not doing Veep now. If anything, Selina Meyer would be the hero figure, trying to kind of bring a bit of sense into things. In comparison with what’s happening, she’s not that bad.
Things like Veep and The Thick of It were written at a time where there was understood to be a code of conduct which you publicly stuck to. And every episode was how that code was bent and slightly corrupted and even broken.
But if there is no code, if Trump is saying I could shoot a guy in the middle of Fifth Avenue, and still be elected, if he can be shown a clip of him saying something and yet say, “I didn’t say that. I never said that,” you know, there are no rules anymore.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack