There are police in the movie theaters. Some have suddenly closed for the evening. It’s that new Joker movie. Justin Chang explains:
The best superhero origin stories draw their power from a strange, durable tension: an inevitable destination but an unpredictable journey. We know that Bruce Wayne will one day put on some hosiery and swoop past skyscrapers, but how he arrives there, as he did in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” (2005), needn’t be a foregone conclusion. The complications of his family life, the realization of the talents that set him apart, the embrace of a symbolically powerful alter ego: All these familiar beats can be orchestrated and synthesized in ways that will seem both recognizable and revelatory to a shrewd, pop-savvy audience.
“Joker,” Todd Phillips’ sensationally grim new movie about the fall and rise of Batman’s greatest nemesis, fulfills these conventions so that it can turn them violently inside out. With impressive skill and commitment, the director and his star, Joaquin Phoenix, reverse the moral logic of the origin story, replacing its sense of emergent order with a dark plunge into alienation and chaos. We are witnessing the formation of a classic Gotham City persona: the white-faced, purple-suited maniac who has haunted the public’s imagination since his first comic-book appearance in the 1940s. But we are also seeing the disintegration of a man’s psyche in a story that seeks to elicit our pity as well as our terror.
So this will be the movie of the year. Watch an unstable man disintegrate into madness and murder, but understand that’s quite understandable. It may not be forgivable but there it is. Accept it. Accept that this is the world as it is, and Chang notes the danger:
More than a few detractors have already suggested that “Joker” is not merely a depiction of sociopathic evil, but a symptom and enabler of it. Their anxiety, their fear of what might happen when the possibility of real-world violence collides with the toxicity of fanboy culture, is easy enough to understand. In this trigger-happy, politically polarized moment, the argument goes, the last thing we need is a picture that expresses a modicum of sympathy with a lonely, socially awkward, sexually undesirable white-male sociopath who finds power and release in the grip of a firearm.
That’s why there are police in the theaters. This is a trigger-happy, politically polarized moment in America, and although the president is not a lonely, socially awkward, sexually undesirable white-male sociopath who finds power and release in the grip of a firearm, sometimes he does a pretty good imitation of one. And he makes such people glad they are such people. They want to burn it all down, and now that’s understandable. No one would say that’s admirable, but now, finally, that’s understandable. This will be the year of the sympathetic white-male sociopath, the Joker. Watch his personality disintegrate. That’s so damned cool, and you can feel his pain too!
And that makes Donald Trump the Joker. He’s angry at everything and he’s disintegrating. Just watch, or note the account from Washington Post’s Ashley Parker of his Friday morning confrontation with the press:
President Trump paced. He pointed. He parried – jokingly shaking one reporter’s hand and blocking another’s iPhone with his own.
But then came the denouement, a sudden shift into the aggrieved alternate reality that has consumed him since House Democrats launched their impeachment inquiry into Trump urging his Ukrainian counterpart to dig up dirt on a political rival.
“I feel there was in the 2016 campaign – there was tremendous corruption against me,” said Trump, transforming himself – a man who has now publicly asked no fewer than three foreign countries (Russia, Ukraine and China) to look into his political opponents — into the victim of corrupt behavior.
And he was just getting started.
“I was investigated, I was investigated, okay?” he said, before pointing at himself – two rapid-fire taps to his right breast – and adding: “Me! Me!”
Neither Christian Bale nor Joaquin Phoenix could have done this better:
He barked at the media that it was he who ran, he who won, he who was investigated, before accusing the assembled press: “You won’t say that, will you?”
Finally, he began wrapping up: “I was investigated. I was investigated. And they think it could have been by U.K. They think it could have been by Australia. They think it could have been by Italy. So when you get down to it, I was investigated by the Obama administration.”
“By the Obama administration,” he concluded, shouting now, and using both hands to point at himself, “I was investigated.”
No one knew what the hell he was talking about, so Parker suggests this:
Perhaps he was incorrectly claiming that Barack Obama’s administration was investigating him. In fact, the FBI opened investigations into several of his campaign aides – including Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, both foreign policy advisers – but not actually Trump himself.
Or maybe he was conflating Christopher Steele – a former British intelligence officer who during the 2016 campaign compiled a dossier of damaging information on then-candidate Trump – with the British government itself.
Or maybe it was something else:
Trump was angry, and his rambling question-and-answer session seemed to convey an essential truth: That he considers it fair game for him ask foreign governments to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter – who, Trump claimed again with no evidence, were the perpetrators of “tremendous corruption.”
That doesn’t matter, because like Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, he’s in his own nasty little world:
The president has long been comfortable with conspiracy theories. His political rise was abetted by the racist lie of birtherism – the false claim that Obama was not born in the United States. But ever since special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia probe, and now amid the throes of an impeachment inquiry, Trump seems to have moved into a split-screen reality – one in which he is the hero who has, as he tweeted Thursday, the “absolute right” to do just about anything he pleases.
Sociopaths say such things, and they do lose track of what they were just saying:
Trump repeatedly insisted that he was not worried about Biden as a possible 2020 rival – “I don’t care about Biden’s campaign, but I do care about corruption,” he said – a claim undermined by the fact that Trump fixated on Biden, mentioning the former vice president more than two dozen times…
He again claimed his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – during which he asked that the Ukrainians dig up dirt on Biden as “a favor” – was “perfect,” and that when he released notes from the conversation, the reaction was positive.
“They say, ‘Wow, this is incredible,'” Trump said. “We’re very proud of that call.”
Turning his attention to Mueller’s Russia investigation, Trump described that probe as “perfect.”
“We went through two years of Mueller, and that came out like a 10,” the president said.
He’s in his own world, but no president should be, and the Washington Post’s investigative team of Carol Leonnig and Shane Harris and Josh Dawsey show why the president should be at least of this world:
Starting long before revelations about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine’s president rocked Washington, Trump’s phone calls with foreign leaders were an anxiety-ridden set of events for his aides and members of the administration, according to former and current officials. They worried that Trump would make promises he shouldn’t keep, endorse policies the United States long opposed, commit a diplomatic blunder that jeopardized a critical alliance, or simply pressure a counterpart for a personal favor.
In fact, there were blunders from the start:
In one of his first calls with a head of state, President Trump fawned over Russian President Vladimir Putin, telling the man who ordered interference in America’s 2016 election that he was a great leader and apologizing profusely for not calling him sooner.
He pledged to Saudi officials in another call that he would help the monarchy enter the elite Group of Seven, an alliance of the world’s leading democratic economies.
He promised the president of Peru that he would deliver to his country a C-130 military cargo plane overnight, a logistical nightmare that set off a herculean scramble in the West Wing and Pentagon.
And in a later call with Putin, Trump asked the former KGB officer for his guidance in forging a friendship with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un – a fellow authoritarian hostile to the United States.
All this was before the July call to tell the new Ukrainian president to destroy the Bidens or there’d be no military aid for them and they’d be part of Russian in a week. These calls were always wacky and then the inevitable happened:
“There was a constant undercurrent in the Trump administration of senior staff which was genuinely horrified by the things they saw that were happening on these calls,” said one former White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations. “Phone calls that were embarrassing, huge mistakes he made, months and months of work that were upended by one impulsive tweet.”
But Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky went beyond whether the leader of the free world had committed a faux pas, and into grave concerns he had engaged in a possible crime or impeachable offense. The release last week of a whistleblower complaint alleging Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rivals as well as the release of a rough transcript of the July call led to House Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump.
Oops. That’s not good, but this was never good:
The first call Trump made that set off alarm bells came less than two weeks after his inauguration. On Jan. 28, Trump called Putin for what should have been a routine formality: accepting a foreign leader’s congratulations. Former White House officials described Trump as “obsequious” and “fawning,” but said he also rambled off into different topics without any clear point, while Putin appeared to stick to formal talking points for a first official exchange.
“He was like, ‘Oh my gosh – my people didn’t tell me you wanted to talk to me,’ ” said one person with direct knowledge of the call.
Trump has been consistently cozy with authoritarian leaders, sparking anxiety among aides about the solicitous tones he struck with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Putin.
“We couldn’t figure out early on why he was being so nice to Russia,” one former senior administration official said.
That okay. No one can figure that out, but maybe there’s nothing to figure out:
In another call, in April 2017, Trump told Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who had overseen a brutal campaign that has resulted in the extrajudicial killings of thousands of suspected drug dealers, that he was doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
Trump’s personal goals seeped into calls. He pestered Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for help in recommending him for a Nobel Prize, according to an official familiar with the call.
“People who could do things for him he was nice to,” said one former security official. “Leaders with trade deficits, strong female leaders, members of NATO… those tended to go badly.”
So there was this:
In a summer 2018 call with Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump harangued the British leader about her country’s contribution to NATO. He then disputed her intelligence community’s conclusion that Putin’s government had orchestrated the attempted murder and poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil.
“Trump was totally bought into the idea there was credible doubt about the poisoning,” said one person briefed on the call. “A solid 10 minutes of the conversation is spent with May saying it’s highly likely and him saying he’s not sure.”
He does have a problem with women, and with rules:
Trump has rejected much of the protocol and preparation associated with foreign calls, even as his national security team tried to establish goals for each conversation.
Instead, Trump often sought to use calls as a way to befriend whoever he was talking to, one current senior administration official said, defending the president. “So he might say something that sounds terrible to the outside, but in his mind, he’s trying to build a relationship with that person and sees flattery as the way to do it.”
The president resisted long briefings before calls or reading in preparation, several former officials said. H. R. McMaster, who preferred providing the president with information he could use to make decisions, resigned himself to giving Trump small notecards with bulleted highlights and talking points.
“You had two to three minutes max,” said one former senior administration official. “And then he was still usually going to say whatever he wanted to say.”
And then he became the Joker:
In a conversation with China’s Xi, Trump repeated numerous times how much he liked a kind of chocolate cake, one former official said. The president publicly described the dessert the two had in April 2017 when Trump and Xi met at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort as “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you have ever seen.”
Trump preferred to make calls from the residence, which frustrated some NSC staff and West Wing aides who wanted to be on hand to give the president real-time advice. If he held the call in the Oval Office, aides would gather around the desk and pass him notes to try to keep the calls on point. On a few occasions, then-Chief of Staff John F. Kelly muted the call to try to get the president back on track, two officials said.
That never worked. The Joker is a giddy giggling anarchist. But that leaves the Republicans in a bind, as Catie Edmondson explains here:
Republican leaders are struggling to settle on a clear message and effective strategy for responding to Democrats’ aggressive and fast-moving impeachment investigation of President Trump, thrown off by early stumbles and a chaotic White House that have upended efforts to set a steady tone.
With Mr. Trump effectively functioning as a one-man war room – doling out a new message, and provocative statements, almost by the hour – top Republicans have labored to find a unified response to push back against the inquiry and break through a near daily cascade of damaging information.
Instead, they have tried to avoid tough questions about Mr. Trump’s conduct, staying mostly silent.
Calvin Coolidge, the small government laissez-faire Republican president from 1923 to 1929 said it best – “I have never been hurt by what I have not said.”
Let’s not talk about it, because it’s dangerous to talk about it:
“The obvious challenge for everybody here is that they are working with a president with no tolerance for anyone to criticize” him, said Brendan Buck, a former counselor to the last two Republican House speakers, Paul D. Ryan and John A. Boehner.
Rather than acknowledging that Mr. Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president, in which he asked that the leader investigate a leading political rival, was inappropriate and moving on to a debate about whether that rose to impeachment, Mr. Buck continued, “they’re getting stuck wrapped around the axle of whether what the president did was wrong, or whether he even did it in the first place.”
There was a lot of that going around:
Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 Republican, said in an interview on Thursday that “a lot of people” want to get to the bottom of the rumors about the Bidens and that Mr. Trump “is echoing what people have been calling for, for a long time.”
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida suggested Mr. Trump was simply trying to provoke outrage from the news media, arguing of his public appeals to China and Ukraine, “That’s not a real request.”
Senator Marco Rubio is an odd guy, but Andrew Sullivan sees this:
Nixon ordered the break-in and the cover-up and tried to keep it all on the down low, where indeed it might have stayed if he hadn’t taped all his incriminating conversations.
Trump is different. He proudly released a “transcript” of a “perfect” phone call that proved a direct attempt to leverage pending U.S. military aid in order to get the Ukrainian government to investigate one of his likeliest opponents in the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden. In the texts of U.S. Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker to European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland, Ukrainian administration staff, and former Ukraine ambassador Bill Taylor prove that.
Trump then allowed a devastating whistle-blower complaint to be made public, yet another damning indictment of illegality and borderline treason.
And that’s that:
The president has clearly committed two high crimes: He has used his position as president to solicit help from two foreign governments, one a Communist dictatorship, in fighting the next presidential election, just as he did in July 2016 with Russia, but this time with China and Ukraine. And yes, these are clear, unequivocal crimes. The chair of the Federal Election Committee, Ellen Weintraub, tweeted the bleeding obvious yesterday: “Let me make something 100% clear to the America public and anyone running for public office: It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election. This is not a novel concept.”
Indeed it isn’t. Far from faithfully executing the laws, this president is openly breaking them – in full view of the world, and in flagrant violation of his oath of office.
And that means he really is The Joker and of course Nixon wasn’t:
It is as if Nixon held a press conference and began it by saying, “Yes, I’m a crook. And the American people deserve to know it. But McGovern would have been a terrible president and so it was entirely worthwhile. Sure, I committed a high crime in tampering with the last election. But sometimes high crimes are necessary to save the country from the Democrats.”
Nixon, for all his profound flaws, would never have said such a thing. His cover-up was, in a way, a tribute to the rule of law the way hypocrisy is often a tribute to virtue. He had some reverence for the Constitution, even as he betrayed it. He had some sense of responsibility for the wider system of government, and for his own political party, even as he struggled to save himself.
Nixon committed high crimes – but, unlike Trump, he didn’t celebrate or publicize them or declare them legal and simply dare the body politic to take him down.
But he wasn’t the white-faced, purple-suited maniac from the comic books who wants to burn everything down, made sympathetic or at least understandable in that new movie. Trump kind of is that guy, and Sullivan says that guy is somewhat understandable:
Looking at his long and abysmal business career, the rule of law was always, always an object of scorn, something only suckers cared about and lawyers were paid to circumvent. For Trump, the law is something to break, avoid or pay off. And as president, he clearly believes he is above it.
That’s an explanation, not an excuse. The Joker is the proper villain for our times, a giddy giggling anarchist. And now he’s the president too.