The far right has long used popular culture as a means of promoting their own ideals. It is a common misconception that extremists live and act within their own, fringe cultural sphere. Whilst much of far right literary and musical culture is produced from within – think: 1978 novel The Turner Diaries which is seen as a Bible for neo-Nazi terrorists or the skinhead music scene - we can see a growing trend towards infiltrating mainstream culture and bending it to shape their own worldview.
It is not a new phenomenon and can be witnessed as far back as the ‘fascist epoch’ between the two World Wars. The 1935 Hollywood imperial adventure film set during the heyday of the British Raj, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, was lionised by British fascists as a homage to the racial pride which built the British Empire. The film took on a particular meaning for the far right in the 1930s whilst they were campaigning against increased self-government for India, a ‘jewel’ Britain’s imperial crown which was purportedly being destroyed by a decadent liberal class. More recently, Ridley Scott’s Roman epic Gladiator (2000) was seen by a British National Party activist, writing in party magazine Identity, as a welcome antidote to an era increasingly defined by “Coca-Cola materialism, gay rights, political corruption and cowardice - ‘long live’ films like Gladiator which inspire people to look towards a better world where decency and honour triumph over greed and selfishness”.
Concepts and ideas from popular culture have also seeped in to far right language and discourse, particularly online amongst the so-called ‘alt-right’. One film, which has particular resonance, is science-fiction movie The Matrix (1999), notably the scene where protagonist Thomas Anderson (or ‘Neo’) is offered a choice between taking a red pill or a blue pill. The former, if swallowed, will provide him with the truth about ‘the Matrix’ and knowledge that the world he knew was an illusion. Should he take the blue pill, he will return to his former life of ignorance. ‘Redpilling’ is a phrase often used by alt-right activists. Those who take the ‘red pill’ are those whose eyes are opened to the ‘reality’ of the world and how it operates (usually referring to belief in a global conspiracy such as ‘white genocide’ or the ‘great replacement’). Those who take the blue pill are content living with the false and degenerate promises of liberal democracy in a comfortable, conformist stupor - represented by liberals and others who believe the ‘mainstream media’.
Todd Phillips’ Joker, which broke a series of box office records in its opening week by grossing $96 million dollars, has become a new cultural touchstone for the alt-right. Joker is an origin story which follows Arthur Fleck’s ascent from mentally-ill loner to the comic-book supervillain The Joker and leader of a violent anti-establishment uprising. The film has been criticised and condemned by many commentators for its alleged sympathetic portrayal of Fleck, who murders several characters in cold blood, and the movie’s potential to lead to copycat shootings by individuals who feel similarly marginalised. Others have criticised it for its alleged validation of the politics of Donald Trump, with Jeff Yang arguing for CNN that the film is ‘an insidious validation of the white-male resentment that helped bring President Donald Trump to power’. It is perhaps for these reasons – i.e. that some within the ‘liberal media’ (so often attacked by Trump and the far right) have condemned the film - that the far right recognised that it had potential to stir controversy which could suit their aims. The fact that director Phillips, who also drew the ire of many liberals for criticising ‘woke culture’, again a target of the alt-right in particular, is also likely to have drawn support for the film. A host of video film reviews and analyses have emerged on YouTube since the movie’s release by alt-right influencers, which are generally full of praise.
Paul Joseph Watson, who is Editor-at-Large of the conspiratorial InfoWars and key figure on the alt-right, described Joker as “undoubtedly one of the most authentic watershed cultural moments of the last 10 years” because “all the right people hated it - The Guardian, Slate, the Wall Street Journal”. Yet it is the content of the film, which Watson sought to twist. Addressing his 1.74 million subscribers on YouTube, Watson argued:
“Why was the establishment so afraid of this movie? [...] because Joker points a finger at the true reason why our society produces the diseased minds responsible for mass shootings. Because our entire culture is bathed in atomising consumerist, celebrity-at-all-costs nihilism. Because the way we have been brainwashed into living and consuming creates a breeding ground for loneliness, despair and mental illness. Because we have been taught that people who think differently are a danger to society and that they must be ostracised, bullied and censored into silence. Because we castigated an entire generation of young men that they are worthless incels who deserve nothing but contempt.”
Demonstrating sympathy for the murderous Fleck, Watson ultimately believed: “The movie holds up a mirror to how a society that humiliates shames and disenfranchises people is itself responsible for generating violence”.
Watson is aiming to achieve several things here. Much of his video seeks to attack the critics of Joker - implying that criticism of its content is indicative of a wider ‘problem’ in the mainstream media. He is also using criticism of the movie - as well as its content - to distance himself and the alt-right from recent far right-inspired mass shootings in El Paso and Christchurch (the El Paso shooter had made pro-Trump tweets and retweeted Watson himself). Thereby, engaging in a whitewashing of the ideological motivation for their attacks and arguing that they were motivated by mental health issues (‘diseased minds’) as Fleck is in the film.
Finally, therefore, Watson, much like previous far right uses of popular culture, ultimately looks to derive wider meaning from the movie which promotes his own ideological worldview. He draws a sympathetic comparison between Fleck and those “who think differently” and an “entire generation of young men” who have been marginalised. This is central to the politics of Trumpism and the alt-right, the notion of a ‘left behind’ group of people (more accurately, men) alienated by mainstream society who have been shunned by a liberal elite, who dismiss them as ‘deplorables’. The sinister implication is that Arthur Fleck’s murderous rampage was justified and he was fighting against a corrupt system, which had wronged him.
Given Watson’s analysis of Joker, is it any wonder critics have claimed the movie incites violence?