“This is a pivotal moment for our nation. And America’s colors light up when we are able to meet challenges. » Like every year, the President of the United States delivers his State of the Union address in Washington. Gathered in Congress under the vaults of the Capitol, representatives and senators came to hear the Head of State outline the broad outlines of his policy for the coming months.

Suddenly, an explosion. The white dome, so familiar to residents of the American capital, is nothing more than a mushroom cloud of smoke, flames and debris. Congress was disintegrated in a deafening noise by the most dramatic terrorist attack in American history. The president, vice president and his government did not survive. All were buried along with all the parliamentarians and the main representatives of American power.

Fortunately, such a catastrophic scenario has never occurred. But it constitutes the opening scene of a Netflix series, called “Designated survivor” (2016). The plot may seem far-fetched, even laughable. However, it is being considered most seriously at the highest level of state in Washington. Failing to rely on real facts, this series is in fact inspired by an old American tradition, which wants a President of the United States to choose a “designated survivor”, or “designated successor” (in English , “designated survivor”) before every State of the Union address.

This “designated successor” does not attend the speech, but is taken away from Congress, to an unknown location, under the protection of the “Secret Service”. The objective is simple: prevent a power vacuum in the event that an attack eliminates all high-ranking American dignitaries. The Netflix series imagines that an obscure Secretary of State, fired the same morning by the President of the United States, finds himself invested in the White House to face a crisis even more serious than September 11.

Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union speech this Thursday, March 7, 2024. Provided for in Article II of the American Constitution, the exercise was abandoned by Thomas Jefferson in 1801, then reintroduced by Woodrow Wilson in 1913. It allows the head of state to present the directions of his action for the year future. “The entire government and Parliament are brought together in the same place,” explains François Vergniolle de Chantal*, professor at Paris-Cité University and specialist in the United States. Hence the traditional precaution of “Designated Survivor”. »

“This convention dates from the 1950s,” says Franco-American political scientist Nicole Bacharan**. We are in the middle of the Cold War and the hypothesis of a nuclear attack that would wipe out all American officials at once haunts Washington. »

Also read “We supported immigrants for the call to prayer and now they threaten our rights”: in Hamtramck, in the United States, LGBT people feel rejected by the mayor of Yemeni origin

In the American Constitution, the length of the presidential term – four years – is set in stone. Calling emergency elections being unthinkable, a successor must be able to be designated in all cases, including the most improbable, to complete the presidential mandate. “The Constitution establishes an order of succession: first the vice president, the speaker, the resident pro tempore of the Senate, then the secretary of state, etc. », explains François Vergniolle de Chantal.

The name of the “designated successor” will be communicated during the day. Last year, Joe Biden’s choice fell on his Secretary of State for Labor, Marty Walsh, who followed his speech on television from a secret bunker. “Most of the time, the president appoints a second-rank personality,” explains Nicole Bacharan. The most important ministers are never chosen. Those who are in charge of the issues that the president will speak about are particularly keen to be present: the cameras film them at the appropriate time during the speech. »

Also read Donald Trump’s insurrectional campaign to reconquer the White House

Since 2005, “designated survivors” have also been appointed among representatives and senators. Enough to urgently compose a new legislature. It is planned that a representative and a senator could also be appointed speaker or president of the Senate in the event that the presidents of the chamber are killed. Two positions placed 3rd and 4th in the presidential line of succession.

In a nutshell, this “designated successor” convention is more democratic folklore. “The approach is totally old-fashioned and, let’s say it, anachronistic,” concludes François Vergniolle de Chantal. It is more a matter of tradition, of symbolism: the hypothesis of a nuclear attack on Congress seems particularly outdated today. » “This decorum which governs institutions is never anachronistic,” says Nicole Bacharan. Republican traditions and rites give the regime elements of continuity, ultimately contributing to its stability. »

*François Vergniolle de Chantal is the author of The Impossible Imperial Presidency (CNRS éditions – 2016).

**Nicole Bacharan published The Great Days That Changed America with Dominique Simonnet (Perrin, 2021).