Russian villains have become standard in television dramas, much to President Trump’s chagrin. Scarcely an evening goes by without at least one program featuring a Russian spy, hitman, hacker or mobster as chief antagonist. Negative TV images of Russia overwhelm Trump’s insistence on the “Russia hoax.”

Russians on TV are up to all manner of skullduggery: fomenting civil strife, skewing elections, murdering by nerve agent, smuggling weapons, you name it. None of these are completely fanciful; all are from current headlines. I doubt if even at the height of the Cold War so many nasty Russians populated our TV screens. They encourage me to refresh my college Russian so I can follow their sinister dialogue.

The Russian-villain ascendancy may have started with “The District,” which CBS ran from 2000 to 2004. It named a fictional “Putin” as a master Russian crime boss. How embarrassing! TV shows are produced months in advance, and the writers could not know that an obscure and probably temporary Kremlin functionary would be president by the time the series aired. They just needed a Russian-sounding name.

Golly, maybe this started our angry confrontation with Russia. (Probably not. The conflict’s roots are geostrategic, not personal.) No Russian president would accept being portrayed as a criminal mastermind. Or perhaps the American TV writers were well-informed about Putin’s KGB background and character and simply projected it forward. Some fictional insights trump factual accounts.

The prevalence of Russian villains is, I think, one reason President Trump is in such trouble. Anyone, say, campaign staffers, having anything to do with Russians must be crooked. Everyone who watches TV dramas knows that. Of course none of this is fair or rational or factual, but we’re in a “post-truth” era. Which seeps more deeply into the mass brain, presidential tweets or TV stereotypes? Trump’s long-running show conflated TV with reality; now the Russians-as-villains image won’t wash off him.







What we have been discussing is part of the larger problem of television stereotyping. Lippmann defined stereotypes as “pictures in the head.” We need and use lots of them, both as individuals trying to make sense of a complex world and as TV writers who continually need new scripts. It is doubtful that we could dispense with stereotypes.

Where are the stereotypes of yesteryear? Mexican drug cartels and Islamic terrorists are pretty much played out. The Serbs of the original “24” are utterly passé. Viewers can’t even remember what the war in Bosnia was about. Actually, few ever understood it. For a while, the Japanese yakuza were pretty good villains but now, with the Japanese economy stagnant, they’re useful only on “Hawaii Five-O” where they are partly replaced by Chinese triads. Always got to keep a few Asian villains handy.

To wean our TV writers off Russian villains, we need to give them better ones. My nominee: Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, now fighting for Syria’s Assad and training his army and Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese client. Quds (Jerusalem) is a branch of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards.

First, Trump tore up the Iran nuclear deal, so we can now demonize Iran as brutal and aggressive. Next, Soleimani is good-looking, with a stern visage and neatly trimmed beard. Hey, television is visual. Third, he’s really evil and passionately hates America. Fourth, he’s in a power struggle with Iranian President Rouhani. That’s enough for two seasons right there.

There’s a further advantage in an Iranian villain: He’s Muslim but not Arab. We’re close to the major Gulf Arab countries — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, now that it’s investing in Jared’s debt-ridden Manhattan tower — so we don’t want to say anything bad about them. Forget that Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 skyjackers of 9/11 were Saudis. Forget that Saudi and UAE are brutally bombing Yemeni civilians.

China has scarcely been tapped as a source for villains. The pouring in of super-powerful fentanyl, which kills thousands of Americans a year, from Chinese labs is unnoticed in TV dramas. Perhaps because it comes in small, mailed packages, we can’t visualize a master fentanyl criminal. How about a series featuring parents, police and health care providers desperately trying to stem the wave of fentanyl overdoses?

The real danger in our search for televillains is finding them in our midst. Mercifully, TV writers have rejected President Trump’s accusations that illegal immigrants (“rapists”) and Muslim Americans (who celebrated 9/11) are a massive threat. Internal scapegoating could rip this country apart even more. Now, recently arrived Russian immigrants are another matter. Many really are superb gangsters and, besides, they’re Russian.

Yale historian Timothy Snyder sadly notes, “Post-truth is pre-fascist.” Why? Because if truth is inherently unknowable, one cannot make factual, rational or moral judgments. Facts are disparaged as vague, manipulated images that cannot be trusted. TV stereotypes contribute to the post-truth path we are on. Can we shake free of them?