For Donald Trump, the first step is always to label his victim. Indeed, assigning a good bad nickname appears to be a sine qua non in the Trump playbook. Once he gets that part right, the job is half-done.
For example, “Crazy Joe” (which gave way to the superior “Sleepy Joe”) never resonated the way “Crooked Hillary” (or Lyin’ Ted, “Low Energy Jeb,” and Lil’ Marco) did. And now that “Meatball Ron” has become his leading moniker for Ron DeSantis, Trump might have landed on another keeper.
Back in 2016, when Trump first started gaining traction, a few outlets dug into why his nicknames were working. Some people saw it primarily as a symptom of the coarsening of discourse and dirty political fighting he reveled in; but others spotted an evil genius at work.
“Trump realizes campaigns, especially for president, aren’t about issues—they’re all about personalities, especially for independent voters,” Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist, told Roll Call. Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist, concurred, saying, “The bottom line is: Trump’s nicknames stick.”
There are linguistic reasons why some of his name-calling packs an especially powerful emotional punch. “‘Crooked Hillary,’ is exponentially more powerful than the statement ‘Hillary is crooked,’” wrote Jon Allsop in Columbia Journalism Review back in 2017, “just as ‘the Big, Bad Wolf’ resonates more deeply than the claim that ‘the wolf is big and bad.’ The academics Jason Stanley and David Beaver argue… that this is because ‘Crooked Hillary’ slips into the mind as a presupposed truth.”
The good news for DeSantis is that this specific technique is not currently being used on him (stay tuned for “Groomin’ Ron”). But what does “meatball” even mean? The New York Times calls it “an apparent dig at [DeSantis’s] appearance,” which I take to suggest a shorter, pudgier frame—while hinting at a lock of social grace. But “meatball” is also a slur against Italian-Americans (all eight of DeSantis’ great-grandparents came here from Italy).
Somewhere, Don Rickles must be thinking that if he were born 30 years later, he might have been president.
It’s not like DeSantis can complain or cry foul about this. It’s hard to imagine the current governor of Florida trying to curry sympathy from a Republican electorate that couldn’t get enough of it when Trump called Elizabeth Warren “Pocohontas.”
To test the waters, I reached out to the non-partisan National Italian American Foundation for a comment. I received a generic quote back from the group’s president, telling me that they “do not countenance any ethnic stereotyping used to denigrate an individual or a group.” Not exactly a stinging rebuke of Trump’s slur. This is to say that in 2023, nobody is going to be morally outraged about Donald Trump calling an Italian-American politician a meatball.
But let’s be honest, Trump is an equal opportunity offender. His goal is to come up with some way… any way to define, diminish, and humiliate his opponents. He works diligently at this effort, testing and revising his slurs. And while “DeSanctimonious” was a good first effort, it also had too many syllables. Likewise, “Shutdown Ron,” the other name he is reportedly toying with, doesn’t have the same ring as “Meatball Ron.”
Trump, of course, isn’t the first person to grasp the power of name-calling. Although nicknames can be terms of affection or a badge of honor, they can also be a way to demean, dominate, or humiliate. Just ask any schoolyard bully.
Nicknames are powerful for the same reason that words are powerful and names are powerful. In the Bible, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, which means “father of many nations.” Cults, likewise, engage in thought control by changing a member’s name and identity. If you can change someone’s name, you have a good chance to change our perception of them—to change their narrative.
Trump understands this Orwellian technique more than most, precisely because he’s an expert on branding. His business success, to the degree he has had success, is more contingent on image and bluster than on reality.
As a fan of Norman Vincent Peale, Trump adheres to a sort of name-it-and-claim-it “power of positive thinking” philosophy. Just as framing himself as a success has been more important to Trump than actually being a success (he won the 2020 election, after all!), Trump likewise understands that making someone appear to be a loser can also manifest that destiny.
Trump is a master of introducing ideas into the public bloodstream, and then repeating them over and over to make them sink in. Remember how Trump responded when the acting attorney general told him he couldn’t just overturn the election? In case you forgot, Trump responded: “[W]hat I’m asking you to do is just say it was corrupt and leave the rest up to me…” That’s right, he didn’t ask the DoJ to actually do anything; he just wanted him to open the door for Trump to work his magic.
Of course, having emerged in a post-Trump world, Ron DeSantis will not be blindsided by Trump’s unorthodox style like previous adversaries.
What is more, DeSantis actually has a strong record that should resonate with Republican primary voters. He has been more effective when it comes to fighting culture war battles than Trump. But Donald Trump has a way of destroying people, and minimizing their accomplishments. I can almost hear him now, “I oversaw the greatest economy in 50 years; ‘Meatball Ron’ fought against Mickey Mouse.”
We are still at the beginning of this incipient battle. DeSantis hasn’t even declared yet. Still, the floating of nicknames suggests to me that the gloves are coming off and things are going to get darker and more extreme.
In the cinematic classic Rocky III, a professional wrestler dubbed “Thunder Lips” (played by Hulk Hogan) battles the “Italian Stallion” Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in what is ostensibly an exhibition match pitting wrestler against boxer.
Before the fight, Hogan’s character, who later goes berserk and throws Rocky out of the ring, describes the billing as “The ultimate male versus the ultimate meatball.”
I thought about that this week when I heard that Donald Trump, who also postures himself as “the ultimate male,” described Ron DeSantis as “Meatball Ron.” Just as Stallone circled the ring, throwing perfunctory jabs before Hogan slammed him to the ground, we are now in the “circling the ring” stages of a heavyweight throwdown between Trump and DeSantis.
It’s about to get ugly.