As far-fetched as it might sound, the feuding and power-hungry factions in Game of Thrones might be able to offer one or two insights into our own modern political system.
Or at least this is what Stephen Dyson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, claims in his book, Otherworldly Politics: The International Relations of Star Trek, Game of Thrones, and Battlestar Galactica. Dyson cited his experience teaching international relations in China as the inspiration for his book, as it was during this time that he realized many of his examples didn't translate well to a non-American audience.
But Dyson said when he made comparisons and analogies to Game of Thrones, it immediately clicked for his students. Dyson believes this is because international relations, science fiction and fantasy all share a dependence on world building in order to explain essential truths and theories.
So in the wake of the season six Game of Thrones premiere, Dyson and I sat down to talk about what insights the show could offer into our own political system and the resemblances of current presidential candidates to the men and women of Westeros and Essos.
Donald Trump, definitely a Lannister and not a Stark, but also maybe a character we haven't met yet
Dyson is hesitant to cast any single character as the Republican frontrunner, as he's already such an outsized character in real life, but when I asked if Trump would fall under the Stark or Lannister family, there was no question in Dyson's mind that Trump would be a Lannister.
"The Lannisters are commercially oriented, they’re intensely political, and they believe in deal making," said Dyson. "I’m sure not all Lannisters would accept Mr. Trump as one of their number, but I think that's the dynasty into which he would fit in most comfortably."
At the same time, however, Dyson brought up the point that as a political outsider, Trump represents something outside of the normal political order. "If Game of Thrones is about these clashing dynasties and if American politics for many years has been about the Bushes and the Clintons, I mean what Trump represents is blowing all of that up, doesn’t he?"
One could even argue that as a complete outsider, Trump might be more analogous to the barbarian Dothraki tribe, or even the White Walkers. Both are outsiders that seek to destroy old establishments within Game of Thrones with brute force. But Dyson isn't entirely convinced that we won't see a character in later seasons that is more comparable to Trump. Especially if the old establishments within Game of Thrones continue to war with each other to the point of self-destruction.
Hillary Clinton and Cersei Lannister: women rulers in male dominated worlds
To be clear, we're not saying that Hillary Clinton is a scheming and, at times, murderous queen willing to do anything for power. But both are held to different standards as women in power in ways that can work against them.
Like Clinton, Cersei Lannister, Dowager Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, is constantly thwarted in her ambition as a woman trying to rule in an incredibly sexist and male dominated world.
For instance, Cersei is forced to marry the profligate and promiscuous King Robert Baratheon at the insistence of her father — and it's a union that repeatedly humiliates her. Hillary wasn’t forced to marry Bill, or even to stay with him, but sometimes it almost seems like he goes out of his way to embarrass her on the campaign trail.
Additionally, Cersei's public shaming in season five was absolutely brutal and absolutely gendered. The punishment was far more humiliating for a woman in that situation than a man, and it gave even the most ardent Cersei-haters a flicker of sympathy.
So, Dyson said, it’s pretty understandable that when Cersei comes to power in the fifth season, her "innate talent" is thwarted by a "siege mentality" informed by her life circumstances that turn her reign into a disaster.
Similarly, a number of gendered indignities have probably given Hillary a "siege mentality" of her own when it comes to the press. Now she is often seen by the public, fairly or not, as guarded and untrustworthy.
"The Sanders campaign would say she [Hillary Clinton] has a judgment problem and she's being warped by her experiences," said Dyson. But of course, her supporters would counter that the secretary is routinely held to a different standard than many of her male counterparts.
Bernie Sanders and Mance Rayder: challenging the 1 percent unsuccessfully
If Cersei Lannister and Hillary Clinton are bound together as unfairly disparaged women in power, Dyson argues that Bernie Sanders is embodied by the antithesis of traditional Westerosi society — Mance Rayder, King-Beyond-the-Wall and leader of the wildlings, or free folk.
"The wildlings were the ones who believed in equality and didn’t believe in nobility," said Dyson. "They didn’t believe that there should be 1 percent of the people with all the power and the wealth and everyone else should just kind of do what the 1 percent said."
But perhaps the analogy to Mance Rayder is particularly foreboding for the Sanders's campaign, as things did not turn out terribly well for him at the beginning of season five.
"You know Clinton always says Sanders is totally impractical and it will never work," said Dyson. "It's a nice idea, but the entrenched order is too strong. You've got to work within it." And Mance Rayder, of course, is an example of what can happen when challenging the established order in a world arguably far more unequal than our own.
Ted Cruz and Walder Frey: reckless violators of societal norms
For Dyson, Ted Cruz is interchangeably Roose Bolton or Walder Frey, characters who have both violated the norms of their society, or the rules by which the game is played. "There is an argument in international relations that if you violate the norms of a society you might get away with it temporarily, but you will be punished in the end," said Dyson.
And while Roose Bolton and Walder Frey have yet to pay the price for their treachery, it seems inevitable there will, at some point, be repercussions for their actions. Dyson believes the same to be true of Cruz, who he argues rose to power without first properly paying his dues within his own party, and as a result angered a lot of the Republican establishment in the process.
"I think we’re all wondering with Ted Cruz if there is going to come a point when he might think 'You know, I got some temporary political advantage from stabbing Republican colleagues in the back in the Senate,'" said Dyson. "'But now I could really do with their support and it might have been nice to not have been so despised.'"
Not as popular as Jon Snow, but John Kasich also needs an extraordinary reboot
The fanfare surrounding Jon Snow's purported death has arguably exceeded speculation in John Kasich's own bid for the presidency — he's been consistently pretty low in the polls. But both men are united in their need for extreme interventions in order to survive.
Raging debate has speculated whether Jon Snow is actually dead (as of episode one in season 6, he still is), considering he's such a popular character on the show. And while the same attention hasn't been extended to Kasich's campaign, there is still interest in his viability as a candidate, especially amid talk of contested conventions. Dyson compares the two saying, "Maybe only an act of the supernatural can resurrect the Kasich campaign. It's also what they’re saying might resurrect Jon Snow in the show."
But as we know, the world of Game of Thrones is convoluted. And these are just the reimaginings of one professor — so if you're interested in other possible parallels and connections, check out our content below.
Correction: This article originally stated that Cercei's public shaming for adultery was a type of punishment exclusive to women. This is not the case. Men in Game of Thrones have also been humiliated in this fashion.