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There aren’t many insult comics who are better than Donald J. Trump.
Whatever you think of his leadership style, his put-down style is without peer in global politics. After deciding to run for public office, Trump elevated his dig-and-jibe game, moving past such generic nouns as “losers” and “haters.”
The genius of this evolving invective was in how he, almost instinctively, reduced an adversary to caricature by magnifying perceived defects and weaknesses. Trump created tweet- and meme-friendly nicknames by prefacing his enemies with demeaning adjectives and intransitive verbs:
“Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, “Little Marco” Rubio.
“Crooked Hillary” Clinton, “Crazy Bernie” Sanders.
These insults were effective because they were offensive to the target. They worked because they could, under no circumstance, be interpreted as compliments.
NBC’s Chuck Todd isn’t bragging to friends about how Trump calls him “Sleepy Eyes.” Elizabeth Warren’s blood pressure must spike whenever she sees the word “Pocahontas.”
But during a speech at the United Nations this week, in which Trump casually threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, his capacity to verbally debase an opponent was called into question when he referred to Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man.”
First of all, if you’re going to start an insult war with North Korea, you better bring your A-game. These guys don’t screw around in the theatre of scornful rhetoric. As a Fox News story pointed out this spring, North Korea has a history of going all Triumph the Insult Comic Dog on America.
The dictatorship has referred to former president Barack Obama as a “juvenile delinquent” who “does not even have the basic appearances of a human being.” George W. Bush, meanwhile, apparently looks “like a chicken soaked in the rain.”
I think we can agree: those are some sick burns, as is calling Dick Cheney a “blood-thirsty beast,” or suggesting Hillary Clinton resembles “a pensioner going shopping.”
Within the international realm of insult, North Korea is a superpower.
By sharp contrast, and as combat branding goes, “Rocket Man” is a failure.
If Trump wanted to use an Elton John song title, he should have called the homophobic Kim Jong Un “Tiny Dancer” or “Nikita.” “Daniel” might have conveyed unwanted sibling sentiment, forcing the North Korean dictator to drop his binoculars and contemplate some of his monstrous decisions.
And now that Elton has inspired the template for this escalating tension, what happens if there is a war? Will the American military action be called Operation Goodbye Yellow Brick Road? Will we end up singing “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” or “I’m Still Standing”?
I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues.
For crying out loud, “Rocket Man” is not even an insult. In this context, it’s a statement of fact. Kim Jong Un refuses stop firing missiles. That is the problem. He is openly threatening the world. That is the crisis.
“Rocket Man” won’t deter this lunatic. It will only egg him on because it accidentally glorifies his obsession with ICBMs and nuclear warheads by validating his self-concept. Trump might as well have called him “The Terminator.”
That’s why it was baffling on Wednesday morning to hear members of this administration celebrate the “Rocket Man” tag, including Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN.
“I tell you, George, it worked,” she told George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America. “I was talking to a president of an African country yesterday and he actually cited Rocket Man back to me. This is a way of getting people to talk about (Kim Jong Un). But every other international community now is referring to him as ‘Rocket Man.’ ”
Or they are wondering why the U.S. president is referring to him as “Rocket Man.”
Over on Fox & Friends, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made a similar observation: “Look, (“Rocket Man” is) a President Trump original. As you know, he’s a master in branding.”
Leaving aside the obvious — maybe “branding” shouldn’t be the central concern when the threat of nuclear war hangs in the balance — Sanders has completely missed the point.
To the eyes and ears of Kim Jong Un, “Rocket Man” will land as a compliment. He will probably have it sewn onto his lapel before the next missile test. He’s probably listening to Honky Château right now while swapping boastful emails with Dennis Rodman: “Your idiot president finally understands that I am indeed the Rocket Man. America is ready to bow down and accept its imminent defeat.”
The world needs Trump to solve the North Korean problem with clear eyes.
And I think it’s gonna be a long long time until we understand how this ridiculous nickname helps.