america decides

‘If the Election Doesn’t Feel Legitimate, Everything Else Is at Risk’

Photo: HBO

Spoilers follow for Succession season four, episode eight, “America Decides.”

At the core of tonight’s episode of Succession is the series of triangulations among the Roy siblings, the Mencken and Jimenez campaigns, and the ATN news operation itself. The level of filthy politics-and-money transactionalism may have been elevated — somewhat — for the sake of drama, but the way the election plays out (firebombed ballots, asymmetric campaign warfare, a narrow maybe-victory that leaves everyone rattled except possibly Roman Roy) feels unsettlingly plausible. I got on the phone with Eric Schultz, one of Succession’s politics consultants and a deputy press secretary in the Obama White House, to talk about the yikes level of legitimacy in this fictional scenario.

First, just tell me about your role in the constellation of writers and producers and other people who make an episode.
Obviously the writers on Succession are brilliant, they’re creative, and they’re hilarious. And what I think makes the show pop is the attention to detail in the worlds of which they’re writing. When they asked me to be a part of this season, I think it was because, yes, they’re gonna have flights of fancy and storylines that are dramatic and oftentimes outrageous — but it was important to have them against a backdrop that felt real and credible and legitimate.

Talk to me a little about your own experience of election night in 2016. Obviously it doesn’t directly plot onto the Mencken-and-Jimenez election night, but there are bits and pieces of both 2016 and 2020 heavily figuring in it. I know I have my own memories of it — everybody does.
In 2016 I was still working in the White House, and obviously, like the rest of the world, we had anticipated a different outcome. And we had a lot of plans for president-elect Clinton to be announced that evening and had to change course when it was clear that wasn’t gonna be the case.

In the episode there’s a moment fairly early — before we learn about the Wisconsin fire and everything changes — when they say based on exit polls that it looks like it’s Jimenez, and the architecture of the evening starts to take shape. I’m wondering if that kind of call is typical in real-life politics.
Yes. The reason why I think the show has a lot of power is because it is set against a backdrop that is entirely credible. We spent a lot of time on the timeline of the evening, as states report in and what their electoral-college votes were. That was all well-researched. And so, even though a lot of the scenarios of course take dramatic license, it was important to the writers that those events take place in a context that felt entirely plausible. We would spend a lot of time breaking down how states would likely vote, in various scenarios and at various times of the night. The fire being in Wisconsin in Milwaukee was not an accident, right? We wanted to find a place that fit into the timing, a venue that had a sufficient number of votes to be determined …

Right. You need one that’s late-ish in the evening. 
Yeah, exactly. The other two consultants, Ben Ginsberg and Justin Geldzahler, did a lot on this. We needed to find a place that was towards later in the night, and could sort of upend things, and of course be a swing state.

A honeymoon state!
[Laughs.] Yeah. And obviously sabotaging elections, you know, is unfortunately very much talked about these days. A lot of our work on the show was sort of drawing from work that Democrats — from the Biden campaign to election lawyers and outside groups — had: vigilant plans in place for all sorts of election-day scenarios, including, like, tabletop exercises that simulated various disruptions and mischief. Talking through those absolutely informed how the writers went about this show.

I do think you’re right that for me, the parallel in 2020 — and I know you’re talking about 2016, but…

It draws a lot from both, really.
Right. You’ve got Fox, which famously called Arizona for Joe Biden, and none of the other networks had done that. They were out there by themselves. But you can imagine scenarios where they weren’t willing to do that, and then the whole outcome just becomes a lot more squishy.

And so the writers entertained this question from the other way around, right? In real life Fox had called Arizona but they weren’t willing to call the other states because then they would’ve had to be the first to announce that Joe Biden was gonna be president and Donald Trump was defeated. At ATN, their call for Wisconsin ties their hands to do what they want to do.

I also think it’s a window into how big a role the media outlets play in not only the projections of who’s winning elections, but also how much confidence we collectively have in the outcomes. Obviously, if the election doesn’t feel legitimate, everything else is at risk.

I was gonna ask you very specifically about that Arizona moment. It is sort of delicious that ATN’s people box themselves in by calling Wisconsin, and then they’re stuck with their call.
The inverse of what happened in real life. And we know that the professional who ran the decision desk of Fox News was fired for making that call.

When the Succession team was working out this episode, was there yet information available about what had gone on inside Fox in the days after? That they considered whether they shouldn’t have called Arizona, whether they should have been slower in order to placate their viewers? Because there is that similar moment where Kendall says something incredulous along the lines of “We’re not gonna tell ‘em the truth because it’s not what they want to hear?” That inside story became public pretty recently, and I’m not sure if you would have seen it in time to write this.
So I would say that the writers are extraordinarily diligent but they’re also amazingly prescient. I’d have to go back and check, because it’s been years of drip-drip-drip about Fox on election night. Definitely the arc of this episode was in place long before the most recent revelations. But, my goodness, does it all track.

As a person who works in a newsroom, I’m surprised how much communication there is between the ATN executives, Kendall and Roman and Shiv, and the candidates’ camps. 

I know there is always conversation between people on the campaigns and reporters and editors, even editors-in-chief. But at the corporate level, in my experience, that doesn’t take place much. And I’m wondering if that is something you’ve seen in real life and I’m just being naïve, or if it is particular to ATN and its real-life counterparts.
I think it’s the latter. In general, you’re right that there’s a firewall between the business side and the editorial side. At a place like Fox, we’ve seen that trampled over, but in my experience of working in politics, our engagement is with the news side — the people calling the shots on coverage. I think most legitimate reporters and news outlets take great pride that they are siloed from the business decisions and considerations.

That makes it so much filthier to watch!
Right. You don’t want, you know, an independent news enterprise to be compromised for commercial considerations. And a thing about this episode is that we see what happens when that’s turned on its head. What is also true is that we spent a lot of time on each candidate’s speech for election night. Even though in the final cut, it’s sort of playing in the background, we definitely did game out what each candidate’s posture would be in that scenario.

Even though it’s not front-and-center, you can’t take your eyes off Mencken.
I’m glad.

Jeryd Mencken’s speech is spooky, and not exactly what you expect. He has that line that he’s been judged the winner by “an authority of known integrity.”
Yes! And, and I think that’s what we wanted to show, the back and forth, the symbiotic relationship between a campaign and a news outlet and how much influence those news agencies have, and the repercussions if they’re willing to abuse it. And there’s that quiet exchange, I think at the end, when Kendall, Shiv, and Roman are arguing about what to do and Kendall says, well, if we give him the legitimacy to declare victory… They announce he’s the winner, and then he can declare victory. Pulling back the curtain on that sequencing, I think, was a good window into how this works.

Again, speaking as someone who works in a newsroom, this episode freaked me out more than any other. I think I was actually having, you know, some kind of weird emotional flashback to the last two elections.
That’s the magic of the episode. Right? It is scenarios that have not happened, in this setting where it feels like it’s totally plausible.

This article originally appeared in Succession Clubour subscriber-exclusive newsletter obsessing over all the minutaie of the final season. Existing subscribers can visit this page to sign up. If you’re not a subscriber yet, get started here.

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