Opinion

Why 'little' is the most brutal insult Trump can imagine

The president wants you to know he is very large and strong

President Trump has always had a preoccupation with size. His world is a binary of big and small, where being "little" is weak and "big" is always better. His supporters are "big, strong guys," his brain is "very, very large," his successes are "huge." His enemies, meanwhile, are almost always dismissed at some point or another as "little."

Trump's favorite recycled insult is indicative of more than just a lack of creativity, though. From "little Mac Miller" to "little Eric Schneiderman" to "little Marco," and now the grammatically-mangled "liddle' Adam Schiff," Trump's decision to physically reduce his enemies seems to reflect decades of pent-up insecurity about his own stature. Even now, from his roost in the White House, Trump appears to be haunted by nightmares of being perceived as small in any way.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is only the latest in a long line of people to be dismissed by Trump as unfortunately sized. Former Daily Show host Jon Stewart was also deemed "little," as was former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, CNN head Jeff Zucker, and NBC's Katy Tur. 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley was "like a disgusting, little, weak, pathetic baby," and Trump called Kim Jong Un "Rocket Man" somewhat fondly before the North Korean leader irked him, after which he became "Little Rocket Man." Sometimes, the president's size-related insults veer into the bizarre: "Little pencil neck Adam Schiff,” Trump ranted this spring. "He's got the smallest, thinnest neck I've ever seen." At the same time, Trump can't help but pad his own numbers: the size of Trump Tower, his inauguration crowd, his height, his net worth.

Trump likely doesn't realize it, but diminutives are actually fascinating insults in the English language, in part because of their awkwardness. While other languages can use suffixes to make a noun smaller — think of the Spanish ending -ito — English-language speakers usually have to affix the extra word "little" ahead of what they're describing to get their point across. Like other languages with true diminutive forms, the context can make the use of "little" either endearing or insulting: "little man," for example, is sweet when addressing a five-year-old, since they are actually little, but would be wildly rude to use with an unfamiliar adult. The adjective can also be used to sweeten a pet name, like "little bird," or sharpen a barb ("you little scumbag!"). When Trump claimed to have run Lindsey Graham out of the presidential race "like a little boy," the simile expressed that in Trump's eyes, Graham is nothing more than a child, hardly to be bothered with. By calling someone "little," you are always implicitly declaring yourself "big."

Trump also avoids language that might make him come across as small in any way. "Donald," interestingly, is one of the handful of English names that actually does have a commonly-used diminutive form. Trump, though, insists on going by "Donald" in his public-facing life rather than the more familiar "Don" or his childhood "Donny." Using one's diminutive name is actually extremely common in American politics — think Bill (William) Clinton, Jimmy (James) Carter, Al (Albert) Gore, Bernie (Bernard) Sanders. Trump, though, shuns informality in a rare deviation from the norm (his preferred address is the even-more-removed "Mr. Trump").

Jokes about Trump's preoccupation with his size have varied in politeness over the years, but have seemingly always been around. Trump's obsession with both his perceived and literal physical stature, though, are most nakedly on display when he bristles at insults directed at his hands. Former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter has claimed that after he described Trump as a "short-fingered vulgarian" in Spy Magazine in 1988, the real-estate investor turned reality-TV host would periodically send Carter photos of himself with "his hand [circled] in gold Sharpie in a valiant effort to highlight the length of his fingers." Trump has continued to publicly press that his hands are actually bigger than normal, telling The Washington Post in a 2016 interview that they're "slightly large, actually," as well as informing Hurricane Harvey victims in 2017 that his hands were too big to fit the plastic gloves provided to pass out sandwiches.

There might be a whiff of juvenile pride in Trump's distancing himself from the designation "small," too. When then-Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio quipped about there being a correlation between Trump's hands and a different body part, Trump refused to let the insult slide. "[Rubio] referred to my hands — 'if they're small, something else must be small,'" he said during a nationally-televised Republican debate, going on to assure his potential supporters that "there's no problem, I guarantee."

But it would be a mistake to chalk up Trump's frequent deployment of "small" as being as simple as fragile male ego. It is, rather, an old-school intimidation tactic, an almost primal reliance on physical dominance. It was a lesson cemented in the boardrooms of New York, where there was no glory in having the second tallest building, but first learned from his father and mastered in the halls of his boarding school, where Trump was taller than his peers and could pick fights at will. Yet off the playground and outside of the animal kingdom, "small" and "big" are nothing more than words to be thrown around by someone thin-skinned enough to believe they might actually hurt.

Sometimes even Trump seems to be aware that his designations are ultimately hollow. "The final key to the way I promote is bravado," he wrote in The Art of the Deal. "I play to people's fantasies ... People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular." Even, it would seem, when that something is themselves.

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