In a 2016 article about Barack Obama’s time in office for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg recorded an odd memory shared by his aides. The president had a habit, apparently, of quoting a key scene from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight to explain Middle Eastern politics. Just as Heath Ledger’s Joker had threatened the mob families’ relatively stable control of Gotham in the movie, so ISIS was an agent of chaos that posed a greater threat to the region than Bashar Al Assad. “They were thugs, but there was a kind of order,” he would say. Like the Joker, ISIS was a wildcard that threatened both establishment and criminal hierarchies, and “that’s why we have to fight it.”
The Joker in The Dark Knight played a role in this country as well, embodying the terrorist specter—irrational, unstoppable, unknowable—that dominated politics in the post-September 11, 2001, pre-financial-crisis era.He represented a masculine, alienated nihilism that posed an existential threat to the good guys, who, in the form of Batman, responded with unlawful surveillance and extra-judicial killings. Later, in the alternative universe of conservatism, it was Obama himself whom the Joker represented, with Tea Party activists doctoring Obama’s portrait to include the Joker’s white face and blood-red scars.