A polarized political and cultural landscape has ushered in a new era of deconstructed language and empty insults. In Part 1 of this series, we dissect a few of the latest amorphous yet demonizing insults.
By Alex Dew
Photo by Joshua Hoehne
This period in American political history is marked by unprecedented polarization: whether you’re on the right or the left, you probably have some group of people you love to hate. We put those who disagree with us in abstract boxes, weaponizing language to label and stereotype them. But whether the objects of your vitriol are Karens, Antifa, “Boogaloo bois,” or social justice warriors, the truth is that these labels refer to amorphous categories without clear definitions that serve only to further divide us at a time when unity is crucial to defeating Donald Trump. And many of these labels are rooted less in reality than in fear and hatred of those who don’t share our views. In an effort to disentangle reality from polarized, anxiety-driven thinking and to examine how they promote or hamper understanding of the current political landscape, here is a breakdown of a few of the most common political stereotypes we use against our enemies:
- Definition: An entitled white woman who is unaware of her own privilege. “A Karen divorces her husband and takes the kids, is a pseudoscientist/anti-vaxxer/flat-earther, an MLM participant, an avid user of Facebook to post shitty motivational posts/’Live Laugh Love,’ and more,” says KarmaCop69, a teenage Reddit user who created the popular subreddit “Fuck_You_Karen.”
- Identifying features: Usually white, female, and over 40, “Karens” often sport bob haircuts and Mom-jeans.
- Catchphrase(s): “Can I speak to the manager?”
- Origin: Unclear. According to “know your meme,” some believe Karen came from the “Oh my god, Karen, you can’t just ask someone why they’re white” meme. Others believe that it originated from the character of Karen in the film “Goodfellas,” or from a Dane Cook comedy bit called “The Friend that Nobody Likes.” Around 2019-2020, “Karen” took on new significance, and it is often used now to describe white women who call the cops on innocent Black people.
- Real-life examples: Kate Gosselin, the “Central Park Karen” aka Amy Cooper, the “San Francisco Karen” aka Lisa Alexander.
- Basis in reality: While Karens undoubtedly exist in the world, and the word can be both a comical and, at least on a surface level, an accurate descriptor for white women who weaponize their privilege, not everyone who is called a Karen is necessarily a Karen, and it is worth being conscious of the fact that while male Karens clearly exist in the world, we don’t seem to call them out as frequently. Many see “Karen” as a sexist pejorative, because there is no male equivalent of equal popularity (“Chad” would be the closest synonym, and it isn’t nearly as popular).
- The bottom line: Use with caution.
- Definition: “Antifa” is a contraction of “anti-fascists,” and it describes anyone dedicated to this ideology.
- Identifying features: None, as antifa is a decentralized movement without a real stereotype associated with it.
- Catchphrase(s): “Smashing Fascism is My Cardio,” “Alerta, alerta antifascita,” “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” “No Pasaran” (You shall not pass), “A las barricadas” (To the barricades).”
- Origin: The term originated in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s by a “network” of groups across Europe that protested right-wing extremists, according to the New York Times. The movement gained prominence in the United States when counter-protesters used the term to define themselves during the Charlottesville protests in 2017.
- Real-life examples: the counter-protesters at Charlottesville, protesters joining the BLM movements in Portland and Seattle.
- Basis in reality: Despite claims made by Donald Trump and other Republicans, there is no “Antifa” organization, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit that exposes and monitors hate groups. There are however, people who identify with the ideology of “Antifa,” and a portion of them believe in engaging in violence to fight fascism.
- The bottom line: If you choose to use this word, be aware that while the ideology exists, there is no single organization or group behind it, and the term is often weaponized by members of alt-right to demonize leftist movements.
- Definition: A sycophant who worships those in authority and fails to hold them accountable, particularly someone who defends the police despite systematic use of excessive force against Black people.
- Identifying features: “Blue Lives Matter” profile picture frames on Facebook, sporting T-shirts with the thin-blue line flag.
- Catchphrases: “All Lives Matter,” “Blue Lives Matter.”
- Origin: Surprisingly, our current use of the term “bootlicker” comes from gay fetish culture, particularly the “leather” subculture. The term first appeared in gay-leather pornography, and moved into the mainstream in the 1990s when it was used to describe anyone with a submissive deference to the “overdog,” according to Vice. In 2020 in the United States, the term gained steam as it was used by some BLM activists to describe those defending the police.
- Real-life examples: Heidi Klum, who made a now-deleted “All Lives Matter” post in 2020, Kanye West, who has defended Donald Trump and called slavery a “choice.”
- Basis in reality: While anti-BLM activists undoubtedly exist, the crux of their beliefs lies in racism rather than in deference or sycophantism. At least with regard to the term’s use within the context of the current BLM uprising, bootlickers are not pro-police because they automatically worship whoever is in power, they are pro-police because of their failure to identify their own privilege and the widespread effects of institutional racism.
- The bottom line: Again, use with caution.
- Definition: Those who believe in a conspiracy theory imagining that there is a hidden government made up of elite, unelected officials within the government who call the shots behind the scenes.
- Identifying features: A deep stater gets their news on Reddit or Brietbart, refers to anyone who denies their beliefs as “sheep,” probably lives in their mom’s basement, and possesses a wardrobe made up of American flag t-shirts and MAGA hats.
- Origins: The term emerged in Turkey in the 1990s, when it was used to describe the collusion of the Turkish military with drug traffickers to “wage a dirty war against Turkish insurgents.” Since then, the term has migrated to the United States, and it is currently used to define those who attempt to destroy the liberal agenda via fake news and conspiracy theories.
- Real-life examples: The term “deep state” was first used in the United States by Dennis Kucinich and Edward Snowden to describe overreaches by the government that they believed infringed upon civil liberties. More recently, the alt-right has appropriated the term and used it against any politicians who oppose the Trump agenda. Trump himself reportedly believes in the deep-state, and acolytes such as Alex Jones, Senator Rand Paul, and Newt Gingrich have also employed the term to criticize events such as the Mueller investigation.
- Basis in reality: As Vox reports, especially under Donald Trump, there are parts of the United States government that operate outside of constitutional law and the system of checks and balances. There is undoubtedly cronyism and collusion occurring at the highest levels of the U.S government, but the deep state as it is currently defined by the alt-right simply does not exist. David Rohde, a New Yorker editor who wrote a book about the deep state told Vox that “[T]he term ‘deep state,’ has become a way for Trump and his supporters to deflect criticism — but it’s also a real idea that can help us think through some legitimate issues, namely how we consider the limits of presidential power and the nature of government accountability.”
- The bottom line: Because the “deep state,” at least as the term is currently used by the alt-right, does not exist, it is best not to use the term as it just reinforces terminology weaponized against anyone who criticizes Donald Trump. Like “flat earther,” the term “deep stater” gets its meaning from a belief that is not based in reality, but less obviously, so it is best to stay away from it to avoid lending credence to a nonsensical belief.
- Definition: An “ardent, vocal, and sometimes belligerent” male supporter of Bernie Sanders who believes that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are two sides of the same coin, according to The Independent.
- Identifying features: Male, pro-Bernie, usually white and college-educated, and an avid user of Twitter; that hairy dude in your college class who talked too much, who announces on Facebook that he doesn’t plan on voting at all because Bernie isn’t on the ballot.
- Origins: The earliest use of the term was as one word (“Berniebro”) in an Atlantic article by Robinson Meyer.
- Real-life examples: Zach McDowell, “a white, mustachioed 23-year-old just out of college and working a $15-an-hour tutoring job,” who begins his day by checking Reddit and Twitter, according to an interview by the Washington Post. “I prefer the term Bernard Brother,” McDowell told the Post.
- Basis in reality: While a small portion of Bernie Sanders’ supporters engaged in sexist attacks against Hillary Clinton supporters in 2016, his supporters transcend both race and gender. The stereotype may have been somewhat accurate in 2016, but there are far fewer Bernie bros around now, and those that do exist are far less vocal.
- The bottom line: “Bernie bro” is a term that speaks to the divisiveness inside the Democratic party. Anything that reinforces that disunity obviously does not help to secure victory against Trump in 2020. In most cases, using the term is unproductive and alienating.
Like any stereotype, these labels have a basis in reality, but the ubiquity of their application has far exceeded their reach in reality. Putting people in boxes only deepens the political divide in this country, and no one’s mind was ever changed by calling them a “Karen” or a “bootlicker.” While these categories can be a useful and concise means of identifying privilege or problematic behavior, they should never be used without careful consideration of their histories and their role in further dividing us at a time when we need unity more than ever if we want to defeat Trump.