A branding lesson for Democrats
As the Democratic candidates for president take the stage later this week in Miami for their first series of debates, they'll each be looking to distinguish themselves from a very crowded field. Making a case for why they are the individual who deserves their party's nomination will be each candidate's primary job. But as a group, there's another task just as urgent: branding President Trump in a way that will weaken his re-election aims and set the narrative against him for 2020.
Doing so means taking a move right out of the Trump playbook. Some may bristle at that suggestion, worried it will lower Democrats — and the 2020 race, more broadly — to the gutters where Trump dwells. But not everything Trump does is out of bounds. While the nation's chief executive has never been much of a businessman, he does have a particular knack for branding, especially when it comes to his opponents. From "Little Marco" to "Lyin' Ted" to "Crooked Hillary" and "Crazy Nancy," Trump has repeatedly grabbed the upper hand against his opponents by reducing them to a simple characterization that sticks.
In response, Democrats must brand him back. And while there's a litany of charges to make against the president, one particular nickname may best get at his worst offenses: Traitor Trump.
It's a charge that more than fits. While the Mueller report didn't go so far as to name Trump a traitor under U.S. law, it presented a mountain of evidence of Trump's willingness to meet with the Russians during the 2016 campaign and his repeated attempts to obstruct the ensuing investigation, betraying his duties to the nation.
In his recent interview with George Stephanopoulos, Trump made clear he hasn't been reformed. When asked what he would do if he were to receive information on an opponent from a foreign source such as Russia, Trump blustered he wouldn't go to the FBI but instead would keep the information for himself. Like when he requested that Russia hack Hillary Clinton's emails in 2016, he again signaled his readiness to work with a foreign adversary for his own gain.
Other traitorous acts abound, not least his propensity to trust the word of enemy leaders over his own intelligence agencies. Even Trump's conflicts of interests, a violation of the Constitution's emoluments clause, show that he has always prioritized his self-interest over that of the country.
That doesn't begin to account for all of Trump's assaults on the American system, of course. Since taking office, he has acted in violation of the Constitution, in contravention of the law, and in opposition to the basic norms of American democracy in all sorts of ways. But, that's the evil genius of his chaos presidency, and if Democrats think they can defeat the president by airing long recitations of his many defects, they are unlikely to be effective.
Instead, they should focus on one damning indictment of his patriotism and make it the drumbeat of the election. "Traitor Trump" ought to be the phrase on everyone's lips — and in everyone's mind — by next November. If not, Trump's own branding of his opponent will dominate the race and bend the media narrative to his advantage.
Trump has already been working his taunts of many of the Democrats into his regular talk. "Sleepy Joe," "Crazy Bernie," and the slur against Elizabeth Warren that doesn't bear repeating are his go-to cracks for the frontrunners, along with a handful of attacks he's been trying out for other candidates. On occasion, for example, he's referred to Pete Buttigieg as "Alfred E. Neuman." But one shudders to think what insult he might cook up for Buttigieg should the gay mayor from South Bend move closer to the lead.
Considering how often Trump struggles with basic English, it's noteworthy how much his catchphrases have reshaped the discourse of contemporary American life. In addition to his branding of his political opponents, Trump's repetitions of "fake news" and "witch hunt" have become common parlance, spoken even by those who don't share Trump's views. As the Berkeley linguist George Lakoff has argued, "New metaphors are capable of creating new understandings and, therefore, new realities." Trump has done exactly that, speaking his delusions and rantings right into our everyday language and remaking reality in the process. Democrats must wrest that power back by winning the language game and rewriting the conversation for 2020.
The power of a singular and sustained assault against the opposition is something Traitor Trump has understood all along. It's past time he got a taste of his own medicine.