The Don of Trumpery


Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty ImagesPresident Trump at a rally at the Landers Center, Southaven, Mississippi, October 2, 2018

Trumpery

noun
1. attractive articles of little value or use.

adjective
2. showy but worthless.
“trumpery jewelry”

from the Old French tromper, “to deceive.”

synonyms
• cheesy, crappy, cut-rate, el cheapo, junky, lousy, rotten, schlocky, shoddy, sleazy, trashy

Making fun of other people’s names is one of the lowest forms of humor. But naming can also be an art. Victorian novelists like Charles Dickens named their characters to suggest moral traits: the inflexible pedant Thomas Gradgrind, the slimy Uriah Heep, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge. In today’s Twitter and reality TV world, where we can name and rename ourselves ad libitum—every James Gatz his own Jay Gatsby—names can outstrip reality, and morality. We are all Reality Winners now. 

We happen to have a president who takes names very seriously, using them for specific purposes and according them strange powers. Having apprenticed himself to mobsters and wrestlers (great adopters of mythic nicknames), he has transformed politics into mass entertainment. He relishes the sound of names, especially his own. He surrounds himself with people whose names seem so appropriate to their roles, so closely aligning form and function—Price, Conway, Pecker, and the rest—that Dickens himself might have named them. Doesn’t Betsy DeVos, for example, have the faux-aristocratic sadism of a villainess from a children’s book, like Cruella de Vil? Let them eat vouchers. 

What gives additional piquancy to the names in Trump’s orbit is the way they seem constantly to be morphing into brands, advertisements for themselves.

For Trump, naming is branding. Extending the Trump brand appears to have been the central driver of his initially only half-serious presidential bid, and it continues to drive Trump’s presidency, as he dreams, no doubt, of a Trump Tower on Mars. His name is German, originally Drumpf. (Since my own name is a deformed German-Jewish name, far be it from me to make fun of Drumpf.) But in Trump: The Art of the Deal, Trump claimed that his grandfather came from Sweden as a boy. The Donald’s father, Fred Trump, apparently didn’t want to upset his Jewish tenants by revealing his German roots.

Donald Trump doesn’t so much name his kids as brand them. Tiffany and Barron are luxury brands. (Trump used to call himself “John Barron” when he pretended to be his own spokesman, giving journalists the inside dope on himself, so Barron Trump might as well be Trump Trump.) Donald Trump Jr. is a vanity brand, and Ivanka has become one, as Kelly Ann Conway—that latter-day Becky Sharp who should write a book on alternative facts called The Way of the Con—discovered when she was chided for breaking White House rules by praising Ivanka’s boots on TV (not that the promotion worked: Ivanka recently closed her ailing fashion line). Among Trump’s children, only Eric seems to have escaped branding. He also seems, perhaps not coincidentally, to have escaped notice. 

A significant part of Trump’s campaign was trafficking in pejorative nicknames—Crooked Hillary, Little Marco, Lying Ted, Low Energy Jeb. (He borrowed the idea of calling Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” from Shameless Scott Brown, who scorned her claim of Native American ancestry during his losing Senate run against her in 2012.) But Trump also believes in the power of positive nicknames. On the campaign trail he loved telling crowds that “Mad Dog” Mattis was his choice for Defense. He evidently wanted a general who acted like a mad dog, a sort of Mad Max on steroids. Among the attack dogs in the White House, led by the aptly named John Bolton—always in danger of bolting—Mattis has mercifully turned out to be the calmest of canines.

The president is said to choose his entourage by looks. Reportedly semi-phobic about facial hair on men, he was turned off by Bolton’s drooping mustache. But he also seems to pick his cohort in part by name. Hope Hicks should be the name of Perry Mason’s assistant, of every trustworthy assistant. And when you need someone to stir up trouble, get yourself a Scaramucci. Literally “little skirmisher,” Scaramouche was a clown in the Italian commedia dell’arte. Part servant and part henchman (Capitano), prone to boasting and cowardice, Scaramucci pretended, on stage, to be a Don—or perhaps a Donald.

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is a living, breathing Civil War monument. He was named for Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, and for the Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, who ordered the first shot on Fort Sumter. In the 1956 film comedy Bus Stop, Beauregard “Bo” Decker tells Marilyn Monroe that his name means “good-lucking.” A cunning, conniving climber of the Snopes variety, Sessions belongs in a Faulkner novel.

Pompous Mike Pompeo thrust out his ample chest for his photo-op with MBS, as they cooked up a “narrative” for the butchering of Jamal Khashoggi. “To make an omelette,” their fatuous expressions seemed to say, “you have to crack some eggs.” As the poet Randall Jarrell quipped, “That’s what they tell the eggs.”

Tom Price won a seat in the Cabinet to bring down prescription drug prices. Instead, he lined his pockets with investments in medical stocks he himself had boosted in value. He charged the public for his luxury travel (a practice known, I believe, as Zinking). Asked about it, he presumably said, “The Price is Right.”

David Pecker has a file on Donald’s pecker. Albeit “not freakishly small,” according to Stormy Daniels (née Stephanie Clifford), the First Pecker inspired her nickname for the president: “Tiny.”

And come to think of it, isn’t it odd to have a man named Mark Judge weighing in on the judgeship of his pal and drinking partner, whom he renames, in his memoir Wasted, Bart O’Kavanagh?

For the midterms, the president has discovered a sonic affinity between the words Kavanaugh and Caravan. He pronounces them like anagrams of each other, and repeats the name Kavanaugh like a secret mantra. Kavanaugh will build that wall. Kavanaugh will separate those immigrant families. For people on the left, however, Kavanaugh seems the ultimate disaster, the gift (German for poison) that keeps on taking. Trump will eventually go, but Kavanaugh will last forever.

In these dark times, we need a word for when things seem as though they can’t possibly get any worse, and then they do anyway. There are plenty of names to choose from.

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