The Joker in the White House

Joel Bellman

It’s a truism that life imitates art, and for the latest example, look no further than the current box office. The recent Warner Bros. release of Joker may be the luckiest studio marketing break since Columbia released The China Syndrome 12 days before the Three Mile Island reactor meltdown.

Joker landed in theaters only 10 days after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced her support for a formal impeachment inquiry. After months of resistance, Pelosi was finally moved to act after a new whistleblower complaint detailing just the kind of collusion with a foreign government to subvert a presidential election that Trump had loudly and insistently denied in the last presidential election.

Adding insult to injury, Trump’s call to the Ukrainian president to extort his cooperation in digging up dirt on Joe Biden—while Trump was holding up Ukraine’s desperately needed military aid already appropriated by Congress—came on July 25. That was the very day after Special Counsel Robert Mueller had testified before Congress about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and Trump’s efforts to obstruct justice by multiple attempts to thwart or shut down Mueller’s investigation.

Since Pelosi’s announcement, a cascade of new revelations has exposed Trump’s parallel efforts to pressure other countries, including Britain and Australia, to enlist them in the Trump administration’s campaign to discredit the Mueller report and falsely paint the Democrats as the true beneficiaries of foreign collusion in the 2016 campaign. Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, along with others in their agencies, appear to have been willing participants in the effort as well. Meanwhile, White House officials took pains to cover up Trump’s illicit foreign contacts by stashing transcripts of politically compromising presidential phone calls in a secret encrypted computer server—and may even have obstructed justice anew by withholding some of the incriminating information from the Mueller investigation. 

Like Three Mile Island, Trump’s misconduct has finally reached critical mass and touched off a political chain reaction that seems to be precipitating a total meltdown of both the president and his presidency. Faced for the first time with the very real prospect of impeachment and political defeat, if not conviction, removal, and even criminal prosecution, Trump has become ever more unhinged in his tweetstorms, raging and raving, insulting, cursing, and threatening Democrats and Republicans alike. He’s increasingly manic, and increasingly a menace—not just a joke, but a real-life Joker. 

Since the Joker’s debut in Batman #1 in 1940, he has become one of the most infamous and perversely popular comic-book villains. He embodies everything his nemesis, the Caped Crusader, is not. Where Bruce Wayne is urbane and sophisticated, and his alter-ego an avenging angel of elusive mystery and moral rectitude, the Joker—particularly in his latest incarnation by Joaquin Phoenix—is a deranged mess. As the sad-sack professional clown and failed comedian Arthur Fleck, he suffers continual brutality, humiliation, and disappointment by a cruel and indifferent world. As the transmogrified Joker, he repays humanity’s scorn and contempt with anarchy and nihilism on a grandly operatic scale, instigating violence and destruction purely for their own sake. And in a bleak and cynical age, he becomes a kind of populist folk hero to the angry and disaffected masses.

As Heath Ledger’s Joker memorably put it in The Dark Knight (2009): “Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair.”

It’s what we might call “disruption;” tech-bros would call it “breaking shi*t,” or as Slate defined it,  “transgression with no higher purpose.”

In other words, Donald Trump. Into the stuffy, insular, and conventional world of the Beltway establishment, the brash real-estate hustler and reality TV star from Queens exploded like a giant stink bomb. 

Is there a better super-villain origin story than Donald Trump’s? A domineering, abusive father; a lifetime of coddled privilege, breaking rules and laws with amoral abandon with few if any consequences; betraying business colleagues and serial spouses alike; delusions of grandeur and a lust for riches, fame, and personal gratification at any cost; a seething resentment toward the social and political class (and a presidential predecessor) that mocked and spurned him; and a will to power that rivals that of the worst despots and dictators in human history. Trump is proudly ignorant, intellectually incurious, and lacks any capacity for sustained attention or reflection. He is a shallow creature of impulse and inconstancy, incapable of earning trust or inspiring genuine loyalty.

On policy, Trump is erratic and unreliable; in his naked pursuit of self-interest, he is utterly predictable. And after abusing his office ever since the day he illegitimately assumed it, he may finally succumb to the Peter Principle: he has risen to the level not only of his incompetence, but quite possibly his impeachment, removal, and criminal prosecution as well.

If Joker offers a villain fit for our times, Donald Trump is the president for our times.

Real life, however, rarely affords us a Hollywood ending.


Joel Bellman

Joel Bellman worked in journalism and local government in Los Angeles for 35 years. He now teaches and writes on politics and pop culture. He can be contacted at

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