Unable to manage an escalating pandemic, an economic crisis, and social unrest, and finding himself sinking farther behind in the polls, President Trump has reexamined his operations and arrived at the Trumpiest possible conclusion: The nickname he uses for his opponent is not mean enough. Trump “has recently been asking advisers whether he should stick with his current nickname for Biden — ‘Sleepy Joe’ — or try to coin another moniker, such as ‘Swampy Joe’ or ‘Creepy Joe,’” reported the Washington Post this weekend. The president has settled, at least momentarily, on “Corrupt Joe.”
The power to define his opponents with belittling nicknames is perhaps Trump’s most distinctive and feared political skill. Labels like “Low-Energy Jeb,” “Lyin’ Ted,” and “Liddle Marco” seemed both to emasculate his primary rivals while establishing Trump as an alpha male. “Crooked Hillary” created a frame that fit every real and imagined scandal afflicting his opponent, including the publication of stolen emails from her campaign that should have registered as a Trump scandal. The nickname method seemed to demonstrate that the entire political Establishment had overestimated the intelligence of the average persuadable voter, and Trump struck it rich by discovering the correct level, which was approximately that of a seventh-grade cafeteria table.
Obviously, no messaging technique could overcome the disadvantage created by Trump’s cascade of governing blunders. (You can’t handle a pandemic by giving it a mean name.) But given the almost mythical position Trump’s nicknaming power holds, the admission of defeat is telling. Trump throwing away the months of brand equity he invested in making “Sleepy Joe” happen is a sign that he is failing not only at his formal job but also at the one thing people give him credit for doing well. Is he actually even good at giving people nicknames?
Any bully intuitively grasps the importance of thematic consistency. Trump’s taunts used to follow this rule, but in recent years his aim has wavered. He has affixed both “Crazy” and “Nervous” to the first name of the House Speaker. After relentlessly mocking Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahantas” — itself a dumber version of the “Fauxcahontas” slur he stole from the conservative Boston Herald — he began calling her “Goofy.”
Last year, Trump announced the nickname “Pencil Neck” for House Intelligence Committee chair and prime Trump nemesis Adam Schiff. The nickname unveiling took on a celebratory air, with Trump’s surrogates quickly stamping the term on branded merchandise and sharing it eagerly on social media. But then Trump either got bored or forgot, and began calling him “Little Adam Schiff” — recycling the name he used on Rubio – and then switched over again to “Shifty Schiff.”
The “Sleepy Joe” label was likewise derivative. It’s a default nickname Trump tends to use on generic white male Democrats, like Senators Bob Casey or Joe Donnelly. (Trump has spent years aiming a similar insult at NBC News host Chuck Todd.) Obviously, “Sleepy” is a somewhat damning description for anybody who works in television. The harm it would pose to a politician is less clear. Moderate Democrats, especially ones running in red states, would actively desire to be seen as sedate and low-key.
And as the Trump era spirals further into chaos and endless rage, that image seems more and more comforting. It seems to have dawned on Trump only recently that his nickname for Biden was doing very little to reduce his opponent’s appeal. “The president is not convinced that ‘Sleepy Joe’ is particularly damaging,” reports the Post, “and some of his advisers agree and have urged him to stop using the nickname.”
Barely more than a third of the public considers Trump “honest and trustworthy.” A mere 37 percent approve of his handling of the coronavirus. By a 50-to-36 percent margin, the public agrees that he is a racist. Against that backdrop, Trump doesn’t have many great options, but persuading people that his opponent has lost a step is not going to be enough.