Nobody knows branding better than Donald Trump—which is why his designation of Steve Bannon as “Sloppy Steve” suggests Bannon has been permanently tagged and banished.
Then again, we are told, nobody is ever truly out of the Trump orbit. I’m not a Trumpologist; I don’t know of anyone inside the family who has received the nickname treatment and gone on to be fully rehabilitated. Maybe it has happened. But once you have a nickname, it sticks.
And the truth is that Trump seems to have a penchant for assigning the kind of sticky moniker that strikes to the heart of someone’s weaknesses. He finds the weaknesses and imperfections that the rest of us are too polite to consciously verbalize and defines his enemies by that attribute.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that at least part of Trump’s electoral success had to do with his ability to do this.
As a refresher, New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi has ranked Trump’s assigned nicknames from best to worst.
Little Rocket Man
Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd
Cryin’ Chuck Schumer
Low Energy Jeb
Failing New York Times
Liddle Bob Corker
I would probably rate “Low Energy Jeb” as Trump’s most effective. It rang true. All you had to do was look at the guy. In other cases (say, calling Joe Scarborough “Psycho Joe”), the labels are more aspirational. Shakespeare said: “Assume a virtue if you have it not.” Trump’s version might be “Assign a vice if they have it not.”
The best nicknames must be plausible—must have verisimilitude. Like jokes, stereotypes, and clichés, nicknames don’t tend to resonate unless they get at a deeper truth or are ironic (like calling a fat man “tiny”). In this regard, Steve Bannon really is sloppy. And this matters. In Trump’s world, being frumpy signals a lack of control and discipline. Trump may even view this as a worse sin than being short or bald; a sloppy man could at least put on a suit!
This is a term pregnant with meaning. Yes, it means “careless” and “casual”—both accurate, in terms of Bannon’s appearance and work product. But it can also mean the more visually evocative “watery” or “runny.” There are “sloppy joes,” “sloppy seconds,” and now…”Sloppy Steves.”
To be sure, linguists and spin doctors have long understood that word choice is key when it comes to subtly reframing the issues. The word “philosophy” has a positive connotation, while “ideology” has a negative one. For Democrats, raising “revenue” is a better choice than raising “taxes.” And Republicans like using the term “death tax” better than the “estate tax.”
But if tinkering with the terms for issues and policies can change the way we view them, then changing someone’s direct name has the potential to change their very identity. If I’m being honest, at least half of the nicknames on Nuzzi’s list have, to some degree or another, impacted my perceptions. And that doesn’t even count the impact this form of name calling and psychological warfare may have on its victims.
Trump wasn’t the first president to tap into this. You don’t even have to go back far to find examples. President George W. Bush assigned nicknames (Karl Rove was “turd blossom,” and every tall guy was “stretch”), but these were (mostly) used in private.
But even in the case of Bush, some people resented it, and some observers viewed this habit as “a way to establish one's social superiority beneath a veneer of chumminess (does anybody give their boss a nickname without his consent?).” That’s because the power to (re)name someone is also a God-like sign of dominance, while being called by a nickname is an implicit form of submission. God changed Abram to Abraham (father of many nations) and Saul to Paul.
It is perhaps ironic that a man who (as I lamented the other day) is so promiscuous with his wanton use of the English language in one domain (Twitter) can be so meticulous in another. Yet, Trump has taken schoolyard jibes and transformed them into an effective political cudgel: an inelegant weapon for a less civilized age.
That’s not to say they all resonate. Some of the nicknames are just partisan taunts. But in terms of getting to something essential about a person’s character, I would rank “Sloppy Steve” as one of Trump’s better nicknames (it’s clearly inferior to “Low Energy Jeb” and “Lyin’ Ted”—but way better than, say, the “Failing New York Times”).
One suspects that it is indicative of the level of anger on the right that is currently directed at Bannon.
Moreover, this suggests that it may stick. What are the odds that the word “sloppy” ends up in Steve Bannon’s eulogy?