For the record, it’s officially called the Democratic Party, same as it has been since 1844, when it replaced its predecessor, a faction formed by Thomas Jefferson in 1798 that was called the Democratic-Republican Party. Also for the record: “Democrat” is typically defined as noun (“He is a patriot and a democrat”) and “democratic” is as an adjective (“Jefferson had democratic ideas”).
But references to “the Democrat Party” — and variants in which “Democrat” is used as a modifier — have been around for decades, rising and falling over the years. It’s mostly a Republican thing, a way to needle Democrats.
But it has sometimes been used by Democrats, too; President Obama said in 2009 that leaders “understand that what makes an idea sound is not whether it’s Democrat or Republican but whether it makes good economic sense for their workers and companies.”
Mostly, however, it’s been used in the way Trump would like — as a way to help neuter the opposition and rally the faithful.
According to the late New York Times political columnist and language aficionado William Safire, Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen (R) urged Republican nominee Wendell Willkie to use the phrase during the 1940 presidential campaign. Stassen, who managed Wilkie’s campaign, told Safire in 1984 that he did so to emphasize that the Democratic Party wasn’t especially democratic — that it was controlled by party bosses and big-city political machines.
“Why, Republicans asked for years, should we allow the Democrats to get away with the adjective ‘democratic’?” wrote Safire. “As a result, partisan Republicans, especially those who had been head of the Republican National Committee, called the opposition ‘the Democrat party.’ ”
Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) referred to opponents of his rabid Communist-hunting tactics as “the Democrat Party” in the early 1950s, making the phrase briefly toxic. But it subsequently made its way into various Republican Party platforms over the years.
President George W. Bush repeatedly employed it during his years in office, including in his 2007 State of the Union speech (“I congratulate the Democrat majority,” he said), though it wasn’t always clear Bush was trying to get under Democrats’ skins. After Democrats complained about his use of it, Bush joked in a speech to House Democrats, “Now look, my diction isn’t all that good. I have been accused of occasionally mangling the English language. And so I appreciate you inviting the head of the Republic Party.”
Among the modern promoters of the phrase have been former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Fox News commentators and conservative radio titan Rush Limbaugh, who uses it often on the air.
Trump has been trying to make Democrat as a modifier happen since the presidential campaign. He has used the phrase repeatedly in tweets, such as in May 2016 when he wrote, “I so look forward to debating Crooked Hillary Clinton! Democrat primaries are rigged, email investigation is rigged — so time to get it on!”
In September, he upped the rhetorical ante, saying in a speech, “When you see ‘Democratic Party,’ it’s wrong. There’s no name, ‘Democratic Party.’ ”
Well, there is, of course.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Daniel Wessel says Trump is engaging in “name-calling” by corrupting the party’s name. He called it “a weak attempt to try to distract from the fact that he’s done nothing on the issues that matter most to voters, like lowering prescription drug prices or increasing access to quality, affordable health care. Trump knows he can’t beat us in a policy debate, so all he can do is resort to petty attacks.”
Calling anyone something other than their preferred name is usually considered rude, but it’s not entirely clear why dropping the “-ic” from Democratic and using it as a modifier is an insult. According to the New Yorker magazine, pollster Frank Luntz tested the phrase with a focus group in 2001; he found that only “highly partisan Democrats” were upset by it.
But linguistic expert Paul Thibodeaux says “Democrat,” used the Republicans’ way, may grate on listeners for other reasons.
“I think that has to do with Democrat being a noun and Democratic being an adjective,” said Thibodeaux, a cognitive psychologist at Oberlin College who studies how language influences perception. “Republican sort of works as an adjective or a noun. [Saying] ‘He’s a Republican’ makes more sense than ‘He’s a democratic.’”
What’s more, he said, the sound of the word ‘Democrat’ has associations with other words that people don’t like: “Autocrat.” “Plutocrat.” “Bureaucrat.”
Not to mention that whole “rat” thing at the end.