September 16, 2015

Among Donald Trump’s favorite rhetorical moves, there is the boast and the insult. He is likely to use both tonight in the CNN debate. It’s gonna be huge!

It’s easy to see how the boast and the insult go hand in hand. Boasting builds me up, and the insult knocks you down.

It turns out that these moves are ancient, and they work. They worked for epic poets, Shakespeare, and countless other authors. They also work for modern smack talkers in all forms of competition:

For Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier:

For Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and most other professional wrestlers (of whom Mr. Trump thinks he is one):

For Eminem in the great rap competition that ends the movie “Eight Mile”:

The insult works because it is highly entertaining. In any culture of language decorum – such as civil political discourse – the insult is a form of licensed misrule. The speaker gets to say what others wish they could say. If the common person says it, there are consequences. When the champion utters the words, he is not just immune, he is rewarded.

It appears that the political culture in America is so polarized and irrational that the best thing a candidate can do is insult something or someone you really hate. Policy? Out the window. Electability? For now, out the door. Political correctness? Take a back seat.

It matters not that Donald Trump is not particularly clever when offering the insult. Most of his aggressive tweets and comments boil down to: you’re fat, you’re ugly, you’re stupid, you’re the worst, you stink at your job. His attack on Senator and former prisoner-of-war John McCain was: you got shot down (another version of stupid). He couldn’t call Fox’s Megyn Kelly fat or ugly, so she became a “bimbo,” more crudely a bimbo who was having a period. (An ancient crude insult against an aggressive woman is that she is “on the rag.” That’s what Trump tried to invoke – with an escape hatch – when he said that she was “bleeding from wherever.”)

Compare such insults to more clever ones:

U.S. Sen. Bob Dole on Jimmy Carter: “I once called Carter a ‘chicken-fried McGovern,’ and I take that back because I’ve come to respect McGovern.”

Adlai Stevenson on Dwight Eisenhower: “The Republicans have a ‘me too’ candidate running on a ‘yes but’ platform, advised by a ‘has been’ staff.”

Lyndon Johnson on Gerald Ford: “He played too much football with his helmet off.” Or “Jerry’s the only man I ever knew who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.”

The relative who said of Teddy Roosevelt: “When Theodore attends a wedding, he wants to be the bride and when he attends a funeral, he wants to be the corpse.”

(These examples come from the “Book of Insults & Irreverent Quotations” edited by Donald D. Hook and Lothar Kahn.)

According to my various dictionaries, the word insult derives from the Latin word “saltare,” which means, “to jump or trample on.”  I find that most revealing.  It’s an assault. Even though the attack is with words,  “to verbally abuse, affront, assail with disrespect,” there is an aspect that feels physical: a punch in the nose, a kick in the ass, pushing the victim over the person kneeling behind his legs.

There is craft in the insult and the potential for wit. But the insult’s appeal is less to the brain and more to the solar plexus. That is what the political opponents of Donald Trump – and to some extent the press – fail to understand. You cannot defeat an aggressive insulter with decorum or policy wonkery. You cannot send PolitiFact out to prove “She is NOT ugly” or “He is NOT stupid.” All corrective efforts merely magnify the effect of the original insult.

What you need to neutralize the Trump rhetoric is a better insulter, but one who is patently smarter than his rival, someone like the late William F. Buckley Jr. or the late Christopher Hitchens. In fact, Hitch once wrote of Trump: “Donald Trump — a ludicrous figure, but at least he’s lived it up a bit in the real world, and at least he’s worked out how to cover 90 percent of his skull with 30 percent of his hair.”

I wonder what Shakespeare would have reserved for the likes of Donald Trump. There is a book devoted to the Bard’s barbs, titled “Shakespeare’s Insults,” selected by Wayne F. Hill and Cynthia J. Ottchen.

I offer this selection for use by Trump’s Republican opponents during the next debate:

Peace, good tickle-brain. O Viper vile. You chaos; unlick’d bear-whelp; murderous Machiavel, half malcontent; feigned friend; bug; quicksand of deceit; scolding crookback; untutor’d lad; misshapen Dick; peevish fool; indigest deformed lump; malicious censurer; ravenous fish; sick interpreter; giant traitor; bold bad man; most malicious foe.

My grandfather, Peter Marino, worked as an inspector for the New York State boxing commission, which meant he sat at ringside for many a famous prizefight at Madison Square Garden and other venues. Even though professional wrestling was a fake sport, he worked those shows as well. So my brothers and I have been watching pro wrestling since the days of Gorgeous George and Killer Kowalski.

Over time, the acts of heroism or villainy in the ring came to be matched by acting outside of it. In other words, the most successful wrestlers had to be the best talkers: Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, the Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and Roddy Piper, just to name the most famous. That talk would take two forms. The Boast: “I’m 250 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal, a tower of power too sweet to be sour.” Or insults: “You ain’t nothin’ but a back-stabbin’ boot lickin’ dirty ole egg-suckin’ dog.”

Professional wrestling was a drama built for television. It could provide endless content and conflict. And the “squared circle” of the wrestling ring (unlike, say a hockey rink) perfectly fit the aspect ratio of the television screen. What once was a battle of regional promotions has turned into the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) empire under the leadership of Vince McMahon and his family out of its Connecticut headquarters.

Trump and McMahon appear to like each other and even joined together for a wrestling storyline, the famous Battle of the Billionaires, in which Trump tricked McMahon into agreeing – through surrogates – into a match in which the loser (predictably) McMahon would have his hair shaved off. Given Trump’s famous hairstyle, this old gimmick proved to be a winner. Trump even participated in the shaving of McMahon’s head, a move that would get him enshrined into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Lest we wince at such a person becoming president, let’s remember that Ronald Reagan was a television pitchman for Twenty Mule Team Borax before becoming governor of California and president of the United States. Before Arnold Schwarzenegger became the Governator, he was the Terminator. The difference is that Reagan and Schwarzenegger mostly abandoned the rhetoric of their entertainment years for the greater decorum of the political world. Can you imagine Trump saying: “Trust, but verify”?

My point is that the insult is a genre, of sorts, a form of rhetoric with a long history and a predictable effect. For a certain audience, it is irresistible. To that audience, its speaker is immune to criticism unless it comes from someone as unscrupulous as the insulter – and smarter. 

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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