Stop asking how Trump is ‘defining’ Biden and Harris

If you’ve been paying attention to politics news recently, chances are you’ll have heard some variation on the idea that Trump is “struggling to define” Joe Biden. Trump’s efforts to paint Biden as senile and/or a Trojan Horse for the radical left, you’ll likely have heard, haven’t cut through with voters. (You may also have heard the opposite: that the attacks are cutting through.) Last week, after Biden named Kamala Harris as his running mate, reporters and pundits immediately wondered how Trump would seek to define her; then, once he’d given an answer (“nasty”; “just about the most liberal person in the US Senate”), they reached a similar conclusion: this isn’t gonna work. “Radical or Moderate?” Time asked in a headline, “Trump Campaign Struggles to Define the Democratic Party Ticket.” A new poll, ABC News reported, showed “how hard that defining might be.” The New York Times concluded that Trump’s “lack of a frame to respond to the significance of the Harris selection” underscored the listlessness of his campaign. The Wall Street Journal wrote simply that “The Battle to Define Kamala Harris Is On.”

Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in such framing is a contrast with 2016, when Trump was very successful in “defining” his opponents in both the Republican primary (“Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Low energy Jeb”) and the general election (“Crooked Hillary”). Since taking office, Trump has continued to tag nicknames to those who irk him, from Kim Jong Un (“Little Rocket Man”) to the “failing New York Times” to Pete Buttigieg, whom Trump dubbed “Alfred E. Neuman,” after the Mad magazine character. (“I had to Google that,” Buttigieg admitted.) Trump has repeatedly called Biden “Sleepy Joe,” or some variant thereon. According to the Washington Post, Biden’s campaign asked every potential running mate it interviewed what they thought their Trumpname might be. No sooner was Harris the pick than Trump’s campaign was dubbing her “phony Kamala.”

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As I’ve written before, Trump’s nicknames are more dangerous than they might appear. In 2017, I likened them to the language of fairy tales, given that they appeal to the childlike desire in all of us to see the world as a simple morality tale, a clash of good guys and bad guys. Their linguistic structure, experts told me, could be highly effective: “Crooked Hillary” is a presupposition that has the power to slip past our analytical faculties, whereas “Hillary is crooked”—which makes exactly the same claim—invites a mental fact check. Consciously or not, Trump has used nicknames to rhetorically glue his opponents to a defining character trait. At best, these are grotesquely reductive; often, they amount to disinformation. Yet many journalists have treated Trump’s nicknames as a puerile diversion—even while stressing the dangers of Trump’s lies.

Reporters have often judged the power of a given nickname by trying to gauge its appeal among voters. Trump, of course, has ample means of reaching the public directly, from his Twitter presence to campaign email blasts. Still, the news media is a key vector of political sentiment. Often, we seem to be uncomfortable acknowledging the power that entails. This year’s Democratic primary, for instance, became, in some respects, a feedback loop: journalists’ impressions of the public mood influenced the public mood, which journalists then reported as the public mood. When it comes to Trump’s efforts to “define” his opponents, it’s often us, not voters, who are deciding whether a given nickname is resonant or not; we play a role, whether we like it or not, in converting Trump’s attacks into electoral currency. In part, this is a reflection of our enduring preference for clear narratives and characters. Those judgments aren’t neutral.

The recent coverage of Trump’s failures to define Biden and Harris may seem, at first glance, to be an improvement on 2016: we’re not breathlessly admiring the potency of Trump’s attacks this time, and many stories of the “struggling to define” genre have noted that the substance of the attacks—that Harris is a radical leftist, for instance—is nonsensical. There’s been strong pushback, too, on Trump’s birther-esque claims that Harris may not be eligible to serve because of her immigrant parents—smears that are, ultimately, an exercise in “defining,” albeit an extreme one. Often, however, the coverage has been of a piece with our habitual, amoral framing of the horserace. The undertones seem to be less, These nicknames are dangerous disinformation, and more, Trump is off his game! Is ‘Sleepy Joe’ really the best he can do?

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It’s not the media’s job to judge how sick Trump’s burns are; rather, it’s to wrestle with the contradictions in the records and presentation of candidates for high office, and communicate them to voters in a way that respects nuance. To ask whether Trump has succeeded in defining an opponent, even if the answer is “no,” is to cover politics on Trump’s turf—an implicit invitation to misinformation and artifice that risks making useful idiots of the press. You wouldn’t expect to see the headline, “Trump fails to successfully lie about Kamala Harris,” or, “Trump struggles to cast Joe Biden as Snow White’s eighth dwarf.” Yet the “defining” question is ubiquitous.

Below, more on the election:


Other notable stories:

  • On Thursday, Trump told the New York Post that “a lot of people” think that Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, “is not being treated fairly.” The remark sparked speculation that Trump could pardon Snowden, who faces charges under the Espionage Act; on Saturday, Trump told reporters that he would “take a very good look” at a pardon. Also on Saturday, Robert Trump, the president’s brother, died. Recently, Robert led an unsuccessful family lawsuit aimed at blocking a tell-all book by Mary Trump, his niece.
  • Last week, a derecho hit Iowa with the force of a Category-Two hurricane—but, as Lyz Lenz writes for the Washington Post, national outlets barely covered it. “Conservatives’ consternation over the new Cardi B single has gotten more attention than the Iowans left without power or food for what may be weeks,” she notes. On The Kicker, Cullen, of the Storm Lake Times, agreed that the derecho has been “tremendously underreported” nationally. (ICYMI, Lenz wrote about bad coverage of Iowa for CJR’s latest magazine.)
  • For CJR, Deborah Bloom profiles the Portland Press Corps, a group of independent journalists in Portland, Oregon, who have contributed footage of protests and police brutality in the city to national news networks. “The group came up with a standardized pay scale—from $250 for up to 15 seconds of footage, to $500 for between 30 and 60 seconds—to avoid being low-balled or pitted against one another,” Bloom reports.
  • On Saturday, police in Kalamazoo, Michigan, arrested Sam Robinson, a reporter for MLive who was covering a far-right rally in the city, and charged him with impeding traffic. Robinson, who is Black, repeatedly identified himself to police as a journalist. Yesterday, officials dropped the charge and apologized for the arrest.
  • For CJR, Gabe Fleisher, a teenager in St. Louis, reflects on the success of his newsletter, Wake Up to Politics, which he writes every morning before school. It has around 50,000 subscribers. “I wanted to write about politics in a straightforward way that didn’t assume my readers knew everything already,” he writes, “because I didn’t, either.”
  • Yesterday, protesters in Belarus staged the largest rally in the country’s history—a response to authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko’s claim to have won a disputed recent election, and the police crackdown that followed. (As I wrote last week, journalists were caught up in the violence.) Opposition leaders want a general strike.
  • In France, the government authorized relief payments to newspaper vendors whose businesses have been affected by the pandemic and recent financial turmoil at Presstalis, a company that distributes many French papers and magazines. Vendors in Lyon and Marseille will receive more than $3,500. Le Monde has more (in French).
  • And the new state flag of Mississippi will not bear an image of a mosquito after all. State officials—who are taking submissions for a new flag after the old one, which featured the Confederate battle flag, was axed—initially named a design centering a giant mosquito as a finalist, but has since blamed its inclusion on a typo. The Clarion-Ledger has more.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.