Yesterday’s episode of the OMG did he really say that!? Donald Trump reality show gave us some useful insights. Not into the man himself, whose snarky carnival barker style is already well-known and fully established, but into the press that covers him. The reports about Trump’s invitation to Russia to find “the 30,000 emails that are missing” were chock-full of the usual histrionics and screams of outrage, with the Huffington Post claiming that he:

broke an unwritten but cardinal rule of American public office: You don’t root against the United States, even when your political opponent is in power.

The giant “whooshing” sound you may have heard was the collective missing of the point. Trump wasn’t urging Russia to hack Clinton’s emails. That server is long gone, and those emails were supposedly deleted long ago. He was reminding everyone, in a muted form of his typical trash talk, of the Clinton email scandal AND reinforcing the lingering doubts as to whether the unsecured server was actually compromised in a significant manner. In other words, he raised the point that the Russians might have indeed hacked Clinton’s server, and that they might actually have the 30,000 emails that Clinton deleted. 30,000 emails, the lack of relevance of which we have to rely entirely on Clinton’s honesty and forthrightness to know.

One of Trump’s signature characteristics is his blunt, brash and rather unpresidential style. “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Little Marco,” and “Crazy Bernie” are the monikers he bestowed, almost mob-style, upon his opponents. This is bar-room bluster, not statesmanlike poise and gravitas. It’s a big part of his appeal to his supporters, and a big part of what fills his detractors with horror.

Put-downs in the political arena, however, are nothing new. Political trash-talk has existed as long as politics have existed. Some of them can sting so much they can impact elections. Most of us who are of a certain age can remember Lloyd Bentsen’s legendary put-down of Dan Quayle:

“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

In more colloquial terms, that was an epic burn. It joined a long list of such, including:

“No more backbone than a chocolate eclair.” – Teddy Roosevelt about President McKinley.

“Bill Clinton’s foreign policy experience is pretty much confined to having had breakfast once at the International House of Pancakes.” – Pat Buchanan.

“He’s like a shiver waiting for a spine.” – Australian PM Paul Keating about John Hewson.

“People might cite George Bush as proof that you can be totally impervious to the effects of Harvard and Yale education.” – Barney Frank.

“She probably thinks Sinai is the plural of sinus.” – MP Jonathan Aitken about Margaret Thatcher.

“He’s thin as piss on a hot rock.” – Senator William Jenner about NY Governor William Harriman.

“Ronald Reagan doesn’t dye his hair, he’s just prematurely orange.” – Gerald Ford about Ronald Reagan.

“He’s a nice guy, but he played too much football with his helmet off.” – LBJ about Gerald Ford.

“as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death” – Abe Lincoln about a Stephen Douglas opinion.

“A retail mind in a wholesale business.” – David Lloyd George about Neville Chamberlain.

“He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” – Ann Richards about George W. Bush.

“I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” – Ronald Reagan on Walter Mondale

“That dark, designing, sordid, ambitious, vain, proud, arrogant and vindictive knave.” – Revolutionary War general Charles Lee about George Washington.

“Don’t be so humble, you’re not that great.” – Golda Meir about Moshe Dayan

“Hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” – Thomas Jefferson about John Adams

“God forgive me for the vile thought, but I cannot help thinking of a monkey just put into breeches when I see him betray such evident marks of self-conceit.” – Senator William Maclay about John Adams.

And then there’s Winston Churchill:

“An empty cab pulled up to Downing Street. Clement Attlee got out.”

“A sheep in sheep’s clothing.” – also about Attlee.

“A modest man, who has much to be modest about” – again about Attlee.

“I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill, but it would have been much better if he had never lived.”

“My dear, you are ugly, but tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be ugly.” – after Bessie Braddock accused him of being drunk.

“Tell him I can only deal with one shit at a time!” – after being interrupted while on the toilet by the Lord Privy Seal

“What can you do with a man who looks like a female llama surprised when bathing?” – about Charles de Gaulle

“We know that he has, more than any other man, the gift of compressing the largest amount of words into the smallest amount of thought.” – about Ramsay MacDonald

Trump’s insults don’t come remotely close to showing the rhetorical flourish or wittiness that has made these insults memorable. His put-downs are brute-force and vulgar. He’s been called to task many times over his put-downs, and the NY Times (tipping its ideological hand for the umpteen millionth time), has actually tallied and sorted Trumps twitter-zings.

But, even as they do so, the hyperbolically outraged members of the press betray both their ignorance and their cluelessness. Whining about being insulted never works. It makes you look humorless, weak, thin-skinned, and incapable. Responding factually to insults does much of the same, and, shows that you don’t get the joke that everyone else is high-fiving about. The response to Trumps comments about Clinton’s emails and the Russians epitomizes all this.

Insults and zingers need some basis in truth to be effective. Making fat jokes about Cristiano Ronaldo will get you little more than puzzled looks whereas conflating Chris Christie’s mouth with the opening of the Lincoln Tunnel is likely to elicit nods and laughs. Trump hasn’t shown élan in his insults, but he has shown that he knows how to hit. He’s far more Mike Tyson than Muhammed Ali. But, even in his vulgarian manner he’s demonstrated the ability to zing without making his target sympathetic.

The press, adding to a long, long history of making itself look foolish, continues to misunderstand the Trump phenomenon. Its attempts to turn this latest bit of zingery by Trump into political hay will outrage the already outraged, but won’t have any impact whatsoever on those who haven’t figured out where their votes are going to land on Election Day. Not only don’t they know how to blunt Trump’s barbs, they don’t even recognize some of them as such. One might think that, given how late night comedians, Internet meme-makers, and Twitter jabbers got enormous mileage out of Clinton’s email follies, the press might have gotten a clue. It seems they haven’t. Trump’s brashness made them miss the relative subtlety (and I use subtlety with a giant grain of salt – Trump has the subtlety of a dump truck) of this latest email “dig.” Instead, they tried to shoe-horn the Russia angle (building on the allegations that the Russians were behind the DNC email hack) in and tar Trump with the vaguest suggestion of treasonous thought.

Trump, meanwhile, will continue to jab, ding, zing and snipe at Clinton, at the press, at Obama, and and anyone who gives him an opening. His signature brashness will continue to delight some and outrage other. I’m not sure what, if anything, Clinton can do to counter this, other than play the victim (which will stand in stark contrast with an assertion that she’s a tough and capable woman, but that sort of dissonance has never bothered her loyalists). She doesn’t have the chops to go toe-to-to with Trump on her own. Perhaps she’ll have to draw from the hundreds of millions of dollars she and Bill have accrued over the past couple decades, and hire some joke writers. Don Rickles may be available.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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