One of the central ideas of my pop-culture studies is that contemporary politics and media are increasingly processing and presenting information through the lens of comic book narratives. Specifically: superhero themes.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in relation to the current United States presidential race, especially lately as there seems to be a flood of Joker imagery making the rounds. The Joker, of course, represents a very deep archetypal symbol representing, alternatively, The Trickster and The Devil.
Consider the words and imagery from two headlining stories yesterday regarding Donald Trump:
First, from Huffington Post:
And this one, a bit more “on the nose,” from The Daily Kos:
In both stories, Trump is specifically connected with the Batman villain The Joker. This is nothing new in covering politics, as with the Obama “Joker” meme from years ago that was embraced by the hardcore Right…
As well as Drew Friedman’s famous illustration of George W. Bush as the Clown Prince of Crime for Vanity Fair:
But part of the power of linking such comic book characters with public figures is the archetypal connection—matching the person with the essential iconic quality of the superhero or super-villain. This is why to me, the “Obama Joker” ultimately falls flat, as does the GWB one.
In the Obama case, the effort is more to essentially demonize and otherize the president by applying white makeup and smeary eyes and lips. With GWB, who had often been portrayed by the media’s Left as being not too bright, the image of the sullen and sinister Heath Ledger Joker—while visually provocative—just didn’t match up (the Caesar Romero one might have worked better).
On the other hand, Trump’s campaign and demeanor does echo some “anarchic” qualities of The Dark Knight-era Joker. This, plus Trump’s continual insistence that he is “only joking” about certain controversial statements.
As Neal Gabler writes about Trump for BillMoyers.com:
“…here’s the problem with reconfiguring our politics as a movie in which characters actually make things happen. Sometimes you get Batman. Sometimes, though, you get the Joker.”
In this Buzzfeed quizlet, you’re asked to determine whether the following quote is by Trump or The Joker:
Last month, Ben Domenech from The Federalist gave CBS an explanation of Trump’s appeal to the masses that almost seemed “identical” to one Alfred Pennyworth gave about The Joker in The Dark Knight.
“They are desperate for something different than the elites who have failed them for far too long…But they have turned in their desperation to a man who they don’t fully understand and who is not going to deliver on his promises.”
Alfred (talking to Bruce Wayne):
“You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation…And in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”
Of course, in The Dark Knight quote, Bruce Wayne himself stands for the “elites” referred to in the Domenech quote.
And a few days ago, a reader sent this letter to the The Roanoke Times comparing Trump to the current Suicide Squad version of the character played by Jared Leto:
“The actor portrays him as ‘a businessman at his core—inebriated with power and the absolute authority of his own instinct.’ The villain wears the latest duds with a uniquely-colored hairdo and full face-makeup. The movie’s director says Leto brought his understanding of how to “hold and captivate a stadium” to the role. This all sounds disturbingly familiar.”
The other side of the coin (assuming you are not Two-Face) is, of course, that a supporter of Donald Trump would see things completely differently. I am not one of those people—but would be remiss not to indicate that my reality-tunnel is necessarily subjective & that there are alternate reality-tunnels with divergent points of view.
Thus, a quick Google search finds many images of Trump rival Hillary Clinton as The Joker, often in the style of the Ledger Joker—even though, again, the exact archetypal matching is not quite there (in my opinion).
But a Google search also will produce any number of political figures worldwide as The Joker, ranging from Mitt Romney, Vladimir Putin, John Kerry, Bernie Sanders, Harry Reid, Ted Cruz, and on and on and on.
In sum, The Joker has become a standard icon with which to (white grease)paint one’s political enemy. Whether portrayed as a child-like buffoon by Romero, a wise-cracking gangster by Jack Nicholson, a dangerous anarchist by Ledger, or a sociopathic materialistic empty suit by Leto, his basic image has been seared into the collective unconscious of much of the world.