The president is especially proud of one branding exercise: coming up with the kind of nicknames that most of us associate with the playground warlords we left behind in elementary school. “I feel it, it’s an instinct,” the future insulter in chief told Mark Leibovich of the New York Times three years ago. “It works, it flows.”
One thing is consistent. The tags say more about him than they do about his targets.
When Trump last week finally came up with a sobriquet for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), it was a sure sign that she had gotten under his tissue-thin skin with her declaration that Congress must push forward with its investigations of him because “the president of the United States is engaged in a coverup.”
“I don’t do coverups,” huffed the man who paid hush money to a porn star to hide an alleged sexual affair.
Trump’s nickname habit began as a means of belittling his Republican rivals for the 2016 presidential nomination and kicked into higher gear in the general election battle against Hillary Clinton.
There was arguably a legitimate journalistic purpose in reporting these labels at first. They were a window into the character, psyche and mental stability of someone seeking the most powerful office in the world.
But by now, the country has taken its own measure of all those qualities in Trump. It is hard to make an argument that amplifying his insults by repeating them adds anything to anyone’s understanding of his fitness as president.
All it does is accelerate the corrosive effect he has had on what used to be considered acceptable behavior on the part of our nation’s leaders. It also encourages those who oppose him to employ the same tactics, which never accomplishes anything. As the hoary adage goes, “Never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”
There are signs the country is getting inured to this lack of dignity and impulse control on the part of its president. His Twitter feed, which is his favorite medium for flinging insults, no longer has as much capacity to shock.
Even Trump’s supporters seem to be getting bored by it. Axios over the weekend quoted data from the social-media-monitoring tool CrowdTangle indicating that the “interaction rate” for Trump’s tweets — that is, a measure of what proportion of his Twitter followers react by either “liking” or retweeting his posts — has dropped precipitously. The current level is only about one-third what it was the month he was elected.
That can mean only one thing, of course: Trump is going to amp it up. He has already sprinkled nicknames on at least four of the 2020 Democratic contenders. The one he uses for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is racist. The others are digs at physical traits or cheap attempts at character assassination.
No doubt more nicknames are on the way. But you won’t be reading any of them here.
Meanwhile, I continue to struggle with bigger questions when it comes to how to write about the president.
The indefatigable fact-checkers, especially ours here at The Post, do a good job of calling him out on his falsehoods. But it can be harder to figure out when a slanderous Trump statement, whether delivered by social media or in front of the cameras, qualifies as a legitimate news event. Even by Trumpian standards, it was jolting to hear a U.S. president make common cause with Kim Jong Un by joining the murderous North Korean dictator in lobbing an insult at former vice president Joe Biden.
Against such gross violations of norms, ignoring Trump’s nicknames is a baby step, I admit. It is a personal choice on my part as an opinion columnist, and not one that I necessarily advocate for other journalists, particularly those who have the demanding job of covering this presidency as a daily news story. Nor do I have any illusion that my own decision not to repeat Trump’s insulting nicknames makes a dent in their spread.
But hey, you have to start somewhere.