Presidential elections always bring about new buzzwords. Donald Trump has sent “big league” (or perhaps “bigly”) and “sad” (with or without exclamation point) to the fore, and he gets partial credit for the neologism “pussy-grabber.” Hillary Clinton has given “deplorable” new context, while her apparatchiks introduced the misleading “Bernie Bro” label to the lexicon.
The most interesting term to emerge from the 2016 cycle, though, is one that neither candidate has uttered (at least not in public). It’s a word with a surprising but predictive history.
If you frequent corners of the internet conducive to Alt Right discourse (e.g. white nationalist message boards or the Twitter mentions of anyone critical of Trump), you’ve probably seen the word “cuck” bandied about. Sussing out how the term rose to such prominence is for someone else more willing to delve into the dregs of Alt Right safe spaces. What’s clear, though, is that it’s become a favorite slur among Trump’s most loyal supporters.
In that rat’s nest of anime avatars and meme-obscured gravitas, “cuck” is hurled at anyone perceived to have sold out their conservative values to be humiliated by a more liberal agenda. Jeb Bush was a cuck for supporting Common Core and amnesty for undocumented immigrants, for example. Buzzfeed’s Joe Bernstein defines it as “mainstream Republicans who hold insufficiently conservative or even progressive positions on hot-button social issues like transgender rights, state use of the Confederate flag, and, especially, immigration.” It’s sometimes lengthened to the portmanteau “cuckservative,” but Twitter’s enforced economy usually means it’s a four-letter word, and it’s often used to describe liberals and other folks who would not brand themselves as conservative in the first place.
Dana Schwartz writes in GQ that the term is used by “white nationalists who feel as though their country has been taken away from them, and not enough had been done by the cuckservative establishment conservative party to protect it.” Far from being quarantined to the margins of fascist-friendly communities, Rush Limbaugh and his ilk have begun using the term, if a bit obliquely.
(If the StormFront cumulonimbus has a silver lining, it’s how this term has caused the conservative petit bourgeoisie to repeatedly own themselves.)
As a more general insult, the term has been in use for at least a decade or so, appearing on Urban Dictionary in 2007. Perhaps obviously, it’s derived from the word “cuckold,” which has since the 1200s been used to refer to a man whose wife has cheated on him, typically with the implication that the man is humiliated by this. Shakespeare and Chaucer drew on it regularly for humor. In literature, a cuckold is often adorned with antlers — an ironic sign of virility whose origins still stump scholars today — but the word’s etymology is actually not ungulate, but avian.
“Cuckold” comes from the word “cuckoo,” itself derived from the Old French “cocu,” an onomatopoeic transcription of the bird’s call. In addition to its contribution to biological taxonomy, “cuckoo” has been used as a synonym for “crazy” for almost 100 years (see also: “kook,” “kooky”) and “stupid” for centuries before that. General Mills introduced its alliterative “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” catch phrase in 1962. No one seems to know exactly when cuckoo clocks were invented (no one thought to make a cuckoo calendar, apparently), but they are described in writings as early as the 17th century. (There is probably an obscure, 60-letter word to describe the fact that a term popular among white nationalists traces back to Germany).
But it all comes back to the bird. The reason men whose wives cheat on them are called cuckolds comes from a behavior cuckoos practice called “brood parasitism.” There are many versions of this behavior, practiced by cuckoo subspecies and other birds as well as fish and insects, but in the cuckoo’s case, the basic gist is this: rather than build a nest and incubate its eggs there like most birds, the cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. When the parasitic cuckoos hatch, the host bird cares for the hatchlings like its own (often because the eggs she laid were destroyed by the cuckoo).
At first glance, the parasitic behavior of a small bird seems irrelevant in a discussion of a hard-to-measure Republican voting bloc. Nature has a lot to teach us, though. Cuckoos have evolved in a number of ways to succeed with this behavior, over a long time. This evolution includes eggs that visually mimic the color and patterns of its hosts’ eggs. As well, cuckoo eggs are thicker (to prevent puncturing and to survive the drop into its host’s nest) and hatch sooner, giving the newborn cuckoos a size advantage when the host’s chicks hatch.
As the cuckoos have evolved, though, so too have their hosts. While brood parasitism persists, perhaps we can learn some lessons from how the hosts defend themselves and their offspring.
The extent to which the Alt Right represents a wholly new phenomenon versus just a clever rebranding of a familiar, hateful vein of American politics is debatable. At any rate, it’s an intimidating bunch, a coordinated movement of people with a knack for verbal intimidation and violent threats. But if we look to the cuckoo, we can see they might not be as fearsome as they seem.
Cuckoos have evolved to resemble species tougher than their own. Their curved beaks and striped pattern on their plumage makes them look like the dangerous Eurasian sparrowhawk. The reason for this is to intimidate their hosts into not just tolerating cuckoos invading their nest, but actually rearing them, as well.
This is almost too obvious a metaphor for the Twitter mobsters who adopt a threatening pose behind their keyboards, but are, by and large, all talk and no action. Other birds, though often physically smaller than cuckoos, deal with the parasites by teaming up against them or setting traps inside their nests to catch them. The key is vigilance against the threat. The birds that have adapted to deal with this will usually fling the invasive chicks out of the nest as soon as they notice them, or they use a fascinating “community alert system.”
As cuckoos have evolved to mimic their hosts in both eggshell morphology and the calls and markings of their hatchlings, the hosts have co-evolved to have signature markings on their eggs and distinct calls in their offspring. Again, there’s an obvious parallel with the homogeneity of Twitter’s default egg avatars, but the differentiation method is one worth contemplating. To prevent this fringe movement from infiltrating other communities, it needs to be marked and ostracized. There’s a reason such a hateful, bigoted group of people feels so at home in the Republican party. Lots of them. If you’re one of the “good” Republicans, it’s incumbent on you to distinguish yourself from this movement. To tolerate and condone this hatred is to perpetuate it.
Once cuckoos are born, they immediately try to eject the other eggs from the nest, acting out of instinct. It’s a zero-sum approach to life. Their survival depends on the death of other birds. This is, of course, a logical conclusion of white supremacy, or at least its apparent goal. The conservative movement has always had a split between the Romney-ish types who split the world into “makers” and “takers” and the more Trumpist ideologues who view politics as a zero-sum game in which there is only so much to go around. It’s not enough to win a deal if the other side hasn’t lost in some way.
There’s an obvious paradox, of course, for both cuckoos and anime Nazis. Cuckoos depend on death for their own life, but as parasites, they are dependent on living hosts. Most cuckoos are an obligate type of brood parasite, meaning they lay their eggs only in the nests of other species. Generations of evolution have deprived them of the ability to build their own nests or incubate their own eggs. Their parasitic behavior leaves them entirely dependent on other species. And cuckoos are dependent not just on hosts but on one another as well: they band together in “mafia-like behavior” to compel their hosts to cooperate in the arrangement. Sound familiar?
Getting back to the Alt Right, there’s a little bit more to the contemporary use of “cuck” and the cuckoldry paradigm it draws from. (Actual cuckolds, for what it’s worth, object to this usage.) In cuckold communities and the cuckold porn genre, it’s typically a white husband losing his white wife to a black man (and often watching or even participating). The implications that a wife is her husband’s property and that her cheating with a black man is more humiliating than it would be with someone of another race may be be harmless when limited to the realm of sexual fantasy, but as a political ideology, it’s plainly problematic.
Many have pointed out that the easiest way to read Trump is to look at the way he insults others and interpret them as his own insecurities. When he attacks Democrats and the media for “rigging” the election, it’s because he knows he’s cheating in his own way. When he can’t keep from bringing up Bill Clinton’s predatory behavior around women, it’s a good sign he sees the same pathologies in himself. And yes, when he reflexively refers to Marco Rubio as “little” or Rosie O’Donnell as “a fat pig,” it’s likely Trump has body concerns of his own.
You can read the “cuck” insult the same way. An insult always says more about the party wielding it than it does about its target. To use “cuck” as a slur is to give away anxiety about losing or having lost something of value. There are a number of generous, empathetic ways to analyze that, but the most superficial reading gets the job done: white men, convinced of their own supremacy, are anxious they are losing ground to women and African-Americans. In the zero-sum politics of scarcity — which Trump, who in his business dealings seeks not just to “win” deals but to make sure the other party loses, embodies wholly — the liberation of oppressed classes appears to come at the cost of freedom for the oppressors, in particular the sullying of the white race.
These fears are misplaced and delusional, but the imagined cost is one they will fight to avoid paying. Privilege and hegemony are seen as justified dominion, and so any encroachment on that looks like injustice. It remains unclear how large this movement is and to what extent it’s more than a group of web-savvy dorks, desensitized by 4chan, who have weaponized social media. Fortunately, there’s precedent in the animal world, and to whatever extent the Alt Right is a viable threat, it can be dealt with before it drives us all cuckoo.