The award-winning film Joker has captivated and outraged audiences and critics around the world. Apart from the mesmerizing performance by Joaquin Phoenix and bravura direction by Todd Philips, one of the most memorable things about the film is its treatment of what Hannah Arendt famously termed the banality of evil. As the film begins, we might expect to be thrust into a cartoonish superhero universe, where villainy exudes some sense of sophistication—think a brilliant Bond villain grasping for power. In Joker, however, both the violent rioters and the man who is supposed to be their leader are unremarkable specimens. The mob is made up of the furious everyman, destroying the city as a protest against inequality and plutocracy. And the main villain, Arthur Fleck, is not a criminal mastermind, but rather suffers from mental illness and is carried along by events.
Fleck is not a leader in any conventional sense. As one of the weakest and most unfit members of society, Fleck ends up as a powerful symbol of protest around which the masses organize, yet he himself does not strive to lead. His face in clown make-up—Fleck barely holds down a day job as a clown—becomes emblematic of the movement, with protesters donning clown masks as they rampage through the city. The movement itself is headless, yet powerful and destructive. If Putin in Russia developed the so-called power vertical, the Joker’s movement is horizontal.
The film elicited a strong response among the French, who saw the protest movement depicted in the movie as a stand-in for their own Gilet Jaunes—an ongoing, spontaneous, leaderless protest movement fueled by social anger. If you Google “Joker Gilet Jaunes” you will see many doctored pictures of the Joker wearing a yellow vest, and dozens of articles analyzing the movie in terms of the current political situation in France. And yet here in the United States, a different comparison comes to mind given our political realities: Donald Trump strikes me as the Joker of our times.
The movie is not written to be an allegory about Trump, so one should not expect exact parallels. There are resonances, however. Fleck getting away with several murders in broad daylight echoes Trump famously boasting that he could shoot a person on Fifth Avenue and still get elected. Or the climactic scene where the Joker murders a television host live on the air reminds one of the various violent anti-media fantasies Trump and his supporters have indulged in through the years (the most recent being a grotesque edit of a scene from the film Kingsman: The Secret Service that featured Trump massacring journalists and other political opponents).
Even more interesting is what the movie suggests about modern “leadership,” such as it is. Fleck is patently unfit to lead anything; Donald Trump has been called a highly unfit—if not the most unfit—President in modern history, with a little bit less than half the country supporting his immediate removal from office. But that assessment of “fitness” is tied to a different, perhaps outdated, conception of politics. Trump goes out of his way to downplay anything that might set him apart from regular people. He does not hide his wealth—oftentimes he brandishes it as a sign of his supposed competence—but at the same time, he shows that he is just a regular guy eating McDonald’s. President Trump, just like candidate Trump and TV personality Trump, has never tried to put himself above others—not in the way he speaks, nor in the way he writes letters to foreign leaders, nor in the way he uses his cellphone and social media. He even calls in to Fox News as an ordinary viewer. His voters don’t see him as part of an elite that stands above the crowd. And while other presidents might have not been fully qualified coming into the job either, none have so consciously tried to lower the office once in it.
The other intriguing element is the seeming randomness and unpredictability of the leader’s rise. Had Arthur Fleck not been beaten up by street bullies in the beginning of the movie, he would not have been given a gun by his colleague. Had he not been later harrassed by drunken investment bankers in the subway, he would not have used that gun to commit a murder that became a rallying cry for the oppressed. And without being empowered by his success there, he wouldn’t have proceeded to commit a murder on live television, cementing his role in the uprising. Trump, too, was an unlikely winner—though unlike Fleck, who finds himself a leader to his own surprise, Trump worked to capture the highest office in the land. But had the Republican field been smaller, he may not have made it; had FBI director James Comey not announced an investigation into Hillary Clinton, his momentum may not have built; and had Clinton taken Trump’s appeal to working-class voters more seriously and campaigned harder in vulnerable states, he probably would have lost.
Both the leveling and the unpredictability are arguably just expressions of populism, and are perhaps extra resonant in what is broadly now seen as a populist era. But modern populism as depicted in Joker gestures at something more, an end-point of populism taken to its logical extremes: a rejection not just of elites, but of leadership itself. The film gives us a faceless “leader”—just one clown in a crowd of clowns. And what makes the movie resonate is that perhaps for the first time in history, this fantasy is possible today, mainly due to technology.
Today, leaderless protests have sprung up all across the world. Take, for example, the mass protests that have been roiling Barcelona. They were orchestrated completely online. The group that organized them is called Tsunami Democratic, and apart from the name, the general public and most of the protesters know nothing else about it. It operates through Twitter, anonymous Telegram channels, and an innovative coordination app the group itself has written using peer-to-peer technology. In other words, Tsunami Democratic is itself leaderless, at least in any traditional sense of the word. And that has been no impediment to its success.
Similarly, in Hong Kong, up to a million people have taken to the streets without any visible leader. The same goes for the Gilets Jaunes in France, as well as anti-government movements in Iran, Lebanon, Chile, Sudan, and Georgia. Leaderless protests have even occurred in my native Russia, the most censored country in today’s Europe. And while many protest movements start up spontaneously and are later harnessed by a leader, it’s notable how often this has not been the case of late.
Caution is warranted. For example, what seemed like a popular movement to oust Evo Morales from Bolivia is now being depicted by many on the left as an orchestrated coup. And for its part, Spain is investigating Russia’s involvement in the Catalonia events. But whether any of these protest movements are “authentic” or not, what is new and significant is the means of quickly making connections between people. It points to a new kind of social reality, where people are comfortable transacting freely with one another without any reliance on centralized authority. Only now is this beginning to find full expression in politics.
The so-called peer-to-peer revolution has long roots. It is the latest twist in the information revolution, a phenomenon that has been accelerating since the 1990s. Email and the world wide web made access to information theoretically available to all, though its initial impact was felt more in business than in everyday life. Search engines took these innovations to the broad mainstream, and politics were soon affected. Political blogs and news sites, in some cases active since the mid-1990s, gained new prominence in the mid-to-late 2000s as a result of Google’s triumph. But it was smartphones, which made sure we were always connected to the internet, that enabled the peer-to-peer phenomenon—both as a business model and as a social habit.
The way we gather, consume, and distribute information has had a profound leveling effect on our societies. We are already used to AirBnb and Uber, although we may not yet be attuned to how profoundly these technologies are changing our democratic politics. The new paradigm is becoming more and more horizontal as opposed to vertical—a honeycomb, except with no queen bee. Or as the political scientist Niall Ferguson described it in these pages, it’s the triumph of networks over hierarchies.
The proliferation of leaderless movements suggests that vertical structures of power—the basis on which states have organized themselves for hundreds of years—are an increasingly poor fit for our reality. And similarly, it could be that “unfit” populist leaders like Donald Trump are embodying a growing if subconscious demand for a flattening of relationships in politics. It’s not just that Trump never intended to govern “responsibly” or “technocratically.” It’s not even that his personal shortcomings—lack of organization or discipline—have prevented him from doing so. The Trump presidency is arguably a reflection of the growing revolt against politics writ large. While racism, resentment, inequality, and Russia’s interference all certainly played a role, Trump might simply be a leader for our times.
Among Trump’s followers, at least, there seems to be little demand for traditional modes of governing. And while Trump may well lose in 2020, and Trumpism as a set of political beliefs may fade from memory, it feels unlikely that the kind of democratic politics that made Trump possible will ever disappear.
This might look like we are headed for a period of perpetual revolution and unrest. Niall Ferguson was pessimistic in his aforementioned 2014 essay as he assessed the politics of the day. He already saw an increase in online-fueled activism, but didn’t think it meant an increase in citizen involvement:
Not that the man in the street is actually in the street. Far more likely, he is the man slumped on his sofa, his attention skipping fitfully from television to laptop to tablet to smartphone and back to television. And what gets his attention? The end of history? The clash of civilizations? The answer turns out to be the narcissism of small differences.
But there is space for optimism, too. First of all, just because most of today’s populists thrive on social media, it doesn’t necessarily stand to reason that social media breeds populism, or that populism must be destructive. Barack Obama pioneered targeting voters in a political campaign using social media, and broke ground in using social media to communicate with the country once in office. It’s a useful thought experiment to imagine how Candidate Obama would approach politics in the 2020 race. It’s hard to imagine him as an unruly populist.
Secondly, the laziness Ferguson is talking about might simply be a sign of indifference toward an already outdated mode of interaction with politicians. Yes, it might be that a shallow “swipe-right/swipe-left” culture, conditioned by apps such as Tinder and Grindr, has rewarded superficial, signaling politicians like Trump. But it also might be the case that just as users of dating apps are looking for a more meaningful connection than the hook-ups on offer by the peer-to-peer revolution, voters are still open to a serious leaders, albeit ones who know how to engage them using peer-to-peer methods.
There are already fully interactive TV series where viewers make decisions for the main character by choosing options on screen. What if such technology were applied for politicians? What if instead of voting them in and out of office once every two or four years, voters could make decisions in real time? Perhaps in such a world, politicians become a technical detail in realizing voters’ preferred outcomes. In short, the future of high-tech democracy may not end up being anything like what we can imagine today, in the shadow of three chaotic years of Trump’s turbocharged populist rule.
Still, it’s hard to deny that we find ourselves at a time of profound change. And change can be disturbing. The best we can do at this point is to hope that it’s darkest before dawn, while never forgetting the late Senator John McCain’s warning—that sometimes it’s darkest before it’s totally black.