“Alfred E. Neuman” doesn’t follow this structure, but a similar principle applies. Consciously or not, Trump uses epithets and nicknames to set the narrative around his political opponents, boxing them in with unflattering stereotypes that can be hard to escape. “Low Energy” continues to stick to Jeb Bush years after Trump coined it, as “Lyin’ Ted” does to Cruz. At best, Trump’s nicknames caricature complicated people—on Friday, Trump literally turned Buttigieg into a cartoon of callow goofiness. At worst, they’re lies dressed up as jokes. Either way, Trump “uses these pejorative adjectives in a way which really does overpower the opposition,” Jack Zipes, a fairy tale expert who has taught at the University of Minnesota, told me in 2017. In the process, rival candidates are dehumanized.
Much of the mainstream press is hyper-vigilant about Trump’s lies and misstatements—we are commonly told that they’re an urgent threat to our democracy and civic discourse. It’s odd then, that so many outlets still treat Trump’s nicknames as an amusing distraction, not the subtle, dangerous manipulation of political discourse they actually represent. We don’t just amplify these insults when Trump wields them: we almost invite him to coin them, then dredge them up unprompted in subsequent coverage. We should resist those impulses, or at least be clear-eyed about what Trump is trying to do. “Alfred E. Neuman” might be funny. But let’s not amuse ourselves to death.