Once upon a time, a brave and wealthy prince named Donald lived in a tall golden tower at the center of the world. In spite of his riches, Brave Donald was not happy. The noblemen in his kingdom, led by the vain courtier Failed Mitt, scorned him behind his back, only flattering him to serve their own ambitions. One day, Brave Donald decided to go to war with the noblemen.
He defeated all who crossed his path: Lowly Rand, Poor Kasich, No Honor Lindsey, Low Energy Jeb, Little Marco, and Lyin’ Ted. He even brought down Crooked Hillary, who had cast a terrible spell on the Pathetic Democratic National Coven. Suddenly, Brave Donald was ruler of all the land.
But the scribes of Fake News CNN and the Failing New York Times still did not show him respect. The heralds Crazy Mika, Dopey Karl, and Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd began to conspire to turn the peasantry against him. This made Brave Donald Sad!
Donald Trump has always spoken in fairy tale language. With a rhetorical swish, he turns complicated figures into witches, bogeymen, and, often, pumpkins, and reduces opponents—including politicians, the media, and other national leaders—to their most simplistic.
At its darkest, it is a language that cleaves the world into opposing spheres of good and evil, pulling up the drawbridge to keep the hordes at bay. His dragon-like threat to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea is just one recent example.
But it is also chauvinistic, trading in strength, moral failure, and cartoonishly rendered virtue. In recent days Trump christened Kim Jong-un “Little Rocket Man,” and tweeted his support for Alabama Senator “Big Luther” Strange ahead of the state’s special election (Trump didn’t make that last one up, but it’s telling of his rhetorical style that he borrowed it).
It’s Trump’s insults, usually rendered in a loose “pejorative adjective and proper noun” structure, that most frequently channel his fairy tale impulses. They were a defining feature of his campaign strategy, and he hasn’t given them up since. Just last week, he repeatedly assailed “Crooked Hillary” in tweets about her book, North Korea, and Russian interference in the election.
The press is often on the sharp end of such attacks. Sometimes Trump assails organizations like the Times or CNN in general terms, but often he’s more personal. In late June and early July, for example, Trump launched an extraordinary volley at Morning Joe presenters Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski—variously “Crazy Joe Scarborough and dumb as a rock Mika” and “low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe.”
On Twitter he has clocked up more than 175 different insults that fit this linguistic pattern since the start of his presidential bid in 2015. They run a surreal gamut from “wild Bill” Clinton, through “absentee governor John Kasich,” to “goofball atheist Penn Jillette,” of the magic duo Penn and Teller. Megyn Kelly accounts for five separate insults, including “crazy,” “dopey,” “lightweight,” and “highly overrated.”
Consciously or not, Trump is feeding us nuggets packed with enormous linguistic power. They appeal to a childlike desire to make an easily digestible morality tale of a complicated world.
When Trump lies, the press calls him out. But even though his insults are often just as mendacious, they escape without scrutiny. Worse, reporters actively dredge them up to enliven coverage even when Trump himself hasn’t coined one in a while.
Take “Fake Tears Chuck” Schumer. Trump ridiculed the Senate minority leader in January after Schumer, a descendant of Holocaust survivors, cried at a press conference about Trump’s Muslim travel ban. Trump uses variants on the moniker from time to time, tweeting about “Cryin’ Chuck” as recently as June. But even when he doesn’t, references to Schumer and Trump often bring up the nickname anyway—as recently as earlier this month, after an apparent warm turn in the pair’s relationship.
Trump’s insults reflect age-old storytelling traditions. “If you read the old epic poems then you’ll find many of these adjectives that accompany names, like ‘swift-footed Achilles,’” says Anna Szilágyi, an expert in media and political communication who has written on Trump’s language for Quartz.
But you don’t need to be fluent in Ancient Greek or versed in Homer to be hooked by the fairy tale insult. You just need to be human.
Name-calling has always been a raw, primal assertion of power. According to Jack Zipes, a fairy tale expert and professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, Trump’s insults recall the curse of the tribal shaman, dancing across the identity of his rivals as a mode of control. “Once a witch doctor knew your name, you were done for,” Zipes says in an interview with CJR.
Not all of Trump’s insults have the lyrical quality of Hans Christian Andersen prose. The “Amazon Washington Post” and “publicity seeking Lindsey Graham” are decidedly functional, and the less said about “flake Jeff Flake” the better. But the same principle of name-calling applies regardless.
“Voters feel it’s familiar to them,” Zipes continues. “He has a unique intuition. He’s able to use these pejorative adjectives in a way which really does overpower the opposition.”
Once upon a time there lived in a certain village a little country girl, the prettiest creature who was ever seen. Her mother was excessively fond of her, and her grandmother doted on her still more. This good woman had a little red riding hood made for her. It suited the girl so extremely well that everybody called her Little Red Riding Hood.
Although the opening of “Little Red Riding Hood” very briefly sketches the origins of the protagonist’s name, modern readers remember her as nothing more or less than “Little Red Riding Hood.” The same goes for the “Big, Bad Wolf”—an epithet that early versions of the tale didn’t actually use, but which has nevertheless slipped into lore as convenient shorthand for wicked-grinned villainy.
When Trump called Hillary Clinton “Crooked Hillary” he was using the same kind of shorthand. Clinton may once have existed, for Trump and his supporters, as a three-dimensional human person. But Trump gradually chiseled her down to a glib function of her supposed dishonesty—with plenty of sexist undertones.
“Crooked Hillary,” is exponentially more powerful than the statement “Hillary is crooked,” just as “the Big, Bad Wolf” resonates more deeply than the claim that “the wolf is big and bad.” The academics Jason Stanley and David Beaver argue, in a forthcoming book, that this is because “Crooked Hillary” slips into the mind as a presupposed truth.
“‘Crooked Hillary’ is emotional, it has this visceral way of just grabbing you,” Beaver says in an interview with CJR. “Hillary is crooked,” on the other hand “is supposed to go in through the intellect. You’re supposed to weigh up the claim and decide if it’s valid or not.”
This puts the press, whose job it surely is to “weigh up claims and decide if they’re valid or not,” in something of a bind.
“A journalist will see Trump’s playground taunts for what they are, as much as the same reporter must resist rushing to the defence of the bullied rivals,” says David Astle, who writes crosswords for Australian newspapers and who has spoken on Trump’s use of language, in an email to CJR. “Here is the fight, its lexicon, its substance—now report.”
But others don’t think the press should normalize bullying from the bully pulpit. “How do you call attention to what terrorists have done without heightening the terror?” asks the journalist and Columbia Journalism School sociologist Todd Gitlin. “It’s a similar problem.”
The media probably cannot avoid the faithful reproduction of fairy tale insults. “You just have to report what he’s saying and hope people can sort through what they want to pay attention to,” says Katy Waldman, a Slate staff writer who reported on the “accidental brilliance” of Trump’s language just before the election.
The press could, however, dial down the circus that surrounds Trump’s insults. When the president took aim at “Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd” in the spring, it was covered as a story in its own right by, among others, Entertainment Weekly, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, USA Today, Newsweek, Business Insider, and Breitbart. Two hours later, The Hill was on the scene to break the important news that Chuck Todd had actually “slept well.”
The single sharpest aspect I look forward to each month is your hilariously on-target descriptions of Donald Trump. In past issues he’s been referred to as a “Queens-born casino operator” and more recently as a “short-fingered vulgarian.”
As a concerned New Yorker and an avid Spy reader, please allow me to humbly suggest these additional Trump epithets:
Koch-bashing book huckster
Media-lusting publicity brat
Shifty-eyed miniseries cue card reader
Shameless gopher-toothed real estate glutton
News outlets themselves have long used fairy tale language to turn public figures into resonant, familiar archetypes. If Trump’s insults recall fairy tales due to their simple yet fantastical characterizations, it is no surprise they have parallels in the media too.
David Vogler of Brooklyn sent the above letter to the editors of Spy magazine in January 1988. Spy was founded by Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen, who had worked together at Time.
They were so struck by Time’s use of pejorative nicknames that they consciously spoofed them in Spy. Where Time referred seriously to the likes of “tousle-haired evangelist” Billy Graham, Spy mockingly christened Trump a “short-fingered vulgarian.”
Andersen, among others, gives credence to the idea that Trump could have lifted the fairy tale insult from a media environment that has, for decades, been obsessed with him. “He watches TV all the time, and you don’t hear that kind of thing on TV very much,” Andersen says. “But in print people get called names. I’m sure he absorbed that. I’m sure the New York Post and the New York Daily News made up a seriously large fraction of what he read. I don’t think he was reading books, or magazine articles, that weren’t about him.”
Wherever he picked it up, Trump is a highly skilled wielder of the fairy tale insult. Devastating when well-applied, it can stick to recipients with indelible persistence, and ruin presidential bids, reputations, and careers altogether.
While bluster about fake news and alternative facts dominates discussion of the media, Trump, written off by many as an inarticulate and unsophisticated showman, is—under the radar—using the building blocks of language to drive his polarizing, “with me or against me” worldview into the press.
“There is a fairy tale-like aspect to all his talk and presentation, because he wants to take charge of the narrative,” Zipes says. “Most fairy tales are stories about hope. Whether he does it consciously or not, Trump has found a way to narrate a story in which he is the star.”