Why you should care
Because the Trump presidency could be the next Watergate. In more ways than one.
The mainstream media is out of control. And not in terms of its establishment bias or anonymous sourcing. I’m talking about its use of language. Because journalists — the very species whose job it is to put a bunch of words in a certain order that makes them engaging — are too lazy, stupid or overworked and fall back on the same damned clichés again and again.
Top of the pile in the please-God-can-you-smite-the-next-person-who-writes-that awards? The -gate suffix for scandals. Surely we can agree that when a disagreement over the air pressure of balls in a sports game (#Deflategate) is rhetorically compared to one of the most thunderous scandals in modern democratic history (Watergate), then things have gone too far. It stopped being funny or profound pretty much after its first iteration, when former Richard Nixon speechwriter William Safire used the term “Vietgate” in The New York Times to refer to the pardoning of Vietnam War draft dodgers. Since then we’ve had Nipplegate, Pizzagate, Climategate … the British even treated us to the sheer meta abhorrence of “Gategate” (aka “Plebgate”) after a cabinet member was overheard calling a policeman a “pleb” while standing next to — you guessed it — a gate.
The Trump presidency is as much of a paradigm-shifting event in the history of democracy as Watergate, so surely it’s deserving of a similar linguistic legacy.
But good news, liberals: President Donald Trump is draining this oh-so-murky swamp. Because despite the daily stream of scandals trickling out of the Trump White House, mercifully few have been given the -gate treatment by the press. “Russiagate” has barely been heard (the hashtag #TrumpRussia is preferred); “Blabbergate” made a brief appearance when it emerged the president discussed classified information with Russian officials in May; and “Flynngate” isn’t even a thing. The closest we’ve come is “Pussygate” after the infamous Access Hollywood tape — though none of them really scratch the surface.
There hasn’t been a day since Trump announced his candidacy for president in which a Trump-related -gate garnered even 15 percent of the Google searches of the daddy scandal, Watergate. A -gate-worthy scandal has to be a specific, confined event with broader ramifications, says Merrill Perlman, author of the “Language Corner” column at the Columbia Journalism Review, but most scandalous activity coming from the White House today is ongoing (from tweets to alleged Russian links). “What would you have in the Trump administration being labeled as a -gate? Unless it’s just plain old Trumpgate?” she says.
And while I wish that publishers could now lead their lives free of the shackles of this enticing cliché, the truth is that we lazy writers will need something to fall back on when real words escape us. So here’s my proposal: Let’s name our new scandalous cliché after the King of Scandals himself, Donald J. Trump. The Trump presidency is as much of a paradigm-shifting event in the history of democracy as Watergate, so surely it’s deserving of a similar linguistic legacy. How about a “Donald J.” prefix — so we’d have “Donald J. Deflate,” “Donald J. Pizza” and of course, “Donald J. Pussy.”
I’m not the first to experiment with alternatives. Deflategate and Bridgegate (when staff of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie colluded to cause traffic jams over the George Washington Bridge) were also briefly “Ballghazi” and “Bridgeghazi,” though it seems that the result of last year’s election has cemented the fact that -gate’s successor should be a Trump-related trope rather than a Clinton-related one. Perlman instead suggests a “covfefe” suffix (think “Deflate-covfefe,” or even just “Deflate-fefe”) — though we shouldn’t choose something too silly, she admits. “If you’re casualizing the scandal, you’re diminishing its impact,” the exact opposite of the intended effect.
But it might just take some time. The -gate suffix sounded weird at first, remembers Perlman, and its use only really boomed in the 21st century, more than two decades after Nixon resigned. “Watergate was a giant rip in the fabric of democracy, so it may have taken 20 years before people could repurpose it for something else,” Perlman says. And while our suggestions might not be the height of wit, the OG -gater wasn’t taking it too seriously, either. According to author Eric Alterman, Safire himself admitted that the “silliness” of his proliferation of -gates was to try to minimize the importance of the crimes committed by his former boss.
This may all seem a little frivolous, but words matter. The -gate suffix has provided a touchstone or scandal-o-meter that can be useful as both a shortcut and a way of conveying the seriousness of an issue, says Perlman, and even has meaning for young people with no memory of Watergate. So here’s to all the Donald J. Heists and Donald J. Harassment to come, long after the man himself has receded from the headlines.
What do you think we should replace -gate with? Let us know in the comments below.