“There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne,” snarls Selina Kyle, Catwoman herself, in Christopher Nolan’s thinkpiece/blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises. “And you and your friends had better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”
It’s the best line in a movie that’s hard not to interpret as an ode to fascism. It’s also a line that, recently, feels especially prescient. Across the United States and Europe, anger at elites – the rich, the powerful, the media owns the day. Does it specifically predict Donald Trump’s rise to national prominence or the Brexit vote? Absolutely not, but it does predict the fury that has whipped up the cold win white supremacists, Nigel Farage, and even Bernie Sanders have used to fill their sails.
At its best, that anger is coming out in the form of non-violent social justice movements and radical economic agendas. At it’s worst, that anger tends toward the nativist, the xenophobic, the racist, and the bitter. It’s that last descriptor that brings to mind Anne Hathaway’s turn in the latex suit. Her version of Catwoman was less woman scorned (see: Michelle Pfeiffer) and more woman cheated. She felt comfortable taking Bruce Wayne’s jewels because she felt that the system was so flawed that possession ought to become 100 percent of the law. In other words, she was economically insecure, concerned about downward social mobility, and pissed off at a seemingly liberal-minded figure in power.
The Brexit Britain’s decision to leave the European Union – is only the latest example of a rising tide of rage directed at elites who have benefited from a political system that has left everybody else behind. Despite broad agreement that exiting the EU would cause massive, lasting damage to the British economy, voters chose to say goodbye to all that. The campaign itself was primarily fueled by an ugly anti-immigrant sentiment that some research shows largely pre-dated the uptick in migration the UK saw after joining the EU. Was it about hatred for the other? Absolutely, but not exclusive. Don’t forget the technocrats.
Much of the discussion about the Brexit has circled around whether the Leave voters were driven primarily by xenophobia or economic anxiety. History shows us that it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation, and that those two great tastes taste great together. As western capitalism continues to concentrate wealth and leave the vast majority of people behind, many will turn to fascistic, authoritarian leaders who promise stability and a return to an often largely imagined period of greatness.
Already, we’re seeing signs that the people who will be most affected by Britain’s vote are immigrants, both from Eastern Europe and from predominantly Muslim countries. Hate crimes have spiked in the days since the Leave campaign won. Poor and working class people are also likely to be negatively impacted, as the tax base shrinks and political leaders who just weeks ago were promising to expand the National Health Service now say that was a lie, while the Treasury chief warns that austerity measures are on the way.
In the media, commentators have responded to these trends with either confused pathologizing or outright distain. The first reaction was articulated best in a recent David Brooks New York Times column, wherein he treats poor people like some sort of honor-obsessed anthropological curiosity. The second media reaction comes from James Traub at Foreign Policy, who argues “It is necessary to say that people are deluded and that the task of leadership is to un-delude them. That last line would sound great in Bane’s menacing mumble.
A word that gets tossed out a lot in Nolan’s Batman films is “decadent.” Part of the reason for this seems to be that it sounds super cool when Liam Neeson and Tom Hardy say it, but it’s a coded word and has been for a long time. In essence, it’s a word that alludes to the concentration of capital preceding a cultural and economic correction. Catwoman not only believes that correction is coming, but also wants to be part of it. What makes her interesting as a character — especially in this political moment — is that she’s not a fool and she’s not being misled. Selina Kyle is a cynical moral absolutist, a woman who believe that mass participation doesn’t give late-stage capitalism legitimacy. She is a bit like the Bernie supporters vowing to vote for Trump in the hopes of provoking a grander revolution.
But she’s also smart enough to fear that revolution and to fear the people likely to lead it.
Gotham is an American city. And the dynamics Kyle refers to apply: Disaffected white Republicans have flocked to Donald Trump in the GOP primary because he’s a very effective fearmonger and also because he feels comfortable telling crowds on lower or middle class voters that they’re getting the raw end of the deal. Is Trump a bully? Sure, but that’s exactly what people like about him because they want muscle. He’s not exactly Bane, who is fundamentally a lovelorn and selfless figure. He’s something closer to Scarecrow, which is to say he doesn’t mind a frenzy.
And this isn’t all about drawing parallels between conservatives and comic book bads. We are seeing some of the largest and most successful social movements in the United States in a generation. Occupy Wall Street was able to inject the concept of wealth inequality into the American consciousness and popularize the category of the One Percent, and directly fed into the unlikely popularity of the Sanders campaign. Black Lives Matter activists have successfully highlighted the epidemic of racist policing and the national shame of mass incarceration. The fast-food-worker led Fight for $15 movement has led to increases in the minimum wage in states and cities across the country. Bruce Wayne, by dint of his wealth, comfort, and political inaction (punching criminals doesn’t count) would be a target for all those people too — maybe even a super villain.
And that’s where it’s worth reconsidering Catwoman. What makes her relationship with Bruce Wayne unique is that she doesn’t particularly like him. She likes Batman, because the man in the cowl also believes in extreme solutions to intractable problems.
It’s probably fair to say Bruce Wayne would vote for Hillary Clinton, who’s policies fall comfortably in the middle of the neoliberal consensus that is responsible for concentrating so much wealth at the top. A Clinton win will prevent one of the most toxic political figures in recent US history from claiming the presidency, but, as many have noted, Trumpism is here to stay. Without a massive project to address wealth inequality in the US, we will continue to see Trump-esque impulses — many of the same impulses the led to the Brexit — hold sway for large parts of the country. Catwoman’s warning will remain front of mind for many elites.
Where reality differs from the movies is that the storm won’t arrive all of a sudden. It will foment on the horizon. It will lash out and then quiet down. It will flatten some homes and not others. But Selina Kyle seems to have been right: The weather is turning.