Biden Stumbles Into Trump’s Nickname War

A new category of gaffe. Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Joe Biden called President Trump a “clown” at a private fundraiser in South Carolina on Saturday night when asked by a supporter if he would respond to Trump’s insults. Politico reports that Biden had made it clear he didn’t want to get into that kind of thing with Trump, but did anyway, and as anyone could have expected, his comment ended up as a headline.

“There’s so many nicknames I’m inclined to give this guy,” Biden reportedly said, drawing laughter from the small crowd of donors.

“You can just start with clown,” Biden said, though he also reportedly referred to the president as a “no-good S.O.B.” at the event.

Trump’s political rhetoric (and need to feel dominant over others) has always leaned on the use of derisive nicknames, both on the campaign trail and in the White House. Trump’s name-calling is prolific enough to have its own Wikipedia page, but the names themselves often seem lazily conceived, focusing on people’s physical appearance or demeanor, or just reusing the same prepositive adjectives for different people, like “crazy,” “wacky,” or “lyin’.” In the case of Biden, Trump has previously used “1 Percent Biden” — a reference to how Biden did at the polls in the the 2008 Democratic primaries, and “Crazy Joe Biden” — after the former vice-president said last year, in response to Trump’s boasts about sexual assault, “If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.”

But Trump seems to have landed on “Sleepy Joe” (or the variation “sleepy man”) as his opening nickname for Biden, but it’s just a retread of earlier attacks on senators Joe Donnelly and Bob Casey, as well as NBC News’ Chuck Todd. It also hasn’t been obvious why Trump thinks Biden is best described and dismissed as sleep-deprived, an argument that would normally be an important part of rolling out an attack meant to frame a political opponent in the minds of voters. The most complete explanation Trump has yet given for the choice was to Sean Hannity on Fox News two weeks ago:

I think we are calling him Sleepy Joe, because I have known him for a while and he’s a pretty sleepy guy. He’s not going to be able to deal with President Xi. I will tell you. That’s a different level of energy and, frankly, intelligence. So, I thought to refer to him as Sleepy Joe, because — a lot of people wanted me to take the word “sleepy” to something that rhymes with it. Does that make sense to you? And I thought it was too nasty.

Trump is presumably referring to using “creepy” as an alternative, on account of Biden’s reputation for inappropriate contact with women, but the president seems to have temporarily opted against highlighting that issue, as doing so might re-highlight his own horrendous conduct toward women.

Then again, Trump’s insults aren’t always strategic, or even very memorable. But while the president would probably lose a taunting match with any moderately clever 5-year-old, he has still normalized these types of attacks like no American politician before him, and they have worked in his favor more often than they seem to have hurt him politically. In 2016, Trump’s nickname framing of “Little Marco” Rubio, “Low Energy Jeb” Bush, and “Crooked Hillary” Clinton undoubtedly helped his campaign and was one of the ways he got news networks to pay attention to him, and one of the ways Trump convinced voters that he was the as-seen-on-TV, blunt-talking novelty they could believe in.

No attempts to go taunt-for-taunt with Trump have been effective, and the news cycles created by his comments and the subsequent response just amplifies whatever Trump said and drowns out everything else. Biden seemed to be aware of this, telling supporters on Saturday that he wanted to steer clear of distractions like trading insults, since that scenario benefits Trump. “On every single issue and on every demeaning thing he says about other people, I have no problem responding directly,” Biden said at the fundraiser. “What I’m not going to do is get into what he wants me to do. He wants this to be a mud-wrestling match.”

The former vice-president also reportedly explained that he regretted his comment from last year about beating up Trump in high school. “I probably shouldn’t have done that,” Biden said. “I don’t want to get it down to that level — the presidency is an office that requires some dignity.” Biden added that he knew Trump would personally attack him and his family over the course of the campaign, and, yeah, he likely will.

Some Democratic primary voters may reward personal attacks on Trump, and news coverage will definitely reward any and all mud wrestling. But when it comes to avoiding the trap of Trump’s cacophony, those who say they want to avoid and starve the beast while feeding the beast are doing a pretty good impression of a clown themselves.

Biden Stumbles Into Trump’s Nickname War