The Joker (Trump) Takes Over America

Heath Ledger as The Joker


In a recent 100 Years of Solitude post, I talked about the presence of carnival in magical realism and wondered whether American politics has become carnivalesque. Following up on this notion, I asked the students in my Magical Realism class to imagine Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children transported to an American setting. It so happens that, in his latest book, Rushdie does the transporting himself.

The Golden House (2017) is not magical realist, nor is it anywhere near the quality of Midnight’s Children, but it is characteristic Rushdie. I find interesting how a recently naturalized American, as Rushdie is, tries to make sense of his new country. Here’s his account of the 2016 election, during which America “left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe.” “D.C.,” he writes, was under attack by DC” [as in DC Comics, if you need the allusion explained]:

It was the year of the Joker in Gotham and beyond. The Caped Crusader was nowhere to be seen—it was not an age of heroes—but his archrival in the purple frock coat and striped pantaloons was ubiquitous, clearly delighted to have the stage to himself and hogging the limelight with evident delight. He had seen off the Suicide Squad, his feeble competition, but he permitted a few of his inferiors to think of themselves as future members of a Joker administration. The Penguin, the Riddler, Two-Face and Poison Ivy lined up behind the Joker in packed arenas, swaying like doo-wop backing singers while their leader spoke of the unrivaled beauty of white skin and red lips to adoring audiences wearing green fright wigs and chanting in unison, Ha! Ha! Ha!

 The green fright wigs would be red baseball caps, the chant “Trump, Trump, Trump.” The candidate’s supporters back him, the narrator says, “because he was insane, not in spite of it”:

The origins of the Joker were disputed, the man himself seemed to enjoy allowing contradictory versions to fight for air space, but on one fact everyone, passionate supporters and bitter antagonists, was agreed: he was utterly and certifiably insane. What was astonishing, what made this an election year like no other, was that people backed him because he was insane, not in spite of it. What would have disqualified any other candidate made him his followers’ hero. Sikh taxi drivers and rodeo cowboys, rabid alt-right blondes and black brain surgeons agreed, we love his craziness, no milquetoast euphemisms from him, he shoots straight from the hip, says whatever he fucking wants to say, robs whatever bank he’s in the mood to rob, kills whoever he feels like killing, he’s our guy. The black bat-knight has flown! It’s a new day, and it’s hoping to be a scream! All hail the United States of Joker! U.S.J.! U.S.J.! U.S.J.!

 What comes next is simply a listing of what happened during the election. I was disappointed when I first read it since I expected Rushdie’s colorful hyperbole. As satirists such as John Stewart and The Onion have observed, however, when truth is over-the-top, satire struggles to keep pace. Rushdie’s list reminds us just how abnormal these past two years have been:

It was a year of two bubbles. In one of those bubbles, the Joker shrieked and the laugh-track crowds laughed right on cue. In that bubble the climate was not changing and the end of the Arctic icecap was just a new real estate opportunity. In that bubble, gun murderers were exercising their constitutional rights but the parents of murdered children were un-American.  [Emphasized to honor Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students and staff.] In that bubble, if its inhabitants were victorious, the president of the neighboring country to the south which was sending rapists and killers to America would be forced to pay for a wall dividing the two nations to keep the killers and rapists south of the border where they belonged; and crime would end; and the country’s enemies would be defeated instantly and overwhelmingly; and mass deportations would be a good thing; and women reporters would be seen to be unreliable because they had blood coming out of their whatevers; and the parents of dead war heroes would be revealed to be working for radical Islam; and international treaties would not have to be honored; and Russia would be friend and that would have nothing whatsoever to do with the Russian oligarchs propping up the Joker’s shady enterprises; and the meanings of things would change; multiple bankruptcies would be understood to prove great business enterprise; and three and a half thousand lawsuits against you would be understood to prove great business acumen; and stiffing your contractors would prove your tough-guy business attitude; and a crooked university would prove your commitment to education; and while the Second Amendment would be sacred the First would not be; so those who criticized the leader would suffer consequences; and African Americans would go along with it all because what the hell did they have to lose. In that bubble knowledge was ignorance, up was down, and the right person to hold the nuclear codes in his hand was the green-haired white-skinned red-slash-mouth giggler who asked a military briefing team four times why nuclear weapons was so bad. In that bubble, razor-tipped playing cards were funny, and lapel flowers that sprayed acid into people’s faces were funny, and wishing you could have sex with your daughter was funny, and sarcasm was funny even when what was called sarcasm was not sarcastic, and lying was funny, and hatred was funny, and bigotry was funny, and bullying was funny, and the date was, or almost was, or might soon be, if the jokes worked out as they should, nineteen eight-four.

It’s worth noting that not all of this craziness is Trump’s doing. Some of it has become Republican orthodoxy, especially with regard to climate change, immigrants, and guns.

In the other bubble, the narrator writes, were New Yorkers, who “could identify a conman when they saw one.” The chapter ends with the contest in doubt, perhaps because Rushdie completed the novel before November, 2016:

It was the year of the great battle between deranged fantasy and gray reality, between, on the one hand, la chose en soi, the possibly unknowable but probably existing thing in itself, the world as it was independently of what was said about it or how it was seen, the Ding an sich, to use the Kantian term—and, on the other, this cartoon character who had crossed the line between the page and the stage—a sort of illegal immigrant, I thought—whose plan was to turn the whole country, faux-hilariously, into a lurid graphic novel, the modern kind, full of black crime and renegade Jews and cocksuckers and cunts, which were words he liked to use sometimes just to give the liberal elite conniptions; a comic book in which elections were rigged and the media were crooked and everything you hated was a conspiracy against you, but in the end! Yay! You won, the fright wig turned into a crown, and the Joker became the King.

It remained to be seen if, come November, the country would turn out to be in a New York state of mind, or if it would prefer to put on the green fright wigs and laugh. Ha! Ha! Ha!

 We now know how the electoral college chose. The joker jiggered reality.

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