By now, everyone knows assigning nicknames to opponents is Donald Trump’s trademark political strategy, and this week Hillary Clinton got hers. For as long as Trump is in this presidential race, and maybe beyond, Clinton will be, in the minds of some voters, “Crooked Hillary” in the same way that Marco Rubio became “Little Marco” and Ted Cruz has been “Lyin’ Ted.”
Trump doesn’t have to back up those designations with deeper content to make them stick. These insults require no additional information beyond knowing what the names are meant to imply. And the implications here aren’t subtle.
In doling out these simple nicknames, Trump appeals to that human instinct to categorize and label as a way to have stability and certainty.
In 2011, Jeremy Sherman, an epistemologist, described this Trump tackas a sort of “taxonomy, identifying what subspecies of winner and loser people are.” He said it was a symptom of what he called, “nounism,” a way to describe something or someone in a way that is an absolute. A chair is a chair. It’s not chair-ly, or chair-ish. In the same way, Trump has defined Hillary as crooked not her actions or her behavior, but her.
Since his ascendance to the top of the GOP presidential field, Trump has been attempting to create a permanent class of winners and losers as determined by him, Sherman has concluded.
“He’s able to do it with intransigent certainty,” Sherman said. “The content is secondary. He’s a master at this stuff it’s a permanent quality he sticks to you. And it’s a tar baby it sticks to you the more you fight it.”
People generally don’t like ambiguity, but much of political debate is nuanced without a clear-cut right or wrong. Yet Trump’s declarations and designations are presented as hard facts. Things just are.
A recent study published this year by a team of psychologists analyzed this style of political speech. In it they determined that conservative politicians more often use nouns in making their points because that part of speech can “satisfy psychological needs for order, stability and predictability.”
The study was born out of a hypothesis that right-leaning pols are “less likely than leftists to consider multiple, potentially contradictory viewpoints.” So to “convey greater permanence,” they use more nouns. If someone is regarded as a “loser,” it is part of their fundamental nature, not a passing trait.
John Jost, a New York University psychology professor and one of the co-authors of the study, told Tom Edsall, who writes a weekly opinion column in the New York Times, that part of Trump’s appeal to voters is how the candidate addresses everything with “tremendous self-confidence and 100 percent certainty, which some people find impressive and reassuring.”
In other words, he leaves little wiggle room for debate or contradiction.
Mazarin R. Banaji, a psychology professor at Harvard, has also studied the use of noun phrases to create a sense of permanence. It’s the difference between calling someone a chocolate-lover vs. saying someone loves to eat chocolate. The former is a more concrete description. She said it’s called “essentializing,” which is psychology-speak for coming to see a “trait or quality as an essential and indisputable feature.”
She said everyone does it to some extent. Trump, who notably toned it down in his New York victory speech Tuesday night, is just an exaggerated example.
In using this type of speech, he has mastered the art of the insult.
(This post has been updated.)
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