This article is part of a weeklong series looking back at the first year of Donald Trump's presidency.
Physically, Donald Trump is a very big man—yuge, he might say—although his exact size remains a mystery. Dr. Harold N. Bornstein, the president’s longtime physician, claims he’s six-three, but his driver’s license clocks him at six-two. Bornstein also insists that Trump weighs 236 pounds, but experts consulted by the Washington Post—including a retired carnival weight guesser—estimate the president is heavier than that, likely between 250 and 260 pounds. Putting aside the irony of a man who spent a large part of his career berating others, usually women, for being “fat pig[s]” and “seriously overweight,” being obese himself, I bring up the president’s large adult stature to emphasize that Trump takes up maximal space in every way possible. His exact size—like the number of floors in his buildings—will likely remain a mystery. But he’s unquestionably larger than life, and always threatening to pull us all toward him by the force of his gravity.
Inexorable loudness pervaded Trump’s first year in office. The president has never whispered in his goddamn life; he is the king of yelling, of the garish overreaction. Whether it be in the form of a tweet berating a cable news host or the supreme leader of North Korea, or his transparently bigoted attempts to limit all forms of immigration and bar trans people from serving in the military, everything Trump shouted became the world’s biggest news story, for a moment, before it faded into the noisy abyss of complete despair and online outrage.
There’s no story too big for Trump to turn into a story about himself. He waded in with both feet into the “controversy” over black athletes kneeling for the national anthem; he turned the crisis in Puerto Rico into a feud with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz; he derailed a debate over an immigration bill when he reportedly called Africa a “shithole.”
The president’s huge, chaotic demeanor has become infectious, and at least online, we have all become increasingly Trumpian. The defining quality of Trump’s first year in office is that everything was a muddled mess of reactionary noise. If you wanted to be heard among the screams, you had to scream even louder, and if everyone is screaming at the top of their lungs, your screams have to be the loudest of all. Nuance has never gone viral, but under Trump there is even less room for anything approaching a real discussion. Watching this play out online has been unbearable because it wasn’t just the alt-right trolls causing trouble, but a new crew of #resistance warriors, journalists, writers, internet superstars, mainstream celebs, SJWs, MAGA brats, and everyone in between.
Trump didn’t invent the phenomenon of overblown internet outrage, but his presidency has exacerbated and normalized this way of living online. We can trace the persistent cries of internet hysterics back much further, at least to 2013, when the Gamergate controversy unfolded. Born in the margins of Reddit, Gamergate was supposedly about “ethics in gaming journalism,” but was actually about protesting feminism and “PC culture.” In 2014, the Washington Post described the controversy like this:
Whatever Gamergate may have started as, it is now an Internet culture war. On one side are independent game-makers and critics, many of them women, who advocate for greater inclusion in gaming. On the other side of the equation are a motley alliance of vitriolic naysayers: misogynists, anti-feminists, trolls, people convinced they’re being manipulated by a left-leaning and/or corrupt press, and traditionalists who just don’t want their games to change.
With Trump in the White House, everything’s coming up Gamergate. There’s no issue too small to start an internet culture war. The most insignificant controversies get amplified, and there’s no way to turn the volume down. Instead, we scream and we scream and we scream some more.
In May 2017, comedian Kathy Griffin did an ill-conceived photo shoot in which she held a bloody replica of Trump’s head. The picture quickly went megaviral, and set the right on fire. She lost her annual gig hosting CNN’s New Year's broadcast, a bunch of her high-profile friendships went up in flames, and her career still hasn’t recovered.
But it’s not just the right determined to get angry over everything. During the election and throughout Trump’s first year in office, we witnessed a crew of Russia conspiracy theorists like Louise Mensch (a former conservative UK MP and romance novelist), Seth Abramson (a creative writing professor), and Eric Garland (the guy behind the infamous “game theory” thread) become Twitter superstars; Mensch managed to score her own New York Times op-ed, and her “intel” was even cited by Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, who later apologized for spreading misinformation. These people do not possess any special insight and spread a significant amount of bullshit, such as Garland’s contention that (my former employer) Gizmodo is a Russian front operation. Now, more than ever, any chump can fashion themselves as a source of hot political intel, as long as it’s sufficiently lurid and highly retweetable.
If you couldn’t fake your way to the top by cosplaying as a secret agent of the Resistance, you could still achieve viral fame and infamy if you were outraged enough. In December, Vanity Fair produced a video of New Year’s resolutions for Hillary Clinton, including an obviously tongue-in-cheek suggestion that Clinton take up “volunteer work, knitting, improv comedy–literally anything that will keep [her] from running again.” This quickly became the perfect fodder for days of internet outrage. Clinton’s fiercest Twitter soldiers cried sexism, and urged their followers to “#CancelVanityFair.”
The celebs joined in on the fun too—in an exasperated tweet, Patricia Arquette wrote, “Hey STOP TELLING WOMEN WHAT THE F-CK THEY SHOULD DO OR CAN DO. Get over your mommy issues.” The Vanity Fair staffer who made the knitting remark—I'm not naming her because she's been through enough shit—switched her Twitter account to private and received dozens of nasty messages ranging from remarks about her appearance to sexist insults, all ostensibly in the name of feminism.
And the media did what we do best, turning the internet’s latest bout of disingenuous moral outrage into a national news story that dragged on for days. The Washington Post published three articles about the so-called controversy: “Vanity Fair staffers provide snotty, condescending life tips for Hillary Clinton,” read one headline. “No, the Vanity Fair staffers behind the Clinton video shouldn’t be fired,” another writer argued. “Please stop talking about Hillary Clinton,” a third begged. Vanity Fair issued a mild apology, telling the many media outlets that covered the so-called controversy, “It was an attempt at humor and we regret that it missed the mark.” Naturally, the president himself chimed in, tweeting, “Vanity Fair, which looks like it is on its last legs, is bending over backwards in apologizing for the minor hit they took at Crooked H.”
The whole drama was forgotten once the internet found something new to focus on, but the Vanity Fair “scandal” is a microcosm for just how absurd and loud and petty living online can be under Trump. It’s not enough to dismiss a photo shoot as being in bad taste or a joke for being shitty, we have to drag every perpetrator through an online town square until we’re satisfied.
So what happens in 2021 or 2029 or whenever Trump departs from the White House? Well, probably nothing—we’ll be louder and angrier tomorrow than we were yesterday, and we'll keep going until our throats give out. It never ends, and I’m so sorry.
Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.