The Neanderthal Controversy Signals the Return of Derp

The flap over Biden comparing governors to Neanderthals takes us back to an earlier era of stupidity in American politics

President Joe Biden speaks during a virtual call in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Out of the foggy mists of time, Neanderthals emerged this week. With them came the dim outlines of a world far distant from the present: the world of 2012.

Suddenly, it is the era of derp again. Derp was the defining complaint about politics in the early teens of the 21st century. With a relatively prosperous country and both parties nominating well-disciplined candidates who were clearly qualified for the Oval Office, the 24-hour cable news cycle needed to cover something. So we got “derp,” a word coined by the creators of South Park that became used to describe the unbearable stupidity of political fights happening for their own sake.

When an entire day in March 2012 was devoted to harsh criticism of Barack Obama for making a historically inaccurate joke about Rutherford B. Hayes’ disdain for the telephone, that was derp. There were no single-issue Rutherford B. Hayes voters. No one criticizing Obama cared about Rutherford B. Hayes. For that matter, no one defending Obama did, either. It was the type of phony juiced-up controversy that defined politics in an era when the defining question asked of Mitt Romney was “What about your gaffes?”

Derp disappeared under Donald Trump. Trump was prone to such outrageous statements and actions that a haze of genuine outrage pushed it from the scene. From his post-Charlottesville comments about “very fine people on both sides” to his suggestion that Americans consider injecting disinfectant to combat Covid-19, Trump’s were jaw-dropping statements. Even his more obscure actions, such as becoming the first president to share white nationalist propaganda on Twitter, would have been reputation-defining for any other politician. But now, with him out of office and off social media, the derp is back.

On Wednesday, President Biden criticized Republican governors for ending mask mandates on the eve of most Americans being able to get vaccinated and with new variants spreading. “The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that, in the meantime, everything is fine, take off your mask,” said Biden in the Oval Office.

The result was outrage. Tate Reeves, the governor of Mississippi who was immediately ending his state’s mask mandate, went on Fox News to say how deeply offended he was. “Today I feel the same way as I did the day that Hillary Clinton called all of us in Middle America ‘deplorables.’ When President Biden said we were all Neanderthals, it struck me as someone who needs to get outside of Washington, D.C., and actually travel to Middle America.” Mississippi has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country and had a Covid-19 positivity rate of over 13% during the past month, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee took it one step further. She went on Fox Business to defend Neanderthals from an unfair attack. “Neanderthals are hunter-gatherers. They’re protectors of their family. They are resilient. They’re resourceful. They tend to their own. So, I think Joe Biden needs to rethink what he is saying,” said the Tennessee Republican. Neanderthals have been extinct for roughly 40,000 years, though their DNA persists in modern human populations.

In a somewhat more creative vein, Sen. Marco Rubio expressed mock outrage on Twitter that Biden was being culturally insensitive. “President Biden’s use of an old stereotype is hurtful to modern Europeans, Asians & Americans who inherit about 2% of their genes from Neanderthal ancestors,” Rubio jibed. “He should apologize for his insensitive comments and seek training on unconscious bias.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked about Biden’s comment and forced to clarify, noting that Biden was not directly comparing governors to Neanderthals but was instead referring to “Neanderthal behavior.”

No one cares about Neanderthals outside of some university anthropology departments. No one thought Biden was directly comparing governors to a now-vanished species of hominid. Nor is there a political constituency for Neanderthal rights. This is just a painfully stupid attempt to create controversy and elevate a disagreement over mask mandates into the type of culture war issue that fires up cable news panels. This is derp.

And as dreary as derp was in its heyday, its return is a good sign. It comes from a time when we had a somewhat functional political system, a time when there were fewer existential crises to be worked up about. The economy was fine. There was no pandemic. The U.S. Capitol hadn’t been stormed by invaders in 200 years, not two months. People in both parties weren’t waking up angry about the world every day.

The return of derp is a sign that nature is healing. It is a spiky, weedy green shoot bursting out of a bare, muddy field. Winter is finally over. And politics has become dumb again.

Ben Jacobs is a politics reporter based in Washington. Follow him on Twitter at @bencjacobs.

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