Trump’s nicknames ranked, as he locks in on 2020 foes and foils

‘His rabid base loves it all,’ Monmouth professor says. Another expert calls them ‘hard to escape’

Supporters of President Donald Trump pose for a picture while waiting to enter his rally at the Williamsport Regional Airport in Montoursville, Pa., on May 20. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Supporters of President Donald Trump pose for a picture while waiting to enter his rally at the Williamsport Regional Airport in Montoursville, Pa., on May 20. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 26, 2019 at 6:00am

ANALYSIS | Donald Trump, with a regretful-yet-mischievous smirk, did something rare during a recent campaign tour stop in New Hampshire: He admitted a possible mistake.

“Like, Elizabeth Warren — I did the Pocahontas thing,” Trump told a chuckling-in-unison crowd of supporters in Manchester on Aug. 15. “I hit her really hard and it looked like she was down and out. But that was too long ago. I should’ve waited.”

But then he did something very on-brand: He vowed to go after a political foe, and he dropped one of his most derisive and mocking nicknames for the Massachusetts Democrat.

[Trump, self-described ’Chosen One,’ heads to G-7 looking for ‘respect’]

“But don’t worry, we will revive it,” he said. “It can be revived. … It will be revived. And it can be revived very easily — and very quickly. And we’re going to have some fun in the state of New Hampshire.”

With the latter, the president sent merely his latest signal that he plans a gloves-off reelection campaign that will include trying to discredit any and all potential general election opponents as the Democratic field narrows. Below is Roll Call’s second annual rankings of Trump’s nicknames, which one expert says do resonate with the president’s base.

“We don’t have any evidence that one nickname is more effective than others. It’s a cumulative effect — his rabid base loves it all, while those who support his presidency but wish he’d get off Twitter don’t like any of it and choose to ignore it,” said Patrick Murray, director of polling at Monmouth University.

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1. Pocahontas 

Warren is “surging,” multiple media outlets have reported. That’s because, well, she is. And Trump knows it. A Quinnipiac University poll released Aug. 6 showed her within 12 percentage points of frontrunner Joe Biden, and up to 21 percent of Democratic voters and independents who lean left versus the former vice president’s 32 percent.

The president’s approach, so far, to what he calls the “rising” Warren is to mix a dig with touting his own record. “So think of that, you have the best unemployment. You have the most successful state in the history of your state and in the history of our country — and then you gonna vote for somebody else. Oh great. Let’s vote for Elizabeth ‘Pocahontas’ Warren. We have the best numbers we’ve ever had. Let’s vote for somebody else. I don’t think that’s going to happen, folks. … Only with fixed polls does that happen.”

Remember: His rally crowds light up with laughter with he uses the P-word — even though Democratic members and Native American groups call it racist. (Trump is pouncing on Warren making misleading and false statements about her level of Native American ancestry.)

2. Sleepy Joe

Trump openly admits he views the former VP and longtime Delaware senator as his most likely general election opponent, and he is trying hard to cast doubt in the minds of voters who might be torn between his tough-talking populism and Biden’s reputation as a blue-collar advocate from the hard-scrabble streets of Scranton, Pa. Trump’s comments after dropping the “Sleepy” moniker is to describe Biden as too old, too weak and generally too out of it to be the next leader of the free world.

“Does anybody really believe he is mentally fit to be president? We are ‘playing’ in a very big and complicated world. Joe doesn’t have a clue!” Trump tweeted on Aug. 10, around the same time he took to alleging Biden is “not playing with a full deck.”

Warren and Biden nicknames were at No. 4 and No. 10 in last year’s version of the rankings. It just shows the extent to which Trump has shifted in re-election mode that they now occupy the top spots. And this is your yearly reminder that septuagenarians Trump and Biden already have challenged each other to a fist fight.

3. AOC Plus Three (Tie)

Though this one only showed up in the Trump vernacular over the summer, it warrants a high ranking for what the president is trying to do with it. If you ask Democrats, he using this nickname for the so-called “squad” to rile up racist and xenophobic feelings about Muslim and Latino Americans — and non-whites in general — as he tries to drive up turnout among his mostly white political base.

The president has used sharp — and what even mainstream media outlets, including CQ Roll Call, have dubbed racist — to describe Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts. He’s called them “a Nightmare for America!” and said they “hate” both Israel and America. They have emerged as some of the president’s top critics, with Tlaib tweeting this recently, in a signal they aren’t likely to back down from the election-year fight he clearly wants: “The more they target us, the movement for justice gets stronger.”

3. Foul Mouthed Omar (Tie)

See above. And add this: Trump wants to paint Ocasio-Cortez as the leader of a pack of progressives he is warning his backers are now the “face of the Democratic Party,” which, if they take back the White House will turn the United States into a Venezuela-like failed socialist hellscape. But he sees Omar as perhaps an even better foil, given her criticism of Israel and U.S. foreign policy.

Trump’s tweets that Omar and others should “go back” to countries from which three of them are not from — she was born in Somalia but now is a U.S. citizen — prompted a rally crowd in Greenville, N.C., to chant “send her back!” The president laid off for a few days, only mentioning her in passing at his next rallies, in Cincinnati and Manchester. But since, he has pressed Israeli officials to deny entry for a fact-finding trip to Omar and Tlaib and even tried sowing discord among the “squad” with this Aug. 16 tweet: “Like it or not, Tlaib and Omar are fast becoming the face of the Democrat Party. Cortez (AOC) is fuming, not happy about this!”

His nicknames for Warren and the four House female freshmen are different than others, says Monmouth’s Murray, because of what they can spawn.

“We saw how his tweets about ‘the squad’ led to the “Send her back” chants among a riled-up base on one hand; but also led to other Republicans calling him out, even if tepidly, on the other,” he said. “That content is much more meaningful in terms of moving the needle than the silly nicknames.”

5. Crazy Bernie

Trump long has had something of a soft spot for the Vermont senator, whose far-left populism can sometimes resemble Trump’s brand of big-spending conservatism. When the president talks about Sanders, his face lights up like he’s referring to a favorite family member.

“Personally, I think he missed his time,” Trump told reporters on Feb. 19. “But I like Bernie because he is one person that you know on trade, he sort of would agree on trade. I’m being very tough on trade. He was tough on trade. The problem is, he doesn’t know what to do about it. … We’re doing something very spectacular on trade.” (Trump has proposed a new trade pact with Mexico and Canada that Congress has not yet taken up, but inked no other trade pact with another country or bloc of them.) Sanders has slipped in the polls, but Trump still trots out “Crazy Bernie.” That could be because RealClearPolitics’ average of 10 polls gives Sanders a 5.6 percentage point lead in a hypothetical one-on-one race with Trump.

6. Fake News

It happens almost every morning. Your phone buzzes or fires off a notification sound that echoes from across the room to alert you that the president — like his 44 predecessors, to one degree or another — loathes the press. Most recently, Trump tries daily to convince his 63.4 million Twitter followers that the American media is clamoring for an economic slowdown — which would, paradoxically, adversely affect their wallets and families.

[Analysis: Should we all just throw away our impeachment position trackers?]

“The Fake News LameStream Media is doing everything possible the ‘create’ a U.S. recession, even though the numbers & facts are working totally in the opposite direction. They would be willing to hurt many people, but that doesn’t matter to them. Our Economy is sooo strong, sorry!” he tweeted Wednesday. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture his supporters yelling at and even giving middle-finger salutes to journalists covering his rallies while reading the daily “fake news” blasts.

7. The classics

“Crooked Hillary” still makes appearances at his rallies and on his Twitter feed, and his supporters still appear to enjoy a raucous “Lock her up!” chant about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. There’s the occasional “Leakin’ James Comey” comment or post, referring to the fired FBI director getting unflattering-to-Trump information in the hands of a reporter through a friend.

And should North Korean leader Kim Jong Un eventually walk away from nuclear talks that prompted Trump to declare their mutual “love,” this one likely will soar back into the president’s vocabulary: “Little Rocket Man.”

8. Alfred E. Neuman

Rewind to the spring. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg was having his own surge, gaining in the polls while most of his Democratic primary opponents mostly treaded water or slipped in the polls. Trump had mostly avoided criticizing the country’s first openly gay presidential candidate. That changed during a media interview when Trump compared the 37-year-old former Navy intelligence officer to the gap-toothed kid on the cover of Mad magazine.

“Alfred E. Neuman cannot become president of the United States,” Trump said in May. It prompted Buttigieg to take a shot at the 73-year-old president’s age, saying, “I’ll be honest, I had to Google that.” (Buttigieg soon slipped in the polls, but there’s no tangible evidence the Neuman comparison played a role. Of course, there’s none to show it didn’t help.)

Whose burn was sickest? Who cares? Regrettably, none of this is a laughing matter,” journalist Jon Allsop, who has studied the impact of Trump’s rhetoric and nicknames, wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review.

“Trump’s nicknames … recall the age-old storytelling techniques found in myths and fairy tales,” he wrote. “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.”