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‘Honest Don’: Why Trump’s New Nickname for Himself Makes Awful Sense

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

It makes perfect sense for Donald Trump to call himself “Honest Don,” as he did in announcing a new nickname for himself this week in a late-night post on social media. The name obviously has no basis in reality. Predictably, many Trump critics ridiculed it, including his Oscar-hosting nemesis Jimmy Kimmel, who asked “Is there anything sadder than giving yourself a nickname at 1:30 a.m. on the toilet?”

In fact, Trump has been pondering the “honest” moniker for at least five years.

Nearly nine years after Trump announced his run for president in the atrium of his eponymous New York tower, too many people still don’t understand his tricks. Perhaps this is understandable because no matter how many times we confront the reality that reality doesn’t matter, it remains hard to accept.

When I was co-writing a book on Trump’s political rise, I watched a live stream of a speech he gave in the White House to young African American conservatives in October 2018.

In it, Trump touched on many subjects, starting with announcing the arrest of a mail-bomb suspect and eventually landing briefly on the Republican President Abraham Lincoln. Trump may have chosen the subject of Lincoln because he wanted to point out his own reasoning that it wasn’t so weird for African Americans to like Republicans since the party had ended slavery in America.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Forum River Center in Rome, Georgia.

Alyssa Pointer/Reuters/File Photo

He began this section of his remarks around the 34-minute mark, “Remember one thing, because I always consider him to be a true great, and people never give us credit for this. Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, right? Right? I was having arguments with people. We were talking about what the Republicans were doing and, I don’t know, I wasn’t doing—I wasn’t probably on my game, and I wasn’t doing so well. And I just blurted out, but—and I said it’s strong. I said, ‘But Abraham Lincoln was a Republican.’ And I won the argument. I just said that.”

The young audience laughed.

Here, revealingly, Trump made an aside, speaking almost as if he was ad-libbing and thinking aloud to himself.

“Abraham. Honest Abe. I wonder if he was really that honest.”

More laughter. He went on.

“But you know what? Let’s assume ‘Honest Abe’ was Honest Abe, right?”

Trump wasn’t actually questioning Abraham Lincoln’s honesty, or not directly at least. Trump was clearly weighing out loud and admiring the staying power of this particular short moniker. Trump has shown himself a master of the form. Back during his first almost-run for president in 2000, he had called his rival Pat Buchanan a “Hitler Lover” because Buchanan had written a book questioning America’s involvement in World War II. Of course for the 2016 campaign, there was “Low Energy” Jeb, “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary.”

Does anyone think Trump cares if Hillary Clinton is crooked? There’s no evidence that he really does. No, for Trump, it was not a question of whether Buchanan really loved Hitler or if Hillary is really crooked. It was about what would sell. What words could he tar to his opponents’ names that would help him win?

“Honest Abe” remains the reigning world champion of presidential nicknames. It has lasted a century and a half. “Tricky Dick” is already fading. Name another.

Trump test-markets these things like a stand-up comedian trying jokes on the road at small clubs in the buildup to a Netflix special. Some don’t last, like “Cheatin’ Obama” (Barack) and “Nervous Nancy” (Pelosi).

What matters is what material works best under the bright lights.

In a 60 Minutes interview following the bruising confirmation process of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, reporter Leslie Stahl challenged Trump about the way the president repeatedly mocked the woman who charged in Senate hearings that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in high school. Stahl persisted: “But you seem to be saying that she lied.”

Trump ended the line of questioning, saying, “I’m not gonna get into it because we won. It doesn’t matter. We won.”

This wasn’t a dismissal. It was a straight explanation. He employed a set of tactics, and in his appraisal it worked. That Kavanaugh’s accuser Christine Blasey Ford was collateral damage in his rhetoric was not his concern in the game he plays. He would not have become president if he had not played the game this way.

Critics say these tactics are dangerous, reckless, jingoistic, racist, sexist and outright mean. Trump doesn’t spend much time denying it. He generally swats away these charges and then gives a final answer which is, basically, what I do gets me power. As he told Stahl earlier in their interview: “I’m president—and you’re not.”

In 2019, there was another Young Black Leadership Summit. That time, Trump insulted Congressman Adam Schiff with the two-worder “Shifty Schiff.”

He went on to say the following, more than a year before his words would incite a mob to attack the capital. “They’re trying to steal your vote. They’re trying to steal your voice and steal your country.”

You still doubt he plans? Or that seeds he plants bear fruit, sometimes bitter?

Trump is hoping that “Honest Don” will make him what the New York tabloid newspapers he studied daily for decades nicknamed John Gotti, the head of the region’s mafia families in the 1980s and 1990s. Gotti was called “The Teflon Don” because for a time he eluded all attempts to bring him to justice. Like a Teflon frying pan, nothing stuck to him. In these things, the tools of poetry, rhyme, alliteration and meter, matter. You can find all these techniques in the nicknames Trump deploys. Just as don rhymes with Teflon, the “hon” in honest matches with the Don in Donald.

Attaching “honest” to his name can help Trump by giving his defenders a quick sobriquet to comment on social media or to deploy at those now rare American dinners where people with opposing views attempt conversation—or family gatherings where we are forced to. Someone’s uncle posts on Facebook about a favorable Trump ruling in the top secret documents case? Simply comment, “Honest Don!” It’s easy. For some, it’s fun.

These things matter. Like that 122nd Pepsi ad that crosses someone’s eyeballs in a month that finally connects their thirst bone to their wallet bone and spurs them to order the fizzy brown stuff with their gordita, messages accumulate in the brain and change behavior. We know it won’t take a lot of extra impulsive ballot checks to decide the election in November. Every electrical impulse in the brain that can affect voter behavior matters and the moment that “honest” fires in a synapse next to “Don” may coincide with election day for some.

When MAGA crowds later this year are calling Trump “Honest Don” regularly, wearing T-shirts with the moniker outside courthouses and at rallies leading to Election Day, remember what you thought when you first heard it, and how this guy managed to sell even that version of unreality.

Lies can work. Even you, reader, probably believe the one about Trump never drinking alcohol—despite his bartender and other witnesses in 1990s New York confirming he reportedly did.

I doubt Trump knows or cares, but Honest Abe is also not entirely an accurate name. He was by all accounts far more honest than Trump or most other politicians. But scholarship has shown a few cases in which Abe was dishonest, including one instance that nearly resulted in a gun duel with a political rival. Friends convinced the two to work it out without weapons.

Trump also had a point about what Lincoln-era Republicanism stood for. Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth was enraged by Lincoln’s support for African American citizenship.

Gotti, the Teflon Don, died in jail.

Booth’s dying words after he was shot by a solider during his capture were “useless, useless.”

Things can certainly feel that way sometimes.

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