How Danny DeVito Accidentally Created the Defining Meme of the Trump Presidency

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Photo: Getty Images

You might have noticed that, with a growing frequency over the last several months, men in power are being told to pack it in. Their time is over — whether they’re incompetent, disgraced, or just plain over-the-hill — it’s clear that the world would be better off if they went away. As the saying goes, “retire bitch.”

It doesn’t only apply to politics though. Perhaps you were watching the Oscars on Sunday night.

“Retire bitch.” Short, sweet, to the point. Let’s be clear on “bitch,” an obviously harsh and gendered insult, but one that — in my reading — is deployed in the same way that Luke Ward tells Ryan Atwood, on The O.C., “Welcome to the O.C., bitch.” Here, it’s a punctuation mark more than a gendered slur, and as someone who has scrolled through weeks of these tweets, I can confirm they’re almost always directed at men.

More important than “bitch” is “retire.” “Retire” is a perfect insult — not as cruel as “please kill yourself” or “I hope you die,” but not so abstract as to lose all meaning. It’s a burn with a slightly defter touch: You’re old; you’re done; please retreat to a life of material and financial comfort, even after you’ve stopped contributing labor of quantifiable worth to our society … bitch.

Where does this crude, two-word salutation come from? The gutter minds of deranged liberal activists? The sewers of anonymous message boards? The talking points of the Elders of Zion? In fact, none of the above. On March 2, 2013, at 10:40 p.m. on the West Coast, beloved actor Danny DeVito opened Twitter, and typed four simple words. Little did he know that, nearly four years later, his dispatch would become a rallying cry on social media. A taut rejoinder amid hectic political and social upheaval.

Those simple words? “Antonin Scalia retire bitch.”

Emails to Mr. DeVito’s representation seeking comment on the tweet went unreturned, so I can’t say for certain what prompted it. It was likely tied to Scalia’s questioning from days prior, during oral arguments for Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 ruling that effectively crippled the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

During questioning, Scalia pondered the necessity of Section 5 of the law, which required state and local governments with a history of discrimination to clear any voting-law changes with the Justice Department.

According to Talking Points Memo:

Scalia attributed the repeated renewal of Section 5 to a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” He said, “Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.”

Without granular data over time, it’s tough to say how much attention DeVito’s subtweet received upon publication. What is clear — thanks to snapshots from the Internet Archive — is that with time, the “retire bitch” mantra has only gotten stronger.

In July of 2015, just over halfway through its lifespan, the tweet had 1,800 or so retweets. Fifteen months later, that number had nearly doubled to 3,300. Just five months after that, the number had climbed to 5,500. Put another way, about 40 percent of “retire bitch” retweets have happened in the last half-year, more than three and a half years after DeVito first fired it off.

To state the obvious, this has to do with the, ah, current political situation. In the midst of the Obama administration, there were few avatars of hard-right conservatism outside of Congress. Scalia, who had for years scoffed at social reforms and racial justice, was an easy target for left invective, whether it was erudite or, you know, to the point. Now, the federal government is controlled by Scalia-like figures: old, gleeful conservatives who could comfortably retire, but — despite the protestations of beloved comedic actors and Twitter randoms — don’t.

That’s why men in power are, at an increasing frequency, being told to “retire bitch.”

How Danny DeVito Created the Meme of the Trump Presidency