Nearly two months ago, a newly minted Kent State graduate named Kaitlin Bennett posted a series of pictures of herself carrying an AR-10 rifle around the university’s campus on Twitter. She held a graduation cap in her right hand, which she had decorated with “COME AND TAKE IT,” a 19th-century battle cry that has since been co-opted by the pro-gun right.
Not surprisingly, Bennett’s photos went viral. People on the right heralded her as a brave Second Amendment activist; some on the left sent her death threats while others more benignly made fun of her hair. Bennett’s graduation photos — and the backlash they inspired — were covered by outlets like the Washington Post, The Hill, Refinery29, and USA Today. Jim Carrey, who I guess is an artist now, made a weird painting of her standing in front of the devil. And, of course, she appeared on Fox & Friends, introducing the show’s geriatric audience to this latest fixture of the campus culture wars. “My inbox is blowing up,” Bennett said on Fox & Friends. “Because of all the media attention, Blue Target Firearms in Ohio reached out to me and offered me a job.”
In a normal world, Bennett would have gotten her 15 minutes of Twitter fame before returning to a life of relative obscurity. Maybe she would’ve taken that job at Blue Target Firearms and enjoyed a lucrative career of selling guns. But in our current hellscape, she has instead become a minor social media celebrity, due in no small part to her ability to rile up people with incendiary, politically oriented thirst traps, where she looks defiantly into the camera, occasionally while holding a gun or wearing some kind of pro–Second Amendment apparel. (Bennett didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Let’s get an important thing out of the way first: Despite its name, a thirst trap doesn’t necessarily have to be a sexy photo, though that’s usually the case. But even if thirst traps are meant to be consumed by others, they’re ultimately self-serving. That is, the point of any good thirst trap is to get attention, sometimes from one person in particular — think of a DM-ed nude — and sometimes from anyone willing to toss you a like or buy you something nice from your Amazon wishlist. Either way, thirst traps are supposed to be provocative, meaning they have to elicit a reaction from one’s audience. In Bennett’s case, the intended reaction is threefold: 1) validation from conservatives; 2) vitriol from liberals; and most importantly, 3) the amplification of a political message. The key difference is that Bennett seems to be seeking out negative responses just as much as she’s seeking out affirmation.
Bennett, like any MAGA-era young conservative worth her salt, understands the value of knowing how to “trigger the libs” — intentionally pissing off liberals and leftists alike, not only for fun, but also to prove some kind of inherent political superiority. In the months following her first viral photo, Bennett picked a fight with school-shooting-survivor-turned-activist David Hogg, tried to turn herself into a meme, and posted plenty of photos of herself lounging on the beach (while holding a “liberal tears” mug), lounging in a pool (which she similarly joked was filled with “liberal tears”) and, obviously, holding guns.
She recently went to New Jersey to ask beachgoers what the “AR” in AR-15 stands for — it stands for “ArmaLite rifle,” but also, who fucking cares? — and then posted several pictures with captions expressing her distaste for New York, all of which led to its own exhausting news cycle, as at every turn, her antics have been breathlessly covered by a bunch of different media outlets.
As of this writing, Bennett has amassed more than 92,000 followers on Twitter and 101,000 followers on a Facebook page called Kait’s Unsafe Space. She also now sells T-shirts featuring an illustration of her now-infamous graduation photo, and recently started a GoFundMe to pay for her trips to speak at conservative rallies across the country.
Bennett is by no means the first young conservative to use thirst traps for personal and professional gain — in fact, her gun-toting graduation photo isn’t even an original idea. In April, Brenna Spencer, a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, posted a similar photo, in which she wore a bright pink WOMEN FOR TRUMP shirt, pulled up just enough to reveal a .380 pistol tucked into the waistband of her white skinny jeans. (The photo may or may not have been inspired by a photo that conservative commentator and MAGA thirst-trapper extraordinaire Tomi Lahren posted on Instagram in March, in which she tucked a pistol into her yoga pants.)
Like Bennett, Spencer turned the outrage cycle into an opportunity to self-promote. The skinny jeans gun post propelled Spencer’s Twitter following from “almost 2,000,” according to the University Echo, UT-Chattanooga’s student newspaper, to more than 61,000. She has similarly amassed nearly 27,000 followers on Instagram, where she posts more MAGA-themed photos, and has been interviewed by Elite Daily, Fox News and The Blaze. An InfoWars video referred to her as a “sexy gun toting Trump girl,” and conservative women across the country took copycat photos in “solidarity” with her.
Bennett’s critics, however, have called her a Lahren wannabe — and with good reason. Lahren has provided a blueprint for viral success that relies on pissing people off and being hot. In many ways, she’s a role model for young conservative women like Bennett and Spencer, both in terms of form and substance. Bennett and Spencer may claim they weren’t chasing outrage when they posted their viral photos — in fact, Spencer told ABC News that the “amount of hate” she got was “really, really surprising” — but their respective media tours and pre-microcelebrity activism suggest otherwise.
Case in point: Both Bennett and Spencer were members of their respective schools’ chapters of the conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA, whose sole mission is to “identify, educate, train and organize” young conservatives. Backed by conservative billionaires — the nonprofit’s revenue was more than $2 million in 2015 — the group puts on leadership summits where young right-wingers can hear speeches by, and rub elbows with, “some of the nation’s most well-known conservative leaders and activists.” These summits are replete with “professional development and leadership training” seminars, ensuring that the enterprising students will be media trained, camera ready and experienced in promoting the organization’s agenda by the time graduation comes around.
And while there’s no shortage of right-wing men who have built massive followings by trolling the libs — think Paul Joseph Watson and Charlie Kirk, to name a couple — male members of the alt-right’s pundit class aren’t exactly known for flaunting their looks. The personal brands of conservative women, meanwhile, rely on notions of traditional American femininity reimagined for the Trump era — a hot young thing who could pass for Megyn Kelly’s spawn, wearing an Ivanka Trump–brand shift dress and carrying a rifle over her shoulder.
Over on Instagram, accounts like Babes for Trump 2020 post thirst traps in a more literal sense, which primarily function as proof that, no matter what the left says, there are plenty of women who support the president and his anti-woman agenda. Moreover, there’s a clear conflation of good looks and good moral character — an implied message that women who support so-called traditional values are more attractive than those who do not. For conservatives, these accounts are proof that they’re doing something right. Anna Paulina, a conservative activist who has been featured on the Babes for Trump 2020 account, tells me that the page is a good way to highlight women who share her beliefs, especially since they’re demonized elsewhere. “The left-wing narrative is extremely negative,” she writes over email. “If you notice, on Babes for Trump, there’s no hate speech coming from the person running the page, nor is there any negative photos.”
If Instagram is a place where Trump’s female fans can post thirst traps in peace, Twitter is where they go to get attention for all the wrong reasons. Once they get the backlash they crave, they feign innocence — why would those evil liberals pick on a girl who’s just expressing her right to free speech? — as an army of alt-right reply guys rush to their defense. The outrage cycle continues indefinitely, and every few months, a new MAGA microcelebrity joins their ranks.
Some people have caught on to the ruse, noting that attempts to drag Bennett and her ilk only make them stronger. “I understand that [Bennett is] ignorant and deserves the lashings, but she’s doing this for that reason — to get dragged,” Nichole, a Twitter user who runs the popular account @madblackthot, writes over email. “It’s media traffic. It’s followers for her. A lot of these alt-right figures post controversial opinions and pictures for the reaction. They know that people will be outraged, and it will lead to clicks, retweets, favorites and a ‘silent’ following of racists that doesn’t acknowledge the tweet publicly but follows them because they agree.”
And so, here we are: Thirst traps are now political, too — an effective new weapon in the never-ending culture wars of the good ol’ USA.