In times of chaos, politicos are as fascinated with the imagined opinions of the dead as they are the real opinions of the living. There are clickbaity op-eds extrapolating a reaction to Donald Trump from nearly every relevant historical figure, from Abraham Lincoln to Hannah Arendt. These typically end up being ambivalent, and therefore pointless, because (1) figures from the remote past would have lacked the context to understand the current moment, and (2) like ouija boards, the exercise only expresses the unconscious bias of the writer. So, then, in order to make it work, the interviewee must be (1) recent enough to understand 21st-century politics and (2) somehow, able to speak for themselves. This is why I love Wonkette, the gossip blog that refuses to die. Wonkette is Bush-era liberalism frozen in amber, motionless and immortal, forced to passively observe a changing world until the end of time. Why does it still exist? Hard to say. But as long as it is here, we must celebrate its inanity.
Wonkette had a promising start. Founded in 2004 as part of Gawker Media, it boasted a lineup of editors and contributors that looks impressive in hindsight. Founding editor Ana Marie Cox is now a mainstay in both The New York Times and The Washington Post, and her successor, Splinter's Alex Pareene reached such heights that Donald Trump once saw fit to explicitly condemn him on Twitter. The original Wonkette was vulgar, acerbic and took pride in slinging mud at journalists and politicians. They covered sex scandals, posted sometimes-unfounded gossip, and they pissed people off. In 2004, Slate wrote that “they insist on handing out rote poundings to their subjects with a monotonous sadism that makes few distinctions among worthy and unworthy targets.” That same year, the Christian Science Monitor called it “[an] example of the boundary-busting powers of the Internet, where writers like to be less deferential to authority, more saucy, and frankly less accurate than established print or television.”
Even by internet standards, Wonkette’s period of relevance was brief. Cox left in 2006, Pareene left in 2007, and in 2008, Gawker cast it off entirely and absorbed its better writers. What remained was dull and redundant next to the growing Gawker empire, and the left-behinds lacked the talent of the original staff. If the original Wonkette was a training ground for budding talent, post-Gawker Wonkette was a garbage dump for the mediocre. The list of contributors from that era, roughly 2008 to 2012, is decidedly unimpressive. Many of them seem to have since abandoned journalism entirely — searching for their names only turns up old Wonkette articles. Most of the posts circa 2011 came from Jack Stuef, who left the site that year after he was widely criticized for making fun of Sarah Palin’s son Trig, who has Down Syndrome — leading to a withdrawal of most of Wonkette’s remaining advertisers. Stuef went on to write an infamous, error-filled BuzzFeed article about the webcomic “The Oatmeal” in 2012 and then apparently never wrote anything again. The screenwriter and “recovering stand-up comedian” Sara Benincasa, who still moonlights at Wonkette, went on to publish a 2016 book described as being “For readers of Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, and #Girlboss.” Al Giordano, now best known for his frequent Twitter meltdowns and for tricking Joy Reid into hyping up his fake Senate campaign, was once a contributor. During this time, the blog’s style remained firmly planted in an earlier era of the internet, but it would soon become much, much worse.
Even by internet standards, Wonkette’s period of relevance was brief.
In 2012 Wonkette was purchased by ex-Orange County Weekly writer Rebecca Schoenkopf. This ensured that Wonkette would forever remain a time capsule of the Bush years, because Schoenkopf is, in every way, a caricature of a liberal blogger from 2004. A 2013 Q&A with Schoenkopf in Dame Magazine opens with the following sentence: “The day after her 40th birthday, Rebecca Schoenkopf is tidying up her bohemian loft apartment in Downtown Los Angeles, and pouring herself a glass of wine.” Schoenkopf is an enthusiastic purveyor of what people used to call “snark.” In the craft of writing, this means that every third word is a swear, capitalization and italics are used at complete random, the prose includes antiquated chatspeak, and everything is awash in unearned, grating glibness. The closest parallel to Schoenkopf’s prose style might not even be the Wonkette of 2004, but that awful “Maddox” website people used to email each other, or those “Is it Wine O’Clock yet?” signs they sell at tourist traps. Somehow, Schoenkopf and her staff — a managing editor who goes by the name “Doktor Zoom” and senior editor Evan Hurst, who oversee approximately two contributors — write the exact same way.
It can’t be overstated how surreal and discomfiting it is to read Wonkette in 2017. They post LOLcat memes. Their sports tag is “sportsball.” The most modern aspect is the “nasty woman” T-shirt advertised in the sidebar. If you ever wanted to know how liberal bloggers in the MySpace era would have reacted to the news that Donald Trump would one day be president, Hurst spells it out: “Trump’s First Days In Office Were Epic F!ck Show, And We Can’t Stop LOLing.” Would they make Impact font-image macros of President Donald Trump? Yes, in fact, they would. Let’s open, at the time of this writing, a random article on the first page. The headline is “Poor Donald Trump Being Sued By Apprentice Lady He Defamed, And His Most Excellent Lawyer Is ON THE CASE.” The header image, a picture of Trump’s lawyer, has the text “HALP! HALP! DONALD TRUMP IS BEIN’ OPPRESSED!” splayed over it LOLcat-style in Impact font. The article’s opening line is “THE STUPID! IT BURNS!” If you somehow have the stomach to read further, the phrases “because... reasons” and “WE. CANNOT. EVEN.” also appear. Even skimming it is exhausting.
Opening lines from the past week of Wonkette articles. Please stop pic.twitter.com/MTq91JzPrO— Carlgoyle Beijer (@CarlBeijer) November 4, 2017
The abrasive style Schoenkopf and company refuse to abandon is bad enough by itself, but the glibness becomes unbearable when used to convey the staff’s terrible opinions. Wonkette really, really loves the Clintons — possibly out of nostalgia for an era that, for them, perpetually ended four years ago. Their signature snark is frequently directed at anyone who dares to criticize Bill or Hillary, and this bias sometimes requires tremendous leaps of logic. Last August, Schoenkopf berated a young Jill Stein canvasser, calling Stein “cunty.” We only know about this because Schoenkopf went on to brag about the incident in an article. On the numerous rape accusations against Bill, Schoenkopf wrote in 2016: “I think Bill Clinton could very well have raped Juanita Broaddrick; that it doesn’t make him an evil man, or irredeemable” and if he did, “It doesn’t even necessarily make him a bad feminist — you know, later, once he stops doing that.” Really? Last week, when former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile and Sen. Elizabeth Warren criticized the Clinton campaign, Wonkette ran the needlessly profane headlines “Donna Brazile, WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU KIDDING” and “Elizabeth Warren, We Love You So Fucking Much. You Are So Fucking Wrong Right Now.” Surprise, surprise — the only people on Earth who still post LOLcat memes are nervous that the Democratic Party might update its strategies.
How can a website like this still exist? The refusal to ever leave the mindset of Bush’s second term recalls the Japanese soldiers who spent decades camped out on remote South Pacific islands, blissfully unaware that World War II had long since ended. But the Japanese holdouts at least had their communications cut off. Wonkette has no such excuse, because its bloggers are well aware of current events. Their job is to be up to date. They embed tweets, they relentlessly cite other websites, and the sidebar even describes it as “news.” No one on social media — with the exception of Turning Point USA — is still posting LOLcat memes or using the word “meh.” The sources Wonkette paraphrases, typically Politico and the Post, aren’t shoehorning multiple f-bombs into their headlines or describing events as “LOLOLOLOL.” Where are they getting it from? What reinforces this stunning, singular failure to adapt?
does wonkette pay people to do this? pic.twitter.com/VhGJNKjrfh— Shuja Haider (@shujaxhaider) November 2, 2017
It’s like trying to explain why some senior citizens type emails in all caps or use quotation marks for emphasis. The favored reading materials of the elderly don’t contain errors like that, and neither did their 1940s equivalents. There was never a time when WRITING. LIKE. “THIS.” was acceptable. Those idiosyncrasies just appeared one day, and no one knows why, and our inability to know why precludes a sense of closure. Every last example of the English language, from restaurant menus to billboards, provides a clear and ever-present counterexample to these invented rules of formatting. Something keeps old people, and the current staff of Wonkette, from adapting to the world around them. Is it stubbornness, or some sort of neurological dysfunction?
It would be nice if there were a convenient political explanation for the current state of Wonkette, but I don’t think there is. The site isn’t an indictment of centrists, the Democratic Party, or neoliberalism. It doesn’t prove a point about anything, and it isn’t an example of any trend or political tendency, which makes it all the more baffling. If you want, it can be a digital Colonial Williamsburg — a place where the past comes to life. You can get angry at it if you like, but you might as well scream into a pillow. In one small corner of the internet, it will always be 2004. Wonkette simply exists, and it might outlast us all.