BURN BABY BURN

An Oral History of ‘Dumpster Fire’

Political experts from Jon Favreau to Carl Diggler parse the 2016 campaign’s most annoyingly pervasive meme.

11.05.16 4:03 AM ET

2016 has been bad. Ask anybody. Ask fans of music, who lost Prince and David Bowie. Ask conservatives, who lost both Antonin Scalia and Phyllis Schlafly. Ask fans of fashion, who lost Bill Cunningham. Ask sports fans, who lost Muhammad Ali and Pat Summitt. Ask comedy fans, who lost Gene Wilder and Gary Shandling. Ask fans of the Chicago White Sox, who had to witness their crosstown rivals win the World Series in an obnoxiously heartwarming manner. Ask fans of the Minnesota Twins, who suck and will suck for the rest of most humans’ natural lives.

Yes, sir. Things are bad everywhere, always, and forever. But if you read a description of the degree to which things have been bad in the world of politics lately, you’re likely to see two words: dumpster fire.

Prior to the 2016 presidential campaign, the phrase “dumpster fire” most often described a metal bin full of flaming trash. Simpler times. In the last 16 months, “dumpster fire” has become inextricably associated with the upcoming election, quickly cycling from colorful descriptor to witless meme to lazy cliché. And, much like an uncontrolled blaze, it’s not slowing down.

David Graham, The Atlantic

The first time I was conscious of the term seems to have been October of last year, based on a gchat I have asking Philip Bump where the hell it came from. I can’t tell for sure what inspired the question but I think it had to do with Ben Carson saying that gun control called the Holocaust and having no idea what the debt limit is. (Such quaint campaign controversies!)

Jon Favreau, former Obama speechwriter

I remember seeing it in 2015 for the first time. And I had never heard the term before at all. I had never seen a dumpster fire. And then someone on Twitter had the gif of the dumpster fire as well, which became a thing. And like a lot of these inside jokes on Twitter, it was funny the first 100 times i saw it and then it was like: Guys. Come on.

David Folkenflik, NPR

It all comes back to the partisan press and William Randolph Dumpster Fire. I think we can all agree on that.

Kevin Fox, Deputy Fire Chief, Minnetonka, Minnesota Fire and Emergency Management Department

I have heard the term “dumpster fire” used in different scenarios to describe something that may be perceived as being worthless but yet dangerous. Unfortunately that term has been used in the past to sometimes describe our sports teams here in Minnesota.

Carl Diggler, Cafe.com

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I fell in love three times in my life. Once when I first saw now-Ex Mrs. The Dig. The second when I saw my round bundle of joy Colby right as he was born. The third and latest is when I saw the phrase “dumpster fire.” Unlike my first two loves, “dumpster fire” has not cost me anything in alimony, child support, or emotional labor.

Google analytics for “dumpster fire” show a massive spike in its use starting around the time Donald Trump slimed his way down that Trump Tower escalator and into our hearts. It stuck, and it stuck hard, like shit to shoes. It had whatever je ne sais quoi separates memes that make it and memes that vanish.

It’s such an evocative, visual, damn near cinematic term. It’s less visceral and more print-friendly/decorous than “shit show,” but still has an aromatic (it stinks!) quality while it also conveys a sense of futile hopelessness—a fire you DON‘T want to extinguish, because there’s no point. Bigger than a garbage fire, it’s not as pro-active as “burn it all down”—it’s more nihilistic, but also vaguely apocalyptic-slash-Escape From New York.

Silvia Killingsworth, The Awl & The Hairpin

Maybe every year has its variation on a theme. A quick search of my inbox reveals the phrase “hot garbage” (or worse, “hot garb”) was big in 2013-15. The Internet is full of viral verbal tics like this, just like any other grouping of humans all talking to each other in close quarters in a tiny box. That’s how language works! This phrase in particular reveals a fun way to intensify: take something that’s bad (trash) and make it worse (set it on fire). Just when you think a pile of shit couldn’t get it worse, light it up! Things are only ever getting worse! This is what Alex Balk and Father Time have taught me.

David Graham, The Atlantic

It’s just such a delightfully evocative phrase—specific enough to be striking and a little weird, but general enough to be widely applicable. I suspect that the GIF with the actual dumpster fire has prolonged its life/widened its impact, since it’s a good visual shorthand.

Carl Diggler, Cafe.com

You know why it’s so great? Its simplicity. Often, we pundits are too clever by half. We go crazy figuring out how many federal laws Hillary Clinton broke by using Hotmail, or how Evan McMullin won the week. But we often miss what’s right in front of us. When we simply state something is a “dumpster fire,” we reduce an event to its simplest but most hilarious terms. It’s a signal to people that even the smartest guys (and gals!) in the room are throwing up their hands and going “hey, what the heck?” It’s to let you, the reader, know that everyone lets their hair down sometimes, and it’s alright to be confused, but dammit, we’re gonna laugh ourselves out of this one!

“Dumpster fire,” the little gross phrase that could, soon broke into the lexicon of mainstream media outlets from Fusion to BuzzFeed to The Washington Post. Some publications and cable news shows have gotten fancy with it, trotting out “Trumpster fire,” a pun that somehow makes the term more irritating (this very publication used “trumpster fire” back in April). “Dumpster fire” was moving quickly from fresh to tired.

Tommy Vietor, former National Security Spokesman for the Obama administration

I feel like I noticed the backlash to the use of the phrase. I didn’t notice the phrase itself. It was sort of a nerdy political joke that could easily be accompanied by a gif. It was like the Crying Jordan of politics. The political universe is a profoundly unfunny group of people. Reporters and pundits are the least funny people on the planet.

Charlie Warzel, BuzzFeed News

The internet has this uncanny ability to take things that bring people joy and just run them through the grinder and spit out crap. It ruins everything that is great and beautiful in the world.

David Folkenflik, NPR

The first time, the first two times, the first seven times you see something, you might get a laugh out of it, but after that, you kind of roll your eyes.

I probably shouldn’t follow as many people as I follow on Twitter.

This summer, “dumpster fire” fully saturated the world of political commentary. Writers at some outlets, like those under the Gawker Media Group umbrella, were expressly told not to use the phrase, or risk the wrath of executive editor John Cook. But some publications didn’t need to proclaim the phrase dead for their writers to understand that it was time to move on. In late June, The Huffington Post ran a comprehensive examination of the term “dumpster fire” by Claire Fallon.

Claire Fallon, The Huffington Post

I felt like by the time I was ready to write about it, it was already annoying. Like I concluded at the end of the piece, it’s funny because it’s weirdly specific and unexpected, which it isn’t anymore. It’s a cliché.

Anna Merlan, Jezebel

According to my records, the last time I used that phrase professionally was October 2015, after which I distinctly remember realizing that it wasn’t funny anymore. Gawker Media staffers got a memo this summer telling us not to use it ever again, and uncharacteristically, we’ve actually listened.

John Cook, Gizmodo Media Group

Answer me a question first, Erin, and be honest: have you ever employed the phrase “dumpster fire”? I don’t associate with people who do.

Writers at other outlets weren’t so quick to turn on “dumpster fire,” or similar word combinations. New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait employed a variation of the phrase to describe the Trump campaign through June. Then, on July 8, dumpster fire went truly mainstream. On that day, Nebraska senator Ben Sasse said, through a spokesperson, that he’d rather “take his kids to watch some dumpster fires” than attend the GOP convention in Cleveland later that month.

Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine

[In describing the Trump campaign] I’ve always used the garbage fire phrase more than the dumpster fire phrase.

I think garbage fire is a more evocative phrase, because it identifies its subject I think more precisely with garbage than with something that merely contains the garbage.

I approached my decision from the perspective that I wanted to communicate the idea that Donald Trump’s campaign was garbage and the people who are in it are garbage.

Charlie Warzel, BuzzFeed

When you start seeing [dumpster fire] in all these headlines, it becomes kind of a crutch. And that kind of sucks. It was this funny thing, it put a light spin on something that was kind of brutal.

Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine

Ben Sasse. He follows me on Twitter. That’s how huge I am. I’m so huge that I’m followed on Twitter by one of the Senators from the state of Nebraska. It’s entirely possible that I’m partially responsible for this.

His endorsement, somehow—that’s when the garbage fire jumped the shark.

Elias Esquith, Cafe.com

At this point[…] it’s bad and hacky. It is like Harambe or Ken Bone jokes—it offers people who aren’t funny or irreverent the chance to role-play being both of those things. It’s very “this sounds like something a clever person would say, and I am saying it, so therefore I am clever.”

It is my measured opinion, therefore, that people who still hold onto the “dumpster fire” cliché are trash and don’t have the range.

The phrase “dumpster fire” has been so overused that it’s prompted a sort of solemn reflection in some.

Jon Favreau, former Obama speechwriter

I’m not sure why a dumpster fire is worse than other fires. I mean, a dumpster fire seems rather contained.

My overused phrase for everything is just a shitshow. Which is not particularly funny, but it’s my preferred phrase. That’s what the election is. It’s a shitshow, or a nightmare.

There are a few people in the Obama world who call things like this “goat rodeos.” “It’s so out of control over there. It’s a goat rodeo.”

Kevin Fox, Deputy Fire Chief, Minnetonka, Minnesota Fire and Emergency Management Department

Fires in dumpsters and other trash containers are actually quite common. Even though they seem like they may be rather harmless, trash or dumpster fires can be quite dangerous. The contents are always unpredictable and we approach them with extreme caution. The assumption is that the contents are worthless since they have been discarded, but the proximity to buildings or automobiles is the real issue. Due to illegal dumping, dumpsters can also sometimes contain hazardous items or chemicals that produces smoke or fumes that can be very hazardous to firefighters and the general public.

Despite all of the real annoyance and real danger of “dumpster fire,” some outlets have chosen to keep using it, or even to embrace it. This week, BuzzFeed grabbed the flaming dumpster by the handles, declaring in its election night coverage preview that this election was a dumpster fire. It even debuted a cute little dumpster fire emoji.

Charlie Warzel, BuzzFeed

[BuzzFeed’s dumpster fire-heavy election night programming] is counterprogramming to the networks, the imagery that the networks put out is super patriotic. Shooting stars, waving flags, bombastic soul-stirring music. Just a very “so proud to be American” feel. And it’s not that we don’t feel that way, but we wanted to convey that this hasn’t been fun.

We’re all being held together by duct tape.

With the election days away and despite its clear fall from favor at the cool kids’ table of political media, “dumpster fire” trudges on. It’s recently made appearances on Fox News and on Meghan McCain’s Twitter feed, in addition to its place of prominence in BuzzFeed’s election night coverage. But is it so closely associated with this specific moment in history that it can’t survive after Nov. 8?

Tommy Vietor, former National Security Spokesman for the Obama administration

I think it can survive. I think the collective memory, especially in politics, is about 5 days. So, sure. We love retreads in politics. Look at Tucker Carlson getting a Fox News show.

Dodai Stewart, Fusion

Like “FUBAR” “crazy town” “the shit is bananas” “epic fail” “hot mess” and “insane in the membrane” it will surely fall out of favor, and the kids of our eco-conscious recyclable renewable tomorrow may not even know what a dumpster is. So where do we go from here? No clue! I like how four pins used to do “bricked a fit” for “wore bad fashion,” but that’s not quite a dumpster fire replacement. Maybe it will be something horrifying and catchy like “necrotizing fasciitis”? Only the teens know, probably.

Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine

I have to think it’s going to go away like every internet meme does. Nobody says “fail” anymore. Nobody says “full of win anymore”

It’s hard to imagine a political situation that could ever be as much of a garbage fire.

David Folkenflick, NPR

Sadly, I feel that with dumpster fires, ultimately the embers will dull. It will exist, and there will be people out there trying to rekindle it. And we’ll move onto the next fresh thing that very quickly becomes a meme and then quickly becomes a cliché.

Suddenly one day you’ll see overflowing blenders everywhere, and we’ll wonder, where did this come from? Why is everybody posting this? I guess this is the thing now.