Film

Joker and Trump are proof that some white male Americans see everyone else as out to get them

With discussions of Trump’s impeachment and a new Joker movie that seemingly explores the alt-right followers who got him to power, Kevin Powell looks at how both came to be

I saw the new Joker movie. Oh, boy. I sat in the back row mad close to the exit – intentionally – because I could not help but think about mass shootings and angry males, especially when I saw a couple of men sitting alone, shifting in their seats ahead of the darkness and Joker as I entered the theatre. Terrible to feel this way, but this is America, and here we are.

As I digested this good-but-not-great character study of the Joker performed by the breath-taking Joaquin Phoenix, I could not help but think about one of the greatest American films ever, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, featuring Robert De Niro’s star turn as the antihero’s hero, Travis Bickle, and how shamelessly Joker samples and remixes that 1976 film. I also thought a lot about the current state of this country under the beet-red dictatorial thumb of one Donald Trump, a man so bloated with hate and violent tendencies, with race and male and wealth privilege gone crazy, that an entire nation finds itself trapped in a viciously abusive relationship with him.

Yes, Trump should be impeached. No, I do not think Republicans, or his base, will abandon him, because they need what he represents, what he fuels, just like Travis and Joker need “the others” to blame, to help justify their cruel and crude downward spiral into madness. Besides, what could be easier than to call for the impeachment of Donald Trump because of any, or all, of the following: Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election; potential Russian, Ukrainian or Chinese influence on the 2020 campaign cycle; how he treats immigrants, African-Americans, the LGBTQ+ community, women of all backgrounds, workers, the disabled, those with little to no healthcare; his reckless disregard for truth, competency, justice or basic human decency? I mean, take your pick!

How do we define manhood in this fair land and why can’t we see the simple truth that America loves violence in every form because America was “founded” on violence?

As I watched Joker, I reflected on past presidents such as Andrew Johnson, who, on the heels of Abe Lincoln’s assassination, publicly rallied hate against newly freed black citizens with a national speaking tour. I concluded that we must consider the question that we never ask when we look at Richard Nixon or Donald Trump, Taxi Driver or Joker: how do we define manhood in this fair land and why can’t we see the simple truth that America loves violence in every form because America was “founded” on violence? We obsess over violence like we obsess over food or the latest iPhone.

I respectfully disagree with US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent statement in which she describes the times in which we live as an “aberration”. An aberration for whom? Or, rather, when would we call any historical period “normal” when our country marginalised, hated on or disenfranchised anyone, just because of some facet of their identity? Presidents Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon and Donald Trump and the fictionalised movie characters Travis Bickle and the Joker hold more in common than merely whiteness and their blatantly disturbing notions of manhood. They also represent white fear in its most extreme forms, and that massive fear is there because of what they have been told they are, throughout American history, from generation to generation, has been a lie. A lie built on a thirsty lust for power and obscenely flimsy mythologies; a lie built on the backs and exploitation of those others or, yes, anyone who is not them. Whiteness, yup, is a social construct, is a system, and so is any meaning of manhood built on violence, greed, ego, senseless competition, sexism, homophobia, transphobia or any other sort of debilitating anxiety that swells our heads with the belief that someone is coming to get us, that someone is coming to take something away from us.

See, for example, another important Scorsese film, Gangs Of New York, and how American-born whites and newly immigrated whites are pitted against each other, with the endgame being consolidated whiteness and consolidated white power at the expense of those not white. See, for example, how, if you are a wealthy white male spiritually and intellectually decapitated by your privilege and access to the levers of power, you get to become a Donald Trump, even if you are mediocre, even if your white-skin privilege does not save you from eventual self-destruction and society’s impeachment. See, for example, how if you are a poor or working-class white male living with his mother, like the Joker, who believes, in his bare bones, it is me against them, you are able to become an outcast, a menace to society, a shape-shifter who gets to lean in on your whiteness and your maleness, even if your white-skin privilege does not save you from eventual self-destruction and society’s impeachment.

They also represent white fear in its most extreme forms, and that massive fear is there because of what they have been told they are, throughout American history, from generation to generation, has been a lie.

For Andrew Johnson it was blacks and their audacity to not only want to be free, post-slavery, but to be equal. So he quite literally busted open the door for the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists to terrorise black America for another century. For Richard Nixon it was Jewish people or black radicals such as the Black Panthers, anyone he felt threatened the sanctity and law-and-order mandate of his presidency. For Bill Clinton (yes, some so-called lefties are very guilty too) it was the Los Angeles rebellion and black criminals who needed to be locked up for good (see Clinton’s devastating and inhumane crime bill). For Donald Trump it is anyone – like anyone – who is not white and male and super-rich and not him. Because Trump is racist whiteness and sexist manhood on steroids, writ large for all to see, but there ever since Native Americans were mercilessly pursued and slaughtered and since black folks were savagely beaten down into terrifying and mostly silencing slavery.

For a Travis Bickle, or a Joker, or any average white man, or any given mass shooter on any given day, it is because they are not, nor could never be, a major political leader, a major celebrity or anything of the sort, so they create alternative realities that centre themselves, in the profoundly selfish way we who are males or we who are white are taught to do.

Joker is not just a movie just like Donald Trump’s presidency is not some aberration. Joker and Trump, to be blunt, are the many insecure white males I have encountered throughout my life – teachers, college professors, police officers, coworkers – whose foundations are easily cracked when confronted on their power trips or when they feel threatened, real or imagined. Or it is Bill Clinton, still refusing to apologise directly, in the most human way possible, for his abuse of the presidency with the Monica Lewinsky affair and instead becoming outraged that journalists would even dare ask him questions, in spite of the fact he was impeached for his behaviour. And it is also the abuses of a Bill Cosby, a Harvey Weinstein, of us all who call ourselves males yet never engage in any manner of self-examination whatsoever. Because who is this Joker movie really for, if not for us men and boys, ultimately? We are all Travis Bickle, we are all the Joker, we are all Donald Trump if the best we can offer is being evil and violent and ultra-paranoid when we feel our backs are up against the wall.

Yes, mental illness must be discussed, because we are clearly a very traumatised world and have always been, and because any manhood – mine, yours, Trump’s or the Joker’s – is highly dangerous and spiritually and emotionally impeachable if we refuse to have this conversation.

And, finally, at the same time we’ve got to ask ourselves why has all of this been permitted to wreak havoc for so long? That, as a result of our indifference and deferred eyes, the most barbarian versions of manhood can simply waltz into the White House? Or that such a violent orgy of a film like Joker can be made and smash box-office records and few ever bother to ask, far beneath the surface in both instances, how and why?

Kevin Powell is an American civil and human rights activist, public speaker and the author of 13 books, including his autobiography, The Education Of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey Into Manhood. His upcoming book will be a biography of Tupac Shakur, the global hip hop and pop culture icon.

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