A couple of weeks ago, while he was still working in the White House, Steve Bannon phoned journalist Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect and unburdened himself. Kuttner wrote that Bannon
minced no words describing his efforts to neutralize his rivals at the Departments of Defense, State, and Treasury. “They’re wetting themselves,” he said, proceeding to detail how he would oust some of his opponents at State and Defense.
That was merely one iteration of a metaphor that has been in the political air at least since February 2016, when, during a Republican debate, Sen. Marco Rubio took aim at then-candidate Donald Trump:
He called me Mr. Meltdown. Let me tell you something, last night in the debate during one of the breaks, two of the breaks, he went backstage and he was having a meltdown. First he had one of those makeup things applying around his mustache because he had one of those sweat mustaches. Then, then he asked for a full length mirror, I don’t know why because the podium goes up to here (gestures to chest). I don’t know why maybe to make sure his pants weren’t wet.
The comment didn’t get much attention as it might have, since it was overshadowed shortly afterwards by another anatomical back-and-forth. Rubio called attention to the Spy magazine’s Homeric epithet of Trump as a “short-fingered vulgarian” and rhetorically asked, “You know what they say about men with small hands?” Trump took the bait. A few days later, he held up his mitts for television cameras and said:
Look at those hands, are they small hands? And, he referred to my hands — “if they’re small, something else must be small.” I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.
But the pants-wetting metaphor persisted. This past May, Fox News host Sean Hannity said that anti-Trump forces were “wetting their pants” over the publication of James Comey’s memo describing Trump pressuring him to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn.
Then came the Bannon interview. And on August 22, Republican operative Roger Stone was quoted by The New York Times as saying,
The president should start bumping off incumbent Republican members of Congress in primaries. If he did that, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan would wet their pants and the rest of the Republicans would get in line.
What with all the public voicing of the insult, it’s having a predictably good run on Twitter:
The temptation is to complain that U.S. political discourse resembles a schoolyard. Except that gives schoolyards a bad name. Better to close with a reminder that the notion of unintentional elimination was once upon a time used in an understated, funny, and memorable way. In a 1973 interview with Tom Snyder, Alfred Hitchcock talked about his goal as a director of suspense films. He said:
How shall I … may I say something vulgar? To make the audience feel, you know, there’s not a dry seat in the house. I mean that’s the aim.