What’s in a nickname? Lyin’ Ted, L’il Marco, and the art of the political catchphrase
The US Presidential race is taking yet another twist in its long road to the White House this week, as voters in Indiana head to the polls for their primary contest. The race to become a party’s nominee is usually all but settled by this time of year, but in 2016, at least on the Republican side, Indiana will be key in deciding whether Donald Trump can win enough delegates to take the nomination outright.
Donald’s way with words?
A year ago, it might have seemed laughable that the New York businessman would be in pole position, but his success in making it this far might have at least something to do with his campaign’s way with words. It may sound surprising, given that the Queens-born property magnate isn’t known for his mastery of the nuances of English, and has been panned for misspelling certain words on Twitter. But look at the words he was criticized for getting wrong, and his tactics become clearer.
‘Leightweight’ and ‘chocker’ (lightweight and choker), two epithets he used to describe his then-rival Marco Rubio in that tweet, may have been incorrectly spelled, but are examples of the kind of playground catchphrases that stick when it comes to describing opponents. Trump’s use of words like low energy when slamming his opponents seemed to catch on – and when it came to Jeb Bush, the candidate with all the cash but little charisma, the ‘low energy’ epithet seemed to be fatally wounding. Try as he might to seem spirited, voters continually saw him as ‘timid’ and simply not ballsy enough to be Commander-in-Chief. The name resonated as though it had been focus-grouped, even though Mr Trump says it was not.
Little Marco and Lyin’ Ted
It’s a strategy that’s worked with other candidates too. Not only did Mr Trump label Marco Rubio lightweight and a choker on Twitter and during his stump speeches, he also came up with the nickname ‘Little Marco’ to belittle the Florida Senator during a Republican debate in March. The term spawned plenty of internet memes and could, once again, have contributed towards Mr Rubio’s eventual loss of his own state to The Donald (whose own nickname was not self-appointed).
Similarly, Trump’s epithet for another GOP opponent, who’s stuck around longer than Little Marco, is the swaggering, Texas-gun-saloon-evoking Lyin’ Ted, for Texas Senator Ted Cruz. There was some suggestion, after his relatively sober victory speech following the New York primary, that Mr Trump might decide to tone down the use of such language and attempt to be more ‘presidential’. If this ever was an intention, it was quickly abandoned during a rally in Indianapolis at the end of April, since it’s clear that the nickname has stuck and is, once again, doing its job – even spawning YouTube songs – whether or not there is much basis behind it. Mr Trump’s relatively new nickname for the woman many now say is all but certain to be his opponent in November is in a similar vein – and once again, Crooked Hillary has all the hallmarks of a catchy nickname, and an attempt to build on perceptions among some voters that the former Secretary of State is untrustworthy.
Psychologist Jeremy Sherman, all the way back in 2011, termed Trump’s name-calling (which was already happening then, well before his presidential campaign) ‘nounism’ – ‘People are things, plain and simple. Just figure out what kind of thing they are, a good thing or a bad thing, and call ‘em that’. In an election campaign, this absolute way of describing something or someone appeals to voters’ subconscious instincts to categorize and label, in order to get some kind of certainty and help them make a decision. A recent study in the journal Political Psychology even found that conservative politicians use nouns more than liberal ones, because of their need for ‘structure and certainty’. Nouns, the psychologists say, because they are ‘clearer and more definite perceptions of reality than other parts of speech’, can provide that certainty.
Feeling the Bern
It’s true that neither candidate on the Democratic side has used such crowd-pleasing, stadium-chantable ‘nounism’ epithets to describe their opponents – at least not yet – but it’s worth noting that political catchphrases and nicknames work across the spectrum. For Hillary Clinton’s Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, the slogan ‘Feel the Bern’ became an Internet sensation, starting as an Internet hashtag, and spawning T-shirts, badges, mugs and, some are arguing, an entire US political movement, shorthand for the progressive ideals embraced by the Vermont Senator. It also became useful political journalese – handy for headlines such as ‘Why Black Voters Don’t Feel the Bern’ or ‘More Democrats Are Feeling the Bern’.
But the big difference between ‘Feel the Bern’ and phrases such as Lyin’ Ted and Crooked Hillary, apart from the fact that the former is positive and the latter all negative, is their origin. It’s clear that Mr Trump himself comes up with these nicknames, perhaps even on the fly during debates or speeches – and they’re then later adopted by his supporters. ‘Feel the Bern’, on the other hand, was created by a group of Bernie Sanders supporters themselves, from a group called People for Bernie. It was only later that Mr Sanders’ campaign itself adopted the edgy-sounding slogan, alongside its official ‘A Political Revolution is Coming’.
This top-down versus bottom-up approach could also be said to encapsulate the leadership styles and policies of the politicians involved – Trump (who also says he dictates many of his own tweets to campaign staffers) is the man who feeds his supporters the lines to tell them about his campaign, while Sanders uses lines given to him by fans who want to shape his movement themselves. As for the Clinton campaign, it’s spent a lot of money and time trying to make ‘Fighting for Us’ and ‘I’m With Her’ go viral in the same way ‘Feel the Bern’ has done – but with much less success (one pundit argues this is because Donald Trump is running a ‘He’s With Me’ style campaign, which people prefer).
So as the people of Indiana head to the voting booths, it’s worth bearing in mind that although the Republican frontrunner may mangle a spelling or two, his ability to coin a school playground nickname could be what sends him to the top of the class.