This week, The Washington Post published an article about the Trump White House under the headline “Inside the ‘Adult Day-Care Center.’” The title, of course, refers to a disparaging comment that Republican Senator Bob Corker tweeted earlier this month before giving a revealing interview with The New York Times in which he accused Trump of governing the country “like he’s doing The Apprentice or something.” Taking to his Twitter account, Trump responded, “The Failing @nytimes set Liddle’ Bob Corker up by recording his conversation. Was made to sound a fool, and that’s what I am dealing with!” This same month, it was reported that in July Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was reported to have called the president, behind his back, a “fucking moron”; The Daily Beast quoted an anonymous and exasperated White House aide who said they “wished [Tillerson] would ‘just leave.’”
When Donald Trump was running for and eventually elected president, seemingly 63 years ago, it was something of a sport to suggest which movie most eerily predicted our new reality. Wasn’t this just like The Manchurian Candidate? Didn’t his campaign remind you of Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd? Was he simply gaslighting us? Could we see into a potential future revisiting All the President’s Men?
But you don’t need to look back that far to find a movie that mirrors our current reality; an even more prescient example came out just 13 years ago. I am very sorry to be the one to break this news to you, but we are living in Mean Girls.
“I hate everyone in the White House! There are a few exceptions, but I hate them!”
That was President Trump, quoted in Vanity Fair last week, although when I first read that statement I did not hear it in his own voice. I heard the voice of Regina George, specifically Regina George right after she realizes that the expensive facial moisturizer that Cady Heron gifted her is foot cream.
Suggesting that we are living out, say, The Manchurian Candidate now seems naive, seeing as that is a movie about grown-ups who speak to each other in proper English, rather than one about hormonally aggrieved teenagers who resort to the language of playground bullies. In the past year or so, the national conversation has become so infantile that its closest movie analog is now a comedic parody of mean-girl culture.
I do not wish to suggest too literally that the drama on the American political stage is playing out exactly like the plot of Mean Girls, or that every person in Trump’s proximity has an exact correlate in the cast. (However, since nothing matters anymore, Vice President Mike Pence is Gretchen Wieners, Secretary of Defense James Mattis is Janis Ian, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is Cady Heron, and Megyn Kelly is Regina George’s permissive mother who is always trying to act “cool.” Hey, hey, hey! How are my best girlfriends?) Instead, I merely wish to note that there is an overwhelming backdraft of immature melodrama and calculated pettiness rippling through our national discourse like that guy from homeroom’s farts.
Trump, of course, most often calls to mind Regina George, the hot-headed Queen Bee played by Rachel McAdams who demands constant flattery from her minions (says the Post: “One defining feature of managing Trump is frequent praise, which can leave his team in what seems to be a state of perpetual compliments”) and has a penchant for ending exchanges with pointedly specific insults like “… so you can go shave your back now.” But Trump occasionally channels the spirit of other Plastics, too. The tone of desperation in which he belches the phrase “FAKE NEWS” always reminds me of Gretchen Wieners perpetually trying to make “fetch” happen. Whenever he gets too excited about how big a storm is, I think of future meteorologist Karen Smith, feeling herself up to confirm that it is already raining.
Also, what’s with this guy trying to broker peace in the Middle East? HE DOESN’T EVEN GO HERE.
And then, of course, there’s Trump using his Twitter account like it’s his own personal, public-facing Burn Book, attempting to reduce his enemies down to demeaning nicknames and shame them with “embarrassing” stories. Just as Trang Pak is a “grotsky little byotch” who “made out with Coach Carr,” “dumb as a rock” Mika Brzezinski was “bleeding badly from a face-lift” the last time Trump saw her in Florida. Ms. Norbury is a “SAD OLD DRUG PUSHER.” (Sad!) Steph Curry is totally uninvited to Regina George’s pool party. Er, I mean, the White House.
As anybody who’s stepped foot in a classroom knows, it is emotionally draining to live under the scrutiny of a petulant bully. I believe I speak for many of us when I say that the last thing I wanted was four more years of high school.
In an odd way, this relevance is a tremendous credit to Mean Girls, a social satire so sharply observed that more than a decade after its release, it inspires memes shared by people who (shudder) might not have even been born when it came out. (Because of a classic joke in the movie, October 3 is celebrated as “Mean Girls Day.” Speaking of the national discourse, CNN ran an article this month titled “How to celebrate ‘Mean Girls Day.’”) Mean Girls is such a rarity in the teen-movie canon because of the tonal balance it strikes: Of course, it’s making fun of girl culture on some level, but it’s also deeply sympathetic to it, taking the teenage female experience seriously enough to depict it in painstaking detail.
Which is more than you can say of the Trump administration. There is a tragic irony to how much Trump and his ilk remind me of the teen-girl characters of Mean Girls, given how abysmally this administration has treated women, and young women in particular. Two weeks ago Trump announced a draconian rule that will allow employers to “opt out” of birth control coverage, which could potentially affect up to 62 million women. His administration has also supported weakening Title IX and rolling back practices that protected campus rape victims and transgender students. And let’s not forget that Trump has been accused of sexual assault and harassment by multiple women, or that people are currently raising their daughters in a nation whose president was heard on tape saying it was OK to “grab” women “by the pussy.”
One of the most poignant articles published in the weeks leading up to the election was Claire Cain Miller’s New York Times survey of the presidential race “through the eyes of teenage girls.” Almost half of the girls she talked to said that Trump’s “comments about women have affected the way they think about their bodies.” “Especially for girls in high school,” one of the interviewees said, “rating girls on a scale of 1 to 10 does not help because it really does get into your head that they think I’m ugly or I don’t look good.” A 15-year-old added, “That hits me hard when people like Trump say people who are skinnier than I am are too big. It makes me feel extremely insecure about myself.”
I never thought I’d be nostalgic for the days when the greatest nuisance in one’s life was the classroom queen bee—at least you get to escape that tyranny when you go home. But the petty discourse of the Trump administration has pervaded every aspect of daily life and has continued to lower the bar in the ways we talk about, and to, each other. The only comfort I take in my belief that we really are living in a gigantic Mean Girls simulation is that to many misogynists, like those in the Trump administration, the greatest possible insult is being compared to a teenage girl. So in that spirit: Keep talking, Mr. President. Keep trying to make “fetch” happen.