Trump – the playground bully of politics

Wisdom: “An injury is much sooner forgotten than an insult” – Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773).

Do insults work? An article by legendary US journalist Carl Bernstein has revealed that Donald Trump is as rude in his talks with America’s allies as he is in tweets about his enemies.

Theresa May could hardly believe her ears. She had been one of the first world leaders to show the newly elected president respect, even inviting him on a state visit. Yet now Trump was on the telephone, berating her in the most caustic terms – calling her “a fool” and dismissing her approach to Brexit as spineless.

His attitude, according to one of his aides, was “humiliating and bullying”.

Britain is not the only allied country whose leader Trump has abused: France’s Emmanuel Macron, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, and Australia’s Scott Morrison have also been in the firing line.

But his most vicious attacks – described by a witness as “near-sadistic” – were directed at two women: May and Angela Merkel. The German chancellor was called “stupid” and accused of being in Russia’s pocket – though unlike May, she refused to be ruffled.

Worse, while Trump was alienating America’s allies, he was trying to ingratiate himself with its enemies, such as Vladmir Putin – comparing his own brilliance to the “idiocy” of previous presidents.

These revelations, based on interviews with people who either heard the conversations or read transcripts of them, appear in an explosive article for CNN by Carl Bernstein. White House officials were so concerned by Trump’s behaviour, Bernstein writes, that several believed “the president himself posed a danger to the national security of the United States”.

Denigrating opponents is part of any ambitious person’s armoury. Indeed, Rosanna Kelly argues in her anthology, The Little Book of Insults: “In politics, the insult is almost an art form.”

A memorable turn of phrase can nail someone so perfectly that it comes to define them. Michael Howard’s chances of becoming Conservative leader in 1997 were arguably ended when Ann Widdecombe remarked that there was “something of the night” about him – inspiring many caricatures of Howard as a vampire.

Geoffrey Howe is remembered principally for Dennis Healey’s description of being attacked by him in Parliament – “like being savaged by a dead sheep”.

As Edwin B Battistella observed in a recent blog: “A good insult is like a caricature, exaggerating a perceived flaw and fixing it in the public’s perception with wit.” He cites the American politician William McAdoo, who described President Warren Harding’s speeches as “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea”.

Senator John Randolph’s verdict on Secretary of State Henry Clay was even more damning: “So brilliant, yet so corrupt who, like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, shines and stinks.”

Trump’s insults show none of this mastery of language. Instead, he attaches simple derogatory adjectives to his enemies in the hope that they will stick. He pillories Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary”, Bernie Sanders as “Crazy Bernie”, and Joe Biden as “Sleepy Joe”.

More significantly, he has been able to broadcast his insults more widely than any previous politician through his use of social media.

Do insults work?

Shuddupa your face

Yes. Trump’s insults may not be subtle, but his supporters love them, and the “Crooked Hillary” tag almost certainly helped him defeat Clinton. Edwin B Battistella argues that they are effective because they match “our current angry moment. They speak to people who don’t want to look things up in dictionaries […]. They are the trick of the salesman not the statesman”.

No. Particularly when they are directed at your allies. Thanks to Trump’s behaviour, half of his fellow G7 leaders would like to see the back of him. Trump’s negotiations with North Korea have come to nothing, partly due to his branding of Kim Jong-un as “Little Rocket Man”.

You Decide

  1. What is the cleverest insult you have ever heard?
  2. Which is more despicable – rudeness or flattery?

Activities

  1. Choose a figure from history. Paint a portrait and caption it with an insult that an enemy might have directed at them.
  2. In the past, it was common for someone who had been insulted to challenge the person responsible to a duel. Write a two-page story entitled simply: “A duel”.

Some People Say...

“All political parties die at last of swallowing their own lies.”

John Arbuthnot (1667-1735), Scottish writer and physician

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that negative campaigning, in which politicians make personal attacks on their opponents, is an inescapable fact of American life, and even presidents stoop to it. President Roosevelt said of his predecessor, William McKinley, that he had “about as much backbone as a chocolate éclair”. What is unusual is for a president to turn on allies, as Trump has done.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around Trump’s conversations with two more dangerous leaders, Vladmir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan. Bernstein alleges that Trump was seldom properly prepared, and let himself be outmanoeuvred by both: one result was his withdrawal of troops from Syria, to the advantage of Russia and Turkey and the detriment of the US’s Kurdish allies. He also failed to confront Putin over reports that he had offered the Taliban bounties to kill US troops in Afghanistan.

Word Watch

Berating
Criticising (someone) angrily.
Caustic
Sarcastic in a scathing and bitter way.
Ingratiate
Bring oneself into favour with someone by flattering or trying to please them.
Bernstein
As a reporter on the Washington Post, Bernstein – together with Bob Woodward – uncovered the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Nixon in 1974.
Denigrating
Criticising unfairly.
Michael Howard
Leader of the Conservative Party (2003-2005). Ann Widdecombe’s insult was in response to his decision, as home secretary in 1997, to sack the head of the prison service, Derek Lewis.
Ann Widdecombe
A Conservative MP (1987-2010), she became a Brexit MEP in 2019. She has appeared on Strictly Come Dancing and collects soft toys.
Geoffrey Howe
Conservative chancellor of the exchequer (1979-1983), and then foreign secretary. His damning resignation speech in 1990 played a key part in Margaret Thatcher’s downfall.
Dennis Healey
Labour chancellor of the exchequer (1974-1979). Political cartoonists made much of his bushy eyebrows.
William McAdoo
US secretary of the treasury (1913-1918). He helped avert an economic crisis after WWI.
Warren Harding
US president (1921-1923). A passionate supporter of black rights, he believed that education was the key to racial equality.
John Randolph
A descendant of Pocahontas, and briefly the US ambassador to Russia.
Henry Clay
An unsuccessful presidential candidate in the 1824, 1832, and 1844 elections. He was so irritated by Randolph’s insults that he challenged him to a duel, but neither man was hurt and they parted amicably.
Pillories
Attacks or ridicules publicly.
G7
The Group of Seven, an economic organisation consisting of seven major countries: Britain, the US, France, Germany, Canada, Italy, and Japan.

Subjects

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