Nine days before the inauguration, the man getting ready to inherit George Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s old job held a news conference at Trump Tower in Manhattan and called BuzzFeed “a failing pile of garbage.” BuzzFeed, in a matter of hours, added new merchandise to its online store: a $30 poly-blend T-shirt emblazoned with “FAILING PILE OF GARBAGE,” a bumper sticker that says “I proudly get my news from a failing pile of garbage,” and a $49 “limited edition” BuzzFeed garbage can.
“We are not going to respond to these divisive comments,” BuzzFeed chief executive Jonah Peretti wrote to his staff — but of course their merchandise speaks for itself. A shirt emblazoned with an insult is a defiance of that insult; marketing and selling that defiance reenlists followers in the ongoing exercise of name-calling. (“No, you’re the puppet.”) BuzzFeed made $25,000 on the flash sale and says it will donate the proceeds to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The 166-year-old New York Times once came up with “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” a somewhat quaint and utilitarian mantra that’s still printed at the top of its front page. BuzzFeed, which celebrated its 10th birthday last year, has always taken a cheekier approach to journalism — which is fitting in an era when an opponent’s denigration almost instantly becomes a badge of honor. Factions can quickly cluster around the meme of the moment, so we’ve sharpened the way we fight each other. We embrace the ugliness of the other side.
At a September fundraiser in Manhattan, Hillary Clinton said that some of Donald Trump’s supporters belonged in a “basket of deplorables.” All across Twitter, Trump supporters quickly claimed the term for themselves and re-branded “deplorable” as an honorific, like “Ms.” or “the Rev.”
When Trump called Clinton “such a nasty woman” during the third and final presidential debate in October, the same thing happened on the other side. There’s a whole cottage industry of “nasty woman” merchandise; at least 181 online stores made nearly $2 million off “nasty woman” in the first two months after the debate, according to Shopify. One such T-shirt defines the term as “a confident independent female who gets s— done.” In the minds of Clinton supporters, “nasty” is no longer a description of behavior but a stand against gynophobia, a rallying car for strong womanhood. The term popped up in Twitter bios, nestling between mainstream monikers like “feminist” and “political junkie.”
The “Silicon Valley” TV actor Thomas Middleditch, in his Twitter bio, re-appropriated not one but two insults from the 2016 campaign: “nasty woman” and “cuck,” an arch-conservative insult that has come to mean, essentially, a girly man. (It used to mean a conservative who wasn’t vehemently anti-immigration and/or pro white supremacy, but its meaning has been diluted over the past year by constant use on Twitter.)
It was a small, virtual act of solidarity with women who support Clinton and/or oppose Trump. One of Middleditch’s followers in Texas took his cue and started selling “cuck” T-shirts, with 75 percent of proceeds allegedly going to the Trevor Project, a nonprofit that works for suicide prevention for LGBT youth. Conservative terms became tools of liberal fundraising, just as “deplorable” became a way for Trump to enrage, inspire and focus his movement toward victory.
This is nothing new. Tina Fey titled her memoir “Bossypants,” turning a negative term into a mindset to which readers could aspire. Think of Meredith Brooks’s ’90s anthem “Bitch,” which put the misogynistic epithet alongside “lover,” “child” and “mother.” In his comedy act, Jeff Foxworthy turned “redneck” into a term of pride in Southern authenticity. Kate Bolick, a single-and-proud writer, slyly titled her 2015 book “Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own.” When accepting an Oscar in 2006, George Clooney said he was “proud to be out of touch,” taking ownership of a common Hollywood critique and redefining it as “forward-thinking” on civil rights, AIDS and other topics that were previously taboo. In the early 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson and his fellow thinkers were mocked as “transcendentalists” because critics considered their rationale “beyond reason and sanity,” according to Jerome Loving’s biography of Walt Whitman — but then the movement decided to embrace the term, and now English majors study transcendentalism as a significant movement in American literature.
What exactly is going on here? Clearly, the idea is that one way to stop trolls is to troll yourself first — to embrace, re-appropriate and de-claw the word, even before it can be used against you.
Or put another way: If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, then an insult from my enemy is a compliment.
Take “Obamacare.” Yes, it started off as mocking term, popularized by the GOP to tie the president’s name to legislation it viewed as disastrous. Next thing you knew, Democrats were happy using taunt as friendly shorthand for their own Affordable Care Act.
“I like the term,” Obama once said. “Because I do care.”