When Donald Trump and BFF Bill O’Reilly do things that make progressives angry, there’s little we can do about it. The election is over. We’ve already never watched The O’Reilly Factor, so there’s no way to boycott it. We can tweet and write blogs about them, but the chances of them reading our missives are slim.
And so Maxine Waters, a Congresswoman from California who has had it up to here with all that right-wing noise, has been a welcome liberal release valve. With a prominent platform and a withering side-eye, Waters has embodied the unadulterated rage and indignation many have felt watching incompetent white men try to drive America off a xenophobic cliff. Her frank disregard for the very existence of Trump and his cronies is unmatched by nearly any of her mainstream political peers. “I don’t honor him, I don’t respect him, and I don’t want to be involved with him,” Waters spat out in an MSNBC spot a few days before Trump’s inauguration. A few dozen of her colleagues politely tweeted that they’d join Rep. John Lewis in boycotting the ceremony. Waters’ announcement was shadier by a few dozen degrees, more Mariah-on–J. Lo than Congress-on-president: “I never ever contemplated attending the inauguration or any activities associated w/ @realDonaldTrump. I wouldn’t waste my time.”
That’s how Waters’ relatable done-ness with political niceties became the meme the anti-Trump school needed. While Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer make chummy jokes about pens, Waters has loudly refused to legitimize Trump’s leadership, calling him a “so-called president” in an interview with the Associated Press. “I don’t see myself meeting with him, sitting down with him, believing anything he would say, or even respecting anything he would say,” she continued.
Over the past couple of weeks, observers have delighted as Waters trained her simmering wrath on O’Reilly, who compared her hair to a James Brown wig in March. Asked on MSNBC to answer to O’Reilly’s insult, Waters did not stoop to address him directly. “No, I’m not responding to him,” she said, and continued on her own terms. “I’m a strong black woman, and I cannot be intimidated. I cannot be undermined. I cannot be thought to be afraid of Bill O’Reilly or anybody.” After sexual-harassment accusations began to mount against O’Reilly, Waters revised her estimation of the TV host: “Bill O’Reilly needs to go to jail,” she told Chris Hayes, calling Fox News a “sexual harassment enterprise.”
Elle’s R. Eric Thomas has done an estimable job chronicling Waters’ ascendance to niche pop-culture icon, with pieces like “You Will Never, in Your Entire Life, Get the Best of Maxine Waters,” “Maxine Waters Is Back and She’s Not Here to Play,” and his original, “Congresswoman Maxine Waters Will Read You Now.” Some have argued that straight white progressives are outsourcing their emotional responses to Trump onto a gif of a real-life black woman, making her into a kind of caricatured mascot for their movement and appropriating a phrase (throwing shade) that originated in black gay culture.
But Waters seems downright giddy about her role in the internet’s collective processing of our dismal political reality. “I’m so proud of this connection that I’ve made with these young people,” she said in an interview with MSNBC’s Joy Reid earlier this month, boasting that her Twitter following has increased threefold in the past several weeks. “They do call me Auntie Maxine—I embrace that, I love that and I’m going to be their auntie. I’m going to keep telling the truth and I want them to get out there and register people to vote, get active, and bombard the Congress of the United States and their leadership with what they want them to do.”
In a NowThis video published on Friday, Waters expands on her relationship with young admirers.
Her usual no-nonsense glare replaced by a buoyant expression of joy, Waters says she loves that millennials are calling her “Auntie Maxine.” “I am having the time of my life with the millennials. They’re even teaching me a new language,” she says in the clip. “I had to ask my grandchildren, ‘What does it mean? I threw shade?’” after people used the phrase to describe her brief press conference on James Comey, at which she said with a flip of her hands, “the FBI director has no credibility.” Waters says young people mob her for autographs when goes out in cities, and the service she provides them as a vessel for their frustrations is returned in kind with youth language lessons: “I love what they taught me to say,” she says. “‘Stay woke.’”