Opinion | Trump and the Boaty McBoatfacing of America

Even now, four years later, it feels like a joke. The joke we played on ourselves.

No one thought it more ridiculous than the candidate himself. Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former consigliere, tells us that the 2016 campaign was supposed to be a branding opportunity, a means to an end, to be sure — but that end was never intended to be the White House.

So when he won the election, the joke was on Donald Trump. But also on all of us.

Michael Wolff — remember when his book “Fire and Fury” was so shocking? — wrote that election night left Mr. Trump and his circle dumbfounded and afraid. Don Jr. told a friend that his father “looked as if he had seen a ghost. Melania was in tears — and not of joy.” Steve Bannon, according to Mr. Wolff, described Mr. Trump as disbelieving, and then horrified.

Many of the people who voted for him probably thought it was a joke, too, at least until he won. He was our very own all-American Boaty McBoatface.

If you have somehow avoided Twitter for the last four-plus years (and if so, lucky you!), Boaty McBoatface was the result of Britain’s Natural Environment Research Council decision to let the internet name its new polar research vessel.

More serious suggestions included Shackleton, Endeavour and Falcon. But the winner, with nearly 125,000 votes, was Boaty McBoatface, a name submitted by a former BBC radio host as a joke. The name the council finally selected, Sir David Attenborough, came in fifth, just behind It’s Bloody Cold Here.

To get Boaty McBoatfaced means that you’ve made the critical mistake of letting the internet decide things. In other words, as much as we revere democracy, there are times — and they do typically involve the internet — when one’s fellow citizens deliberately make their choices not in order to foster the greatest societal good, but, instead, to mess with you.

Because they want to send a message. Because they think it might be kind of funny. And above all, you know: because they can.

Sometimes a Boatfacing seems all in good fun: The city of Austin, Texas, got McBoatfaced, for example, when it asked the internet to name its waste management service. The internet obliged by suggesting it be named in honor of Fred Durst, the frontman of the rock band Limp Bizkit.

Taylor Swift and VH1 got McBoatfaced when they asked the internet to choose a location for her forthcoming concert. The internet obliged by choosing the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. (Ms. Swift, proving once and for all that she is a good sport, donated $10,000 to the school, before settling on another venue.)

But sometimes these episodes can take a darker turn. Mountain Dew got McBoatfaced when it asked the internet to name its new flavor. The internet — largely driven by members of the message boards Reddit and 4chan — obliged by naming the new flavor “Hitler Did Nothing Wrong.”

And in 2016, when America asked its citizens to take seriously the business of choosing a president — that was the darkest turn of all. (Donald Trump happened to be the favorite candidate of the 4chan politics board.)

There are a lot of reasons people chose Mr. Trump in 2016. Some voters just loathed Hillary Clinton. Others genuinely yearned for the traditional Republican agenda: cutting taxes, appointing conservative judges. But surely there was another group who chose Mr. Trump for the lulz. Because a system that had given them choices they despised was a system that deserved to be trolled.

It’s enough to give disruption a bad name.

In some ways there is nothing more American than pranking the country for a good cause — or no cause at all. The comedian Pat Paulsen (a regular on the “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”) ran for president many times between 1968 and 1996, using the slogan, “We’ve Upped Our Standards, Now Up Yours!”

In 1940, the comedian Gracie Allen ran as the nominee of the Surprise Party, whose mascot was a kangaroo. (The campaign slogan: “It’s in the bag!”) That fall she received a few thousand write-in votes.

The snake-wielding musician Alice Cooper has run every year since 1972, the year he released “Elected,” a song which he’s rereleased for this year’s campaign. (Lyrics: “Everybody has problems, and personally, I don’t care.”)

And then there’s Vermin Supreme (yes, it’s his legal name), who describes himself as a “perennial symbolic protest candidate.“ In 2016, his platform included mandatory toothbrushing laws as well as free ponies. In 2020 he came in third in the Libertarian Party’s primaries; he currently supports that party’s nominee, Jo Jorgensen.

In an email exchange last week, I asked Mr. Supreme (yes, I do love typing “Mr. Supreme”) about his many candidacies, and the role that disruption can and should play in our political life. He wrote, “Humor is a tool that has allowed me to amplify my voice and channel my anger into something that inspires.” He’s now founded the Vermin Supreme Institute, which he says uses “humor, direct action and mutual aid to uplift the disaffected, disenfranchised and disempowered.”

It’s hard to argue with any of that, and quite frankly, a platform of free ponies sounds a lot better than what Donald Trump has given us for the last four years. I love the spirit of anarchy and joy that Vermin Supreme brings to politics. I’d even vote for him, to tell you the truth, as long as I knew he would not win.

Which is probably what a lot of people thought about Donald Trump last time round.

All of which is to say, I’m saving the anarchy and joy for my daily life. In the voting booth, I’m going to be serious. How serious? Like the fate of the country is literally on the line. Which it is.

This month, Britain’s polar research vessel, the Sir David Attenborough, began sea trials, in preparation for its maiden voyage to Antarctica next year. What is the name of the vessel’s robotic mini-sub, you ask? Why, that would be Boaty McBoatface.

Did they give any consideration to naming the sub It’s Bloody Cold Here? You have to admit it’d be amusing, at least at first.

But some jokes get less funny, the more times you hear them. If you ask me, four years is enough.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

Source: Read Full Article