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Opinion ‘Joker’ nails the nihilism and opportunism of populist firebrands

Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from the movie "Joker." (Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
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“Joker” — a film so grim that it makes the “Dark Knight” trilogy seem lighthearted by comparison — has clearly struck a nerve with the public. Witness its blockbuster opening weekend. The question is: Why?

On the surface, the hellish urban landscape depicted in the film is a long way removed from present-day reality. “Joker” channels the spirit of 1970s movies such as “Taxi Driver,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Death Wish” and “The French Connection” that depicted New York City as a wasteland of crime and depravity. Today, New York is on track to have the lowest murder rate since the 1950s; Times Square, once a center of sin, has been turned into a Disneyfied tourist attraction; and every neighborhood in Manhattan from the Lower East Side to Harlem has been gentrified. The problem isn’t people fleeing New York, as in the 1970s; it’s too many people wanting to live there, driving up real estate prices.

What’s true for New York is true for most of the country: We are a long way removed from the double-digit interest rates and unemployment rates, and the soaring crime rates, of the early 1980s. Unemployment just hit a 50-year low, and inflation is practically nonexistent. Mass shootings have increased, but crime overall, including gun crime, is down. (There were 4.6 gun murders per 100,000 people in 2017, compared with 7.2 per 100,000 in 1974.)

Yes, wages have stagnated. Yes, there are pockets of poverty in hollowed-out industrial towns. Yes, there is rampant homelessness, particularly in California. And, yes, the opioid epidemic continues to ravage many communities. But, on the whole, most Americans have never had it so good.

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Yet we are more discontented than we have been in decades. For the left, the grievances are income inequality, corporate power and lack of social services. For the right, it’s immigration, “political correctness,” deindustrialization and changing demographics. Above all, the two sides are aggrieved by each other: President Trump pushes the buttons of liberals just as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) do for conservatives.

The spread of communications technologies — social media, TV news channels — aggravates societal divisions and discord. All that online snarling is making us jittery. Like Howard Beale in the movie “Network,” we are all mad as hell now.

Enter Arthur Fleck (a.k.a. the Joker), played by Joaquin Phoenix in a performance for the ages. “Everybody yells and screams to each other,” Arthur says. “Nobody is civil anymore. … Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy.” Yup, that’s 2019 America.

Early buzz about “Joker” centered on whether it would encourage violent loners to flip out. That is a legitimate danger in a country with as many guns as we have, but the movie does not glamorize Arthur’s descent into murder and madness. He is depicted as a mentally ill loser who lives with his mother and can’t keep his job as a low-rent clown. Like many terrorists, he is prey to paranoid delusions and dreams of avenging himself on a society that he blames for his own misfortune.

When Arthur does finally lash out, gunning down three obnoxious businessmen on the subway, he becomes a surprise celebrity. These murders spur an uprising against the 1 percent by people wearing clown masks. Mayhem ensues that is reminiscent of the 1977 New York City blackout. Rescued from the police by his newfound followers, Arthur finds himself as the unlikely leader of this populist clown posse even though, as he says, “I don’t believe in anything. I just thought it would be good for my act.”

Arthur’s nihilism and opportunism in the name of populism resonate eerily in the present day. We have a Joker on the big screen — and a joker in the White House. And not only in the White House. Recent years have also seen the rise of populist firebrands such as Boris Johnson in Britain, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Vladimir Putin in Russia.

They believe in little aside from their own ambitions. (Johnson agonized about whether it was more convenient to be for or against the European Union before becoming an absolutist Brexiteer.) To attain and maintain power, they lie with abandon, demonize their opponents, spread batty conspiracy theories and manipulate people’s genuine grievances.

Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” Arthur asks. It’s not just you, Arthur. It really is getting crazier.

Just watch Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) having a meltdown Sunday on “Meet the Press,” saying he doesn’t trust the FBI or CIA and spouting right-wing disinformation to claim that the real interference in the 2016 election was from Ukraine, not Russia. Those same noxious conspiracy theories are being pursued by the secretary of state and the attorney general at the direction of the president of the United States.

Given the disturbing developments in the real world, it’s not so hard to imagine that a nihilistic, deranged clown like the Joker could become the leader of a mass movement. Other comic-book movies show superheroes saving the day. This one shows a supervillain running amok. That seems more appropriate for the present time.

Read more:

Alyssa Rosenberg: The ‘Joker’ discourse is coming. Here’s what you need to know.

Frida Ghitis: Has the populist storm spent its force?

Jennifer Rubin: Boris Johnson’s populist playbook implodes

Anne Applebaum: Want to build a far-right movement? Spain’s Vox party shows how.