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Just Plain Nasty

The election that spawned a thousand T-shirts

“It wasn’t just Hillary Clinton you insulted,” they say, “it was me. I’m a nasty woman too.”

This was inevitable. As soon as Donald Trump interrupted Clinton in Vegas, in the middle of a deeply boring section on “entitlement reform,” the T-shirts were born. “Such a nasty woman,” he said—and then he gagged, his throat bulged, his chin receded into a quivering mess of pale flesh, and a mucus-coated sac of “Nasty Woman” T-shirts disgorged itself from his mouth, to slap wetly on the stage floor. As soon as he said it, everything had already happened: the flurry of Twitter identification, the shocked disapproval from Hollywood celebrities, the feeble Vox explainers, the T-shirts, and nobody could possibly stop it.

The first “Nasty Woman” T-shirts came out hours after the last presidential debate. You can buy one at $20 that features the slogan as a campaign bumper sticker—“Nasty Woman 2016.” Another, more feminine option has the words in looping, curlicued script above the printed hashtag #ImWithHer. The pricier $25 option, with 50 percent of the proceeds going to Planned Parenthood, has a modern, high-impact font in all caps over a heart in Rose Quartz, Pantone’s 2016 color of the year, and quickly received some free advertising in Teen Vogue. As I write this, scores more “Nasty Woman” shirts have been designed—dozens, hundreds maybe; it’s becoming impossible to tell.

It doesn’t matter who the candidates are: the process is sovereign, the churning transformation of useful meaning into garbage.

American politics is one vast crisis of semiotic overproduction: too much meaning is produced in any one moment for anyone to possibly consume, too many talking points, too many sober interpretations of outbursts and body language. The exchange-value of scandals and slogans is continually worn down; the rate of profit falls. It doesn’t matter who the candidates are: the process is sovereign, the churning transformation of useful meaning into garbage. And the T-shirts will see the same fate. You buy your “Nasty Woman” shirt, you wear it once, and then the media cycle spins off somewhere else, and you’re left with an object from which all signification has evaporated. Throw it away; add it to America’s vast reserves of rejectamenta, buried underground where nobody will ever see it again.

The point of this process is to make you think that your new T-shirt is standing up to Donald Trump and his sexism, but really it’s the process that overdetermines everything: you, me, he, she, and it are all complicit. Far from ruining electoral politics, Trump’s misogyny might be the only thing keeping it afloat. Of course, the candidates aren’t the same; of course, one of them is clearly worse than the other, but as any dialectician knows, an antithetical opposition between elements doesn’t mean that they’re not spinning together in the same spiral. It’s a ballet. Trump is the perfect foil for Clinton: he could recklessly tear through the Republican primaries with its parade of fanatics and non-entities—Ted Cruz, the queasily libidinal deep-sea creature; Jeb Bush, the last inbred flapping scion to the American Habsburgs; Marco Rubio, the depthless hologram that still manages to leave a trail of slime in its wake—but he’s in the jaws of something much bigger now.

The Clinton campaign actively abetted Trump at every stage of the primaries, even though it meant unleashing dangerous reactionary forces across the country, because he was the enemy they wanted. Whether he knows it or not, his function was to be so vulgar that an impotent public would unite around Clinton, to make America congratulate itself on the morning after Election Day for not having chosen the worst candidate imaginable. He’s there to make it look like everything is at stake, when the worst has already happened, and nothing is at stake whatsoever.

Trump isn’t able to articulate his occasionally accurate critique of Clinton’s foreign policy without meshing in his racist nonsense and in doing so neutering it. Trump’s confused stance on abortion (he doesn’t seem to be entirely aware of where babies actually come from) allowed Clinton to talk about it entirely in terms of medical conditions and fetal abnormalities, as an awful, painful, terrible choice that will haunt a woman for the rest of her life—and then be lauded as a feminist hero. In the town hall debate, a voter asked the candidates about the rising atmosphere of racism and violence American Muslims are drowning in. Trump talked about ISIS and terrorism, and said that Muslims are valuable when they report on each other to the police. Clinton talked about inclusivity and tolerance, and said that Muslims are valuable when they report on each other to the police.

In Nevada, Trump and Clinton accused each other of risking the nuclear annihilation of all life on the planet—she with her dangerous, pointless escalation of tensions with Russia, raising the vast spectres of the Cold War for the sake of attracting a few jingoistic swing voters; he just by virtue of the sheer bozo idiocy sloshing around in his frame, the potential for one tiny fat hand to just jam itself down on the red button in a moment of idle frustration. They were both right. In the second debate, the candidates accused each other of increasingly serious crimes: tax fraud, corruption, sexual assault, aggression against a sovereign state; each of them made the case that the other was a sleaze and a crook, uniquely unqualified to lead the most powerful country in the world. They were both right.

Power has never yet been handed over, in an orderly fashion or otherwise, and democracy, if it ever existed, went a long time ago.

If only one party had nominated someone massively compromised by their personal history, unpopular with the base, and despised by the electorate, you could say that the system is flawed. For them to both do this is a sign that it’s working precisely as intended. Remember that in Athenian democracy, if you ever cast a ballot for a single named individual, it was an ostrakon: you were voting for them to be exiled from the city for ten years. Something about the form persists. You might vote for the lesser evil, but it’s always only a lesser evil, someone you don’t actually like. As with the democracy of ostracism, voting is a ritual to put an end to the same outrages that fuel it.

The show’s almost over now. The last debate has been and gone, it’s about to be handed over from the squabblers and surrogates to the armies of sane, pedantic numbers-people with their graphs and charts to count up all the ballots and announce that Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States of America, just like we always knew she would be. The other line from the debate that caused outrage was Trump’s refusal to rule out contesting the result of the election. He’s a giant toddler who doesn’t like to be told “no,” and the entire country is about to say “no” to him. Of course he doesn’t want to concede. “Democracy is at stake,” the pundits bleated. The principle of the orderly handover of power is under unprecedented threat. But power has never yet been handed over, in an orderly fashion or otherwise, and democracy, if it ever existed, went a long time ago.

This election was never political; like all the others that led us here, it’s entropic. In a sweatshop in East Asia, a T-shirt is spun out from the production line; you hold it in your hands for a moment, and then it’s buried underground, to soak in all the rotting gases of everything else you no longer want, waiting to erupt.