President Donald J. Trump continued his peculiarly submissive behavior toward Vladimir Putin this week, congratulating the Russian dictator on his victory in what Sen. John McCain called a “sham” election.
Meanwhile, facts coming to light in the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal make it safe to assume Russian propagandists have personal data on millions of Americans and will use it in forthcoming elections unless our government does something about it, which seems highly unlikely.
But you know what? I am not worried one little bit, because Saul Berenson is now on the case as national security adviser tracking down the Russians responsible for pumping fake news and propaganda into our media ecosystem.
I know Berenson is a fictional character played by Mandy Patinkin in Showtime’s splendid “Homeland” series — a character, by the way, who can create as much chaos with his patriarchal and often wrongheaded certainty as Trump does.
And in no way do I want to minimize the very real threat posed to our democracy by disinformation, misinformation, fake news and lies, some of it sadly coming out of the White House itself. Readers of this critic know how seriously I take that threat. For the last year, I have considered it the most important story on this beat.
But I reached one of those moments of overload Sunday night that periodically occur when you consume as much media as I do: Media and reality morphed into each other on the screen, and I had to hit the pause button and step away from the screen for a few minutes to sort it out — literally.
It’s not a bad feeling. Viscerally, it is kind of exciting. Intellectually, it’s a reminder of how powerful a role popular culture plays in our lives.
If you haven’t seen the past two episodes of “Homeland,” you should know there might be a couple of spoilers here. You should also know that the episode that aired Sunday is one of the best ever in the series.
Shortly after being brought back into government as a national security adviser to President Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel), Bersenson comes to believe the biggest threat to the U.S. is what he terms “information warfare,” a.k.a. fake news.
His epiphany comes in the wake of a Ruby Ridge-like standoff between far-right militia members and the FBI. A fake photo alleged to show the dead body of a teen militia member shot by the FBI is posted on the web and sets off a gun battle at the standoff that leaves 19 dead.
Berenson has a hunch the fake photo is the work of a Russian propagandist who pulled a similar ploy in the Ukraine two years before. That operative is now in the U.S., planning more havoc here.
I was OK until that character, Yevgeny, appeared on the screen Sunday night, and I had the sense that I knew the actor who played him from somewhere else. It took a minute before I realized the actor also plays Oleg Burov, a well-connected and appealing KGB operative on “The Americans.”
I had just seen Burov in episodes that I screened of the final season of “The Americans,” which begins Wednesday on FX. (P.S. The three episodes I saw are great. I don’t know how I am going to survive without this series in my life after it ends.)
I am fascinated by the characters of Burov and Yevgeny, and I am deeply impressed with the Russian-born actor who plays them, Costa Ronin. But a “Homeland” story line merging with the 10 million hours of Trump-Russia coverage I see every week on cable TV, and then all of that merging with “The Americans” resulted in pop culture overload for me.
That TV moment about more than just the cliches of art and lfe imitating each other.
It was a reminder of the complicated and powerful dance great pop culture often does with social reality.
The “Homeland” story line with Berenson methodically tracking down the Russian operative manipulating our media ecosystem to create chaos and generate bloodshed speaks to both a fascination with a real-life story line dominating our civic conversation and a yearning shared by many of us in connection with it.
On one level, Berenson is a symbolic surrogate for Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel tasked with investigating the role Russians might have played in our 2016 election. Mueller is specifically looking at whether there was collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign in the election. (Maybe you’ve seen some of the Trump tweets screaming “NO COLLUSION!”)
For all his bad calls in and out of the CIA, Berenson has almost always been a moral beacon in the series concerned first and foremost with serving the country rather than his personal interests. He is seen much the way many of us see Mueller as he pores through the records and actions of a Trump administration that seems far more concerned with private gain and gaming the system than public service.
So, as we watch Berenson on this new storyline, we invest our hopes for Mueller in him — and vice versa. That’s part of the pleasure generated by pop culture that resonates with social reality. We get to symbolically experience what we can, perhaps, only hope for — or fear — in our real lives.
The ancient Greeks understood that in creating drama that allowed audiences to live out not only their most pleasurable fantasies, but also their worst fears. (The Greeks seemed to be a lot better at the latter.)
But I believe the new “Homeland” story line has the potential to connect at an even deeper level with what many of us are feeling these days, It has the potential to speak to a growing need, even a yearning, in many of us for our government to respond in a meaningful and forceful way to what the Russians clearly did to our democracy in the 2016 election.
It is maddening to get more and more information about how the Russians used social media platforms like Facebook to exploit our democracy in the 2016 election, and neither the tech giants nor Trump do anything meaningful about it. The intelligence community is united in stating such meddling as fact. Meanwhile, the Russian troll farm continues to manipulate and pollute our media ecosystem.
It is beyond maddening to see this president, who talks and swaggers like a second-rate TV tough guy, kowtow to Putin even as the dictator’s assault on our democracy continues.
The new “Homeland” story line with Berenson stalking the Russians who are creating havoc here speaks to that sense of frustration and impotence in us. I cannot wait to see where the producers will take it.