The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

John Oliver’s ‘Donald Drumpf’ jokes play on the same ugly xenophobia Trump does

Beating Trump shouldn't mean joining him.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s family name hasn’t been Drumpf for centuries. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News)

“Make Donald Drumpf Again,” John Oliver declared on his show Sunday night, and America — or at least, liberal America — was happy to take him up on it. By the afternoon of Super Tuesday, “Donald Drumpf” was being searched more frequently on Google than any Republican candidate’s actual name besides Trump’s. On Twitter, “Drumpf” quickly became the epithet of choice for our national political trash fire. “Drumpf is the orange [expletive’s] real name,” as one Twitizen explained it to me.

Drumpf, of course, isn’t Trump’s real name, nor has it been the real name of anyone in his family since the 1600s. But it’s fun to call a bully names, especially when that bully is on the verge of winning the GOP presidential nomination. Names have power; by renaming something, you take control of it, quarantine it in a defined box. This is some George Orwell/Sapir-Whorf stuff. The names we use to talk about a thing determine how we think about it, too.

“Drumpf” feels so satisfying to critics of the Republican front-runner partly because it sounds funny and foreign; it sounds funny BECAUSE it is foreign. Specifically, Drumpf sounds funny because it sounds German. Drumpf, to an American ear, conjures up a dough-faced Bavarian Nazi on his stumpy way to murder all the Jews in his village. (At least, that’s what I think of, as a progressive Jew who opposes Trump.) In the face of a campaign that’s drawing support from white supremacists by a candidate who promises that he would ban Muslims and build a “beautiful wall” to keep out Mexicans, it’s nice to think of Trump that way — as an interloper, a false face that conceals a creeping foreign influence. As not one of us.

But it’s not really funny if you think about it much: The “#MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain” concept traffics in the very xenophobia that is Trump’s sick stock in trade. Trump has already dragged our politics down, and he threatens to do worse if he’s elected. Opposing him shouldn’t mean joining him in a contest to see who can better plumb the ugliest nativist impulses.

Warning: The video above contains adult themes and language.

We have a long history of this sort of thing in this country of immigrants — bestowing foreign-sounding names to imply that the target isn’t really an American. In the 1930s and ’40s, partisans who opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt called him Franklin D. Rosenfeld, to imply that he was an agent of The Jews. (Some white supremacists still call him that.) More recently, birthers such as Trump insisted on using Barack Obama’s real middle name, Hussein, as a dog whistle to show how truly foreign he allegedly was. Trump also pointedly asked Jon Stewart why he doesn’t use his birth name (which is Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz).

Turnabout, in this case, is not fair play. This stuff is ugly. It’s tacky. And it’s bigoted. Yes, even Germans don’t deserve to be tarred as shifty-eyed Nazi foreigners. Plenty of German Americans were so slandered during World War II; it wasn’t cricket then, and it’s not now. (That’s not to say that associating Trump with Hitler is always wrong: They’re both verifiably xenophobic, racist, fascist demagogues with terrible hair.)

And for a comic genius such as Oliver, “Drumpf” is kind of weak sauce considering the target Trump offers. There’s his business record. Or his hair. Or the way he keeps making jokes insinuating that he’d like to have sex with his daughter. If we really need to call names, you can’t do better than Spy magazine’s classic “short-fingered vulgarian,” a charge that rankled so much that Trump not only threatened to sue the magazine and beat up its editors, he actually tried to send them photographic proof that it wasn’t true — his fingers weren’t that short.

Are Donald Trump’s fingers weirdly short? An investigation.

Comedians Jimmy Fallon, Conan O'Brien, Larry Wilmore and others reflect on voting results after Super Tuesday and the GOP debate. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

To imply, though, that Trump is some secret Drumpf, that he’s not actually just Trump is to deny the truth. In reality, Trump is as American as slavery and apple pie.

He’s a domestic product. Remember when he went around calling himself “The Donald” and putting his name on everything? Is there anything more crassly American than that? He’s simultaneously the belch that lingers after the binge-consumption of the Greed Decade and the gruesome specter of the GOP’s Southern Strategy finally shambling home to roost. Trump is the worst of what we are, and he was inevitable from the moment Thomas Jefferson wrote “All men are created equal,” then knocked off for the day and went home to impregnate one of his slaves. Trump is commerce and racism all rolled up in a bilious, Cheeto-colored ball.

Oliver’s argument is that the word “Trump” has too many positive connotations in English. But in fact, “Trump” is perfect; to trump someone is to beat them in the kind of zero-sum game that Trump and his followers believe the American enterprise to be. “Not everyone believes that we can all win,” the Black Lives Matter activist and organizer DeRay McKesson tweeted, long before he declared his candidacy for mayor of Baltimore. “Some cling to this idea that someone must lose in every fight. … I’m not sure when everything became a competition. But I don’t like it. We can all win, y’all. We can all get free.”

Trump stands for the opposite of this: In the game he’s playing, there will be a winner and a lot of losers. The best way to beat him in that kind of game is not to play at all.

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