Recently, I saw Todd Phillips’ new film, “Joker,” based on DC comic strips. The Joker is well known as one of the antagonists of the Batman comics, which has inspired a number of films based on Gotham’s socialite savior, most notably those directed by Christopher Nolan. In the original comic book version, the Joker is simply a villain whose task and pleasure is to sow chaos, rather like the Mayhem character in the recent Allstate commercial ads. There’s no backstory to him, let alone character. He makes the mess, and Batman cleans it up.
In “Joker,” Batman never appears and is mentioned only once. As for his civilian alter ego, Bruce Wayne, he is introduced only as a child, a disconnect that suggests that Batman himself is illusory. It’s the Joker who’s the whole story, and Phillips attempts to show how he comes to symbolize a world that has become disillusioned with society.
We meet the Joker as Arthur Fleck, a vulnerable, barely functional character who lives with his elderly mother in a decrepit apartment. Arthur makes his living as a clown and is often the victim of random street attacks and is himself afflicted with a neurological condition that produces uncontrollable fits of laughter and crying.
When he is finally pushed over the edge, he lashes out at those who abuse him, and eventually, against even those closest to him — a Batman in reverse who, with an equally concealed identity, dispenses a vigilante justice gone wild. At the same time, his own purgatory mirrors Gotham’s descent into class warfare and anarchy until he emerges as a popular hero of disorder.
“Joker” is a brutal, ultimately nihilistic film given eerie credibility by Joaquin Phoenix’s chameleon-like performance in the title role, and I left the theater disturbed by it. After walking it off for a couple of blocks though, I was stopped cold by a thought: “Wait a minute. Did you think that was a bad scene? Well, bite on this — You live in a country governed by Donald Trump.” That’s when I realized, not of course for the first time, but in a way I’d never done before, just what we have come to.
Arthur Fleck is lethal and deranged; his violence is contagious and uncontainable. He is a man to be stopped, all the more so because nothing seems capable of stopping him. But he is also pathetic and intensely suffering, and in his suffering, he speaks a kind of truth: that the world itself lacks justice, empathy, and even common decency.
This is also what Donald Trump teaches us, not because he suffers it but because he himself causes it. I don’t mean, of course, that Trump is the source of our world’s evils; rather, he is a product of them — of our radically inegalitarian society, our corrupt plutocracy, our contempt for the other and our despair of the self.
Trump is the epitome of all this, and at the moment, is the driving force behind it. He sows hatred and he spews lies — more than 13,000 of them according to The Washington Post’s daily count, which must be the most tedious fact-checking job in the world and certainly the most dismaying. By now, though, the litany of Trump’s crimes and abuses is so familiar that their recital superfluous, except for the purposes of impeachment. We waste time, energy and spirit in trying to account for them, or to understand the personality behind them, as did the psychologists who attempted a diagnosis of him two years ago in The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.
Suffice it to say that he undermines, corrupts and destroys everything he touches. That means the laws, institutions, rules and norms that define and maintain democratic government and whose maintenance is the core of the presidential oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. I mentioned evil above, and that is perhaps the one enigma of Donald Trump that requires further comment. Evil is willful, focused and intelligent. It means harm, and it knows it.
Donald Trump is too shallow, ignorant and distracted to intend evil, but it courses through him nonetheless; he is its vehicle, he attracts and enables its agents, he recruits its apologists. He is a carrier, and when such vapidity of character, such stupidity, such human insult finds itself elevated to great power, its capacity for harm is virtually limitless. It can even lock infants and small children in cages and tell us that our welfare and security as a nation depend on it. What explanation other than evil can finally suffice to explain such a thing?
We must also ask ourselves, at this point, what conditions us to accept such a state of affairs. Most of us, of course, do not — Trump horrifies and appalls us. But there is a very powerful minority of the electorate that continues to support him. He has cultivated this minority assiduously; we call it his base. It would be a mistake to consider it a monolithic entity. It ranges from Wall Streeters to down-and-outers; it includes every racial, ethnic and religious group; it lives everywhere, perhaps next door to you. It consists of those who have cynically benefited from Trump’s policies and those ruined by them. It has only one encompassing characteristic, at least at this moment of moral and political breakdown. It either does not understand what democracy means, or does not care. Democracy is a difficult pursuit. Fear and hunger can lead people to abandon it. Democracy promises us some version of justice, and when it does not produce it for a sufficient number, it can lose its legitimacy. That’s what put Trump in office to begin with.
If we merely condemn those who voted for Trump, we cannot hope to win them back. Personally, I do not believe that modern capitalism is compatible with democracy — that is, as I see it, with a political system that at least aspires to what we still call liberty and justice for all. If we rid ourselves of Trump but do nothing about what made him possible, his next incarnation will only be worse. Democracy as an empty form is a recipe for tyranny. We’re having our taste of it right now.