This weekend's season finale of Rick & Morty (S3 E10, "The Rickchurian Candidate") challenges the very institution of the U.S. presidency. In it, Rick, the mad scientist, confronts the president over the abuses of power his office allows him to commit.
By choosing not to model its president on any specific real-life equivalent, the show avoids being a commentary on any specific officeholder and instead becomes a stinging commentary on the office itself. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
Early on, the story establishes that the president, who first showed up in Season 2, has called on Rick and Morty countless times offscreen.This time, the president wants the duo to exterminate "some kind of alien googa" from the "Kennedy Sex Tunnels."
He also ticks off a number of other secret White House locations, "in order of national embarrassment: the Truman Cocaine Lounge, the McKinley Hooker Dump, and the Lincoln Slave Coliseum (he didn't free them all)."
Rick and Morty quickly grow tired of the menial task assigned them and blow it off. They're caught on camera by a couple of Secret Service agents. What do we tell the president, one asks the other. "Tell him the truth—tell him Rick and Morty just blew off America."
Before the title sequence, Rick describes the president, who is never named, as "a spoiled control freak that thinks he runs the world and orders drone strikes to cope with his insecurity"—a largely apt description for each of the three presidents known to have the capability of launching drone strikes. Replace "drone strikes" with "air strikes," and it covers even more modern presidents.
"I'm president of America, which is basically the world," the Rick & Morty president says at one point, "but you didn't hear that from me." That articulates an idea that has driven more than half a century of U.S. foreign policy.
The episode also poked fun at the cult surrounding the presidency in the political class and those aspiring to be a part of it. "I thought young dumb people considered it an honor to work for presidents or whatever the shit," Rick tells Morty.
But Morty, jaded by three seasons of his grandfather Rick's nihilism, is no longer impressed. "Maybe the first few times, but this just sucks."
The episode also shows the president abuse the federal government's surveillance capabilities, a real and persistent threat, and depicts profligate military spending.
"I'm protecting my country," the president declares at one point, refusing to compromise and deescalate a confrontation with Rick.
Since at least 9/11, U.S. presidents have insisted their first priority is "keeping America safe." Some of us would prefer they keep America free. In practice, the obsession with safety has left Americans less free but no more safe.
To add insult to injury, U.S. foreign policy, pursued under the pretext of advancing "national security interests," has made the world, and Americans, less safe.
"I learned about your job at school. You're a civil servant, we're technically your boss," Morty tells the president during one argument.
This may have been how the founders envisioned the presidency when first creating it, but it's far from that now. The decades-long project of amassing vast powers in the office of the president has created an imperial presidency.
The election of Donald Trump should have been a wake-up call about the dangers of such a powerful office. Unfortunately, the so-called "resistance" that has coalesced against Trump has, so far, largely focused on what it perceives as Trump's unique threats rather than the danger of centralizing so much power in one place.
Even after Trump's election, outgoing president Barack Obama, who campaigned actively against Trump and warned that he was "uniquely unqualified" to hold the office, continued to expand presidential power, for example folding U.S. military operations in Somalia under the post-9/11 Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF), rather than endorsing efforts in Congress to bring up a new AUMF for the wars America is waging a generation after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Rick and Morty reminds us that if we couldn't laugh, we'd cry.
If you have a cable subscription, you can watch the episode here. Adult Swim streamed the episode free over the weekend, and some earlier episodes are available to watch without a cable subscription, so at some point this one probably will too.
Check out a clip of the episode here.