America has done it again.
Rather than being discouraged by the tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have dug in, held on, gritted our teeth, and against all the odds, somehow emerged from a year of unfathomable hardship into our bold new normal, where we somehow act like even bigger dickheads than we were before this all happened.
This week I, like millions of people, watched a video of an unruly woman at an airport being told that she was not allowed to fly on that particular airline after refusing to wear a mask and calling one of the check-in agents a bitch. In the video, the woman pleads with a higher-ranking airline employee, who calmly explains that rude behavior isn’t tolerated on their airline, and if she’s looking for another travel option, he suggests Spirit Air. Burn.
Although we didn’t see the behavior that led to the woman’s expulsion, it was a solid entry into the public Karen freakout video genre, because it featured a person who was clearly used to getting their way no matter how they acted running head-on into a reality where they do suffer consequences as a result of their actions. The woman pleads, and is denied. She lies, expecting her word to be believed over that of the other party. She’s denied again. She does not get what she wants. She walks away, defeated. It’s like mainlining schadenfreude.
But for every Karen or Kevin who gets their just desserts, there are untold numbers of abusive customers, passengers, patrons, and shoppers who do get away with it, and the problem seems to be getting worse. Restaurant workers who returned to understaffed restaurants report that customer shitheadery is at an all-time high, from New York City to South Carolina to California to Massachusetts, where last week a restaurant closed down for a “day of kindness” after entitled customers abused employees to tears. Airline passengers throwing tantrums about wearing masks have led to grounded flights and emergency landings. (The uptick in ugly airline travel experiences inspired my husband and me to call an audible and drive from Los Angeles to a family reunion near Duluth, Minnesota, rather than brave LAX. It took us three days. No regrets.)
Predictions that the summer of 2021 would be both horny and chill have turned out to be sorely mistaken. Instead, all across the country, some Americans decided to get their pandemic ya-yas out by abusing the wait staff, flight attendants, bartenders, receptionists, baristas, nail technicians, cashiers… any worker whose job is to deal with customers, reset expectations, enforce rules.
In retrospect, we should have seen Summer 2021: Revenge of the Karen coming, as our former president has spent years modeling this exact behavior.
Donald Trump’s presidency damaged our standing in the global community, our public health, our government, and our democracy, but he’s also done irreparable harm to the American personality, attracting people who were already kind of shitheads in the first place and encouraging them to give into their worst impulses and then cry and break things when they don’t get their way.
Trump might not be in any of the public freakout Karen videos that matriculate from social media to national news, but he’s felt in each one, smiling down on the insufferable asshole throwing a fit. When I watch a video where a man is dragged off an airplane after refusing to wear a mask, I see a COVID-riddled President Trump ripping off his mask as he gasps for air on the steps of the White House after being released from Walter Reed. When I watch a diner screaming anti-Asian racial slurs at restaurant staff, I hear President Trump telling CBS News’ Weija Jiang to “ask China” about COVID-19. When a patron threatens to call ICE on a Texas restaurant because of its mask mandate, I hear Trump calling Mexican immigrants “rapists.”
The woman from the airline counter denying over and over again that she called the employee a bitch is Trump tweeting “NO COLLUSION!” at all hours of the day, with no context.
“Once a person’s sense of entitlement grows larger than their ability to feel empathy, they also inoculate themselves against shame.
When Donald Trump refused to concede the election after a clear Biden victory, an internet user whose identity has been lost in the whitewater rapids of memes we call culture photoshopped a stereotypical Karen hairstyle onto then-President Trump, alongside the words “I would like to speak to the polls manager.” It got made into T-shirts. The Jan. 6 Trump riot that claimed the lives of five people in the U.S. Capitol building was the ultimate Karen tantrum, a Transformers Combiner of Karens, the world’s most powerful Karen calling his army of Karens together, all of them demanding to speak to the manager and then, when their demands were not placated, trying to destroy reality rather than live in it.
One would think that embarrassing behavior that leads to public shaming on a massive scale would be a deterrent, but Trump demonstrated to this country that being an insufferable prick is a great way to get one’s way. Once a person’s sense of entitlement grows larger than their ability to feel empathy, they also inoculate themselves against shame. And shameless jerks have almost unlimited capacity to ruin everybody else’s day. If you’re a jerk for long enough and you don’t care that everybody you’re dealing with thinks you’re a jerk, eventually the other party will get tired of dealing with you and give up. And you win.
There are a lot of Karens out there this summer because being a Karen works more often than not. Acting like a narc works. Degrading workers or young people or LGBTQ people or Black people gives a certain sort of person a sense of power and reinforces their unearned belief in their own superiority, and Karens rarely suffer consequences as a result of their acting like assholes. Before cellphone cameras democratized public shaming, almost none of them did. Trump owes his entire career to suffering no consequences.
When these people who no longer feel shame achieve power, they’re almost unstoppable. This is why they should never be taken seriously, as a tiresome Washington Post op-ed suggested, or given a seat at the table, as Washington Democrats suggest over and over again when they enter into time-wasting, foot-dragging negotiations with bad-faith Republicans who are going to vote against whatever the Democrats do anyway.
Trumpy tantrums, whether they take place in Washington or an Olive Garden in Mishawaka, Indiana, should not be tiptoed around, or given a respectful audience. Responding to these antics with anything but derision and denial teaches the fit-thrower that behaving badly gets good results. We can’t let the worst customers at the restaurant dictate what’s on the menu.