Donald Trump and the Art of the Nasty Political Nickname

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tags: election 2016, Trump



Joseph Cummins is the author of Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential Campaigns.

Donald Trump has certainly been winning the nickname battle this election season — “Little Marco” is still delighting the Internet; “Lyin’ Ted” helped bring down a candidate; “Crooked Hillary” is appearing on T-shirts and TV ads around the country. But if you think that Trump pioneered the art of nasty political nicknaming, you’d be wrong. As unusal a candidate as Trump is, this schoolyard behavior actually brings out his traditional side: For centuries, presidential candidates have been dishing out malicious nicknames with abandon; Trump has simply revived the highly effective practice. And his opponents have been slow to catch up.

“Political discourse in the United States is characterized by high productivity of coining nicknames for US Presidents,” writes Dr. Anna Gladkova, who wrote a 2002 paper on the practice. She counts 430 nicknames for (at the time) 43 American presidents. Many of these nicknames are complimentary, but aside from Honest Abe, the positive ones don’t stick around very long—quick, who was Handsome Frank? Smiling Bill? It’s the vicious ones that people remember.

Hillary Clinton has been having trouble countering her Republican opponent on this front. (The choices so far? “Dangerous Donald.” “Poor Donald.” Bernie Sanders has chimed in with “Mr. Macho”—which is, oddly, sort of a compliment.) The problem is, Democrats today don’t appear to possess the requisite adolescent glee necessary to finding just the right few words that will stick like napalm and burn, burn, burn.

Democrats would do well to get down in the sandbox with our political forbearers, whom Trump resembles, insult-wise, at least. Back in 1800, Federalists loved to refer to Thomas Jefferson as “Generalissimo Jefferson,” underscoring the fact that beneath that Republican veneer beat the heart of an aristocrat. Andrew Jackson dubbed Henry Clay “The Judas of the West” for his supposed “corrupt bargain” in handing over the 1824 election to John Q. Adams. “Granny” Harrison fit William Henry Harrison pretty well—the latter was 68 when he bested Martin Van Buren in 1840 (“Martin Van Ruin,” as he was known, for presiding over the Panic of 1837). That’s younger than all three major candidates today, of course, although Harrison would die only a month after taking office, leaving things to “His Accidency,” the much-reviled John Tyler.




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