Leadership through showmanship: Trump’s ability to coin nicknames for opponents on Twitter

From ‘Crooked Hillary’ and ‘Crazy Bernie’ to ‘Mini Mike’, ‘Sleepy Joe’ and many others, Donald Trump has coined concise memorable nicknames which carry character-destroying meanings. This trend begun in the 2015-16 Republican primaries, it continued during his first presidential campaign and it did not stop in the 4 years of his administration. Unsurprisingly, the same strategy has been employed in the 2020 presidential campaign. The preferred medium for delivery has also been the same: Trump’s personal Twitter account, his favourite tool to communicate directly to followers, to by-pass the journalistic filters and with a final aim to build the agenda.

‘Crooked Hillary’ soon became part of the general media discourse, ‘Sleepy Joe Biden’ is a widely known epithet. Table 1 provides numbers for this particular tactic: ‘Crooked Hillary’ remained in President Trump’s tweets and it has been even mentioned in the 2020 campaign (when she was almost completely out of daily politics). ‘Sleepy Joe’ already appeared in 2015 but was only during the 2020 Democratic primaries that it became consistently present in Trump’s Twitter feed. Rivals and preferred targets change and evolve throughout time: at the beginning there were ‘Lying Ted Cruz’ and ‘Lightweight Jeb Bush’, then several reporters popped-up for some of Trump’s recurring feud with media and news outlets. Finally, Joe Biden became the preferred target (although not as extensively as ‘Crooked Hillary’ four years earlier). Unpacking the frequency of Trump’s use of nicknames provides a timeline for his political enterprise: ‘Lying Ted Cruz’ and ‘Dope Karl Rove’ for the 2016 Republican primaries; ‘Nervous Nancy Pelosi’ and ‘Shifty Adam Schiff’ for the four years of dispute with the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives; and the well-known ‘Crooked Hillary’ and ‘Sleepy Joe Biden’ for the two presidential runs.

Source: Author’s elaboration on Trumptwitterarchive.com (2020).
Note: Total tweets from @realDonaldTrump.
*Candidate 2016 period: June 16, 2015-November 8, 2016 (500 days: 7787 tweets).
**Presidential period: January 20, 2017-January 20, 2020 (1095 days: 14242 tweets). ***Candidate 2020 period: January 20, 2020-November 3, 2020 (283 days: 10424 tweets). Transition period (November 9, 2016-January 19, 2017) not included.

Why such a strategy? Because emotions play a crucial role in establishing an empathetic relation between the political leader and their audience. Trump is able to construct the character of his opponents using simple and short descriptions; setting the ground for informal, everyday language, and distracting the audience from serious issues and complex policies. He knows how to calculate words and how to play with social media and TV; how to cheer the audience and how to impress it; how to play with symbols and symbolic images. He is an experienced and skilled performer who aims to establish a relation of confidence and full complicity with the audience. He has worked on TV for years and he knows the “rules” of the showbiz and of the infotainment. Every time he wants to show that he has nothing to do with old-style serious politics he jokes, he makes fun of his opponents. Average citizens have limits in assimilating data and information and fully react only to emotional acts. And Trump’s attempts to make opponents looking ridiculous serve him to offer voters with an experience of a sensation of full identification with the speaker, with simple solutions offered in a pleasant and funny framework, equipped with jokes, nicknames and mockeries.

Candidate Trump and President Trump are speaking the same language: in disarticulating old-style political discourse, they are privileging slogans over thought, emotions instead of contents. With the crucial aid of his Twitter’s based disintermediated communication, Trump’s nicknames and inflammatory mockeries are invented to serve his populist strategy, to personify the ‘everyday man’ who fights against the elites. And that has been true for both presidential campaigns and for his full term as President. Trump’s hyper-simplified and politically-incorrect language is the language that millions of Americans speak at home, among friends, or in their families. When they hear a candidate (a president!) speaking like them, they feel at ease, comforted. It is the true language of populism.

Trump’s rhetoric has never become presidential and his political communication has been set into a comedy-style model, limiting the space for complex reasoning and complicated contents. Moreover, his ability to coin nicknames for almost every political opponent, disdained journalists and mainstream media has been picked up by his social media followers and conservative-aligned media such as Fox News. Literally, Trump has been able to build the agenda throughout his social media strategy of de-politicized, clowning-style communication.

Focusing on this ability to coin and impose ridiculous nicknames for opponents also opens up room for reflection on two relevant political concepts. The first one concerns Trump as the epitome of the modern notion of permanent campaign. His inflammatory communication never changed: from candidate to President to candidate again (incumbent). The blurring boundaries between time of campaign and time of governing makes presidents being perceived as more partisan, less “presidential”. And this brings to the second long-term consequence: throughout this divisive rhetoric, once typical of election campaigns, Donald Trump represents a key factor in the increasing polarization of U.S. politics.