The Media Today

The dangerous power of Trump’s ‘fairy tale’ nicknames

May 13, 2019

During his 2016 presidential bid, Donald Trump wielded insulting nicknames to brutal effect. In the primaries, he ran not against Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz, but against “Low Energy Jeb,” “Little Marco,” and “Lyin’ Ted.” In the general election, he routinely assailed “Crooked Hillary” Clinton, and won. Trump hasn’t stopped with the epithets since taking office—they’re a hallmark of his rhetorical style. Recently, the candidates vying for the 2020 Democratic nomination have given him fresh ammunition. Bernie Sanders is “crazy,” just as he was in 2016. Amy Klobuchar is a “Snowman(woman)!”; Elizabeth Warren is “Pocahontas.” Joe Biden—whose candidacy has clearly preoccupied Trump—is “sleepy.”

On Friday, Trump stretched the latter adjective. “Looks to me like it’s going to be SleepyCreepy Joe over Crazy Bernie,” Trump tweeted, of the Democratic race. “Everyone else is fading fast!” He wasn’t done there. Later in the day, in an interview with Politico, the president called Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old Democratic candidate (and mayor of South Bend, Indiana), “Alfred E. Neuman,” a reference to the dimpled, gap-toothed kid on the cover of Mad magazine. The quote drove its own mini-news cycle. Bloomberg, CBS News, the New York Post, The Hill and others carried it as a story in its own right. “Who is Alfred E. Neuman?” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked; The Washington Post saw the reference as proof of a presidential “generation gap.” In San Francisco, Politico asked Buttigieg for a response. “I’ll be honest, I had to Google that,” he said. The retort made headlines, as did Mad’s retort to the retort: “Who is Pete Buttigieg?” Whose burn was sickest? Who cares?

ICYMI: Audit suggests Google favors a small number of major outlets

Regrettably, none of this is a laughing matter. In 2017, I wrote for CJR about the dangerous linguistic power of Trump’s nicknames, which recall the age-old storytelling techniques found in myths and fairy tales. The nicknames, I wrote, trade in “strength, moral failure, and cartoonishly rendered virtue,” appealing to our “childlike desire to make an easily digestible morality tale of a complicated world.” The “pejorative adjective and proper noun” structure—see: “Crooked Hillary” or “SleepyCreepy Joe”—is particularly potent. David Beaver, a professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, told me that the sentence “Hillary is crooked” goes into our brains through the intellect: it’s for us to weigh whether it’s true or not. The epithet “Crooked Hillary,” by contrast, presupposes the truth of Hillary’s crookedness. “‘Crooked Hillary’ is emotional, it has this visceral way of just grabbing you,” Beaver said.

“Alfred E. Neuman” doesn’t follow this structure, but a similar principle applies. Consciously or not, Trump uses epithets and nicknames to set the narrative around his political opponents, boxing them in with unflattering stereotypes that can be hard to escape. “Low Energy” continues to stick to Jeb Bush years after Trump coined it, as “Lyin’ Ted” does to Cruz. At best, Trump’s nicknames caricature complicated people—on Friday, Trump literally turned Buttigieg into a cartoon of callow goofiness. At worst, they’re lies dressed up as jokes. Either way, Trump “uses these pejorative adjectives in a way which really does overpower the opposition,” Jack Zipes, a fairy tale expert who has taught at the University of Minnesota, told me in 2017. In the process, rival candidates are dehumanized.

Much of the mainstream press is hyper-vigilant about Trump’s lies and misstatements—we are commonly told that they’re an urgent threat to our democracy and civic discourse. It’s odd then, that so many outlets still treat Trump’s nicknames as an amusing distraction, not the subtle, dangerous manipulation of political discourse they actually represent. We don’t just amplify these insults when Trump wields them: we almost invite him to coin them, then dredge them up unprompted in subsequent coverage. We should resist those impulses, or at least be clear-eyed about what Trump is trying to do. “Alfred E. Neuman” might be funny. But let’s not amuse ourselves to death.

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Below, more on Trump, nicknames, and the 2020 presidential race:

  • An origin story: In my 2017 piece, I made the case that Trump may have borrowed his nickname format from the press, in general, and New York tabloids, in particular. Writing for The Atlantic last week, Matthew Pressman explored the broader effect the New York Daily News may have had on young Trump. As well as pushing right-wing populism, the paper “gave insulting nicknames to its political opponents. Harry Truman was ‘High Tax Harry’ or ‘Little Harry’; the Democratic White House adviser David Niles was ‘Devious Dave.’”
  • Send in the clowns: Earlier this month, a supporter asked Biden whether he would return Trump’s insults. Biden said he would not, then called Trump a “clown” anyway. For The New York Times, Jonathan Martin notes that Biden’s staff has controlled media access to the candidate, limiting his potential to commit “gaffes.” (The framing of the story caught some criticism on Twitter.)
  • O’Rourke’s drift: In March, Beto O’Rourke jumped into the presidential race with a splash, attracting intense media interest including a Vanity Fair cover story. Since then, however, the coverage has quieted—in part because O’Rourke hasn’t aggressively courted it. Recognizing that his current strategy isn’t working, O’Rourke is planning to “reintroduce” himself, the AP’s Will Weissert and Steve Peoples report: he “is scheduled to appear on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show on Monday night and ABC’s The View the next day.”
  • Breakin’ up is hard to do: Yesterday, Kamala Harris, who is also in the 2020 running, told CNN’s Jake Tapper that she would “seriously take a look” at breaking up Facebook—the platform is “essentially a utility that has gone unregulated,” she said. On ABC, Cory Booker hit a different note, telling Jonathan Karl that promising to break up companies without “some kind of process” was “like a Donald Trump thing to say.” On Twitter, Politico’s Cristiano Lima assessed where different Democratic candidates stand on cracking tech monopolies. So far, only Elizabeth Warren and Tulsi Gabbard seem committed to the idea.

Other notable stories:

  • Breaking this morning: prosecutors in Sweden announced that they will reopen an investigation into a rape claim against Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who was arrested in London last month after Ecuador kicked him out of its embassy in the city. In 2012, Assange took refuge in the embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden; Assange’s supporters called the rape charges a pretext to forward him to the US over his publication of leaked materials. Overnight, WikiLeaks said the reopening of the case would give Assange—who is now formally subject to a US extradition request—“a chance to clear his name.” Sweden could complicate efforts to bring Assange to the US by posing a rival request.
  • On Friday, in San Francisco, police raided the home of Bryan Carmody, a freelance journalist—Carmody told the San Francisco Chronicle that a team of officers tried to break down his gate with a sledgehammer, then cuffed him, entered his home, and seized electronic devices. Police have been investigating the source of a leaked report on the death of Jeff Adachi, San Francisco’s former public defender, which Carmody obtained and sold on to local TV news stations. Meanwhile, in Connecticut, Tara O’Neill, a reporter with The Connecticut Post, was cuffed and detained for 30 minutes while covering a demonstration.
  • For the Times, Richard C. Paddock, Saw Nang, and Edward Wong look at the political dynamics behind the release, last week, of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters journalists whose reporting led them to be jailed in Myanmar. According to the Times, the biggest obstacle to freeing the pair was not the country’s military, which remains a potent force in the government, but rather Aung San Suu Kyi, its de facto civilian leader whose reputation as a pro-democracy stalwart has been tarnished since she came to power. Diplomats told the Times that Aung San Suu Kyi would sometimes explode with anger when Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s treatment was raised with her.
  • Also in the Times, Jacinda Ardern—the prime minister of New Zealand whose response to the recent, livestreamed mosque shootings in Christchurch won her widespread praise—writes that governments and technology companies must take action to stop violent extremism from spreading online. On Wednesday, Ardern and Emmanuel Macron, the French president, will host politicians and tech leaders in Paris to map a path forward.
  • For CJR, Nicholas Diakopoulos finds—based on an audit of Google’s “Top Stories” function—that the search giant is referring its users to a limited number of major outlets: notably CNN, the Times, and The Washington Post. “As much as our results help better describe Google’s curation of news, what our study decidedly cannot say is why some sources dominate on Google,” Diakopoulos writes. “We just don’t know unless Google is more transparent with the editorial design and goals of news curation.”
  • Only 21 percent of Americans have ever spoken to or been interviewed by a local journalist, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. The figure differs by demographic, with white, college-educated, and older respondents all more likely to have had contact with a reporter than comparable groups. The overall total shows a decrease on figures reported in 2016. Pew’s Elizabeth Grieco suggests withering local newsrooms and increased journalistic reliance on social media may be responsible.
  • For CJR, Rosalind Donald argues that newsrooms should not silo climate coverage: “Climate change is an economic story and a public health story; global warming shapes supply chains, water resources, tech infrastructure, community development and loss, and on and on. Yet climate coverage has historically been relegated to the science and environmental beats, outside the realm of hard news.”
  • And in Afghanistan, Mena Mangal, a prominent journalist and women’s rights advocate, was shot dead in Kabul on Saturday, one week after posting on Facebook that she feared for her life. It’s not yet clear who killed Mangal. Her death comes little more than a year after 10 Afghan journalists were killed in a single day, nine of them in a suicide bombing in Kabul.

ICYMI: White House revokes press passes for dozens of journalists

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.