‘Billions,’ Bernie and Trump: What the Showtime Hit Says about Election 2016

‘Billions,’ Bernie and Trump: What the Showtime Hit Says about Election 2016


When historians look back on Election 2016, one constant they will see in the rise of Donald Trump, the fall of Jeb Bush and the out-of-nowhere popularity of a white-haired socialist preaching democratic revolution is the unpredictability of a nation hungry for change.

Trump and Bernie Sanders have tossed the old rules out the window – along with the baby, the bathwater and the tub itself. That’s one reason pollsters have had so much trouble predicting early-state primaries and caucuses accurately.

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What novelist and screenwriter William Goldman famously said in Adventures in the Screen Trade applies exquisitely to Election 2016: “Nobody knows anything….”

But for one offbeat indicator of where America’s head is at, consider the breakout Showtime hit Billions. As Trump plays to under-educated and left-behind white voters; as Sanders rails about busting up too-big-to-fail banks and squeezing billionaires who have grabbed all the country’s wealth; and as Wall Street water-carrier Hillary Clinton struggles to match her Democratic rival’s rhetoric, viewers are clicking on a show in which the most appealing character is a rapacious hedge fund hotshot.

In the populist-driven worlds of Trump and especially Sanders, you would expect Billions protagonist Bobby Axelrod, the slippery genius behind the fabulously successful Axe Capital, to be one of the odious One Percenters the madding crowd would love to see on a pillory in the public square.

Instead, Axelrod (at least by Episode 4) is the ruthless scoundrel you find yourself drawn to – not his nemesis, the ambitious U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, who is trying to take Bobby down.

One reason to root for Axelrod is the smashing performance of Damien Lewis, though Paul Giamatti is equally compelling as Rhoades. Another is an of-the-moment storyline, which, despite sometimes feeling dumbed-down as it struggles to explain the ways of the Street and the tricky hedge fund business, remains riveting.

More important than the writing and the powerful acting is who Axelrod and Rhoades represent in the zeitgeist. Rhoades is the ambitious Establishment scold who bends the rules to fit his purposes. Axe is the edgy antihero who won’t be penned in and finds freedom in money.

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It has been suggested that Rhoades is modeled on Preet Bahara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, but he seems more of an Elliot Spitzer. Like Spitzer, Rhoades is an arrogant son of wealth, born with a silver subpoena in his mouth. And his kinky and uncontrollable sexual predilections only enhance the similarities.

With all the Wall Street hating going on, you’d think that however flawed Rhoades is, he would still seem heroic for cracking down on big players in a rigged system – much as Spitzer did when he was the New York Attorney General, perp-walking alleged miscreants off their trading floors.

Instead, it is Axelrod who embodies the mood of the country and perhaps of this election.

Yes, Axelrod is a corrupt and corrupting rich man gaming a sleazy system. But he is also a bootstrap billionaire who lived through the 9/11 attacks, cooks his kids breakfast, remembers his old friends and where he came from, thus far stays true to his once-working-class wife and doesn’t pull his punches like a pandering politician. Most important, he is an outsider raising a middle digit at the government.

At the same time, Axe is the ultimate insider to whom all manner of shady information flows. He demands walk-on-hot-coals-for-me loyalty. He is brash, charismatic, untouched by convention and unafraid of saying exactly what’s on his mind.

“What’s the point of having f--- you money if you never say f--- you,” he says.

Oh, and he’s a sore loser. (Does all that sound familiar?)

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“The show is really a Trojan horse for examining our complicated feelings about class and wealth,” Showtime President and CEO David Nevins told Variety. “We have this new class of the super-wealthy in this country. People aspire to have that kind of wealth, but we also are having the discussion about inequality and what’s fair and what’s not.”

So if the national mood is “Let’s rein in the rich…but, hey, I’d still like to be like Bobby Axelrod,” where does that leave us?

Both Sanders and Trump have called for making the “hedge fund guys” – guys like Bobby Axelrod – pay their fair share or even a bit more (actually Sanders would take a lot more). But as Nevins rightly observes, this is Aspiration Nation, and if there is a candidate who wants to level the playing field a bit, kiss off political correctness and make you feel as though you, too, can someday fly around on a private jet with a pocket full of f--- you money, well, like Axe, he’s got Americans’ attention.  

And he may have their vote.