Trump campaign playbook: insult opponents, but not too soon

Sebastian Smith
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US President Donald Trump plans to pull America out of the Paris deal this year

US President Donald Trump plans to pull America out of the Paris deal this year (AFP Photo/SAUL LOEB)

Washington (AFP) - "The economy, stupid" goes one of the most famous mantras of US presidential campaign history. Donald Trump is hitting the 2020 trail with his own twist: brand your opponents stupid (or worse).

Name calling and character smearing is an integral part of Trump's reelection campaign. It's right up there with touting US military strength or, for that matter, following the advice given to Bill Clinton in 1992 to focus on the economy.

With his characteristic openness -- critics say shamelessness -- Trump laid out the insults strategy at his first rally of the year late Thursday in Toledo, Ohio.

Trump referred to Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden as "sleepy Joe," journalists at the rally as "sick" and another Democratic challenger, Bernie Sanders, as "crazy."

Milking the audience's laughter, Trump characterized top House of Representatives Democrat Nancy Pelosi as "not operating with a full deck."

He called another senior Democrat behind his impeachment vote, Adam Schiff, "pencil neck."

"He buys the smallest shirt collar you can get and it's loose," Trump jeered.

- Timing is everything -

But with all the acting skills picked up during years as a reality TV performer, Trump then dropped his voice to a conspiratorial hush and confided to the cheering, baying audience that his taunts need a little something extra:

Timing.

He chastised himself for coming up too early with the idea of labeling Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren "Pocahontas," in mockery of her false claim to have Native American ancestry.

"I came up with this great name, I came up with a lot of different stuff. I said she was a total fraud and everybody believed me and she went down. Then she started coming up," he said wistfully.

"It doesn't help me to do it a year and a half before the election," he said.

"I don't like doing this too soon."

- Quaint past -

As far back as the 18th century, White House occupants and hopefuls have tossed around words like "pimp," "drunkard" and "bastard brat."

But more recent presidential history looks quaint compared to Trump's trash talk.

Back in 1988, Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen delivered a famous putdown of Republican counterpart Dan Quayle -- who had claimed to have as much experience as John F. Kennedy at the same age.

"Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy," came the zinger from the silver-haired Bentsen.

The line still echoes but it was Quayle who had the last laugh, accompanying George H. W. Bush to the White House -- in large part thanks to a devastating TV ad mocking the military credentials of liberal Democrat Michael Dukakis.

That so-called "tank ad" is still seen as a classic of attack politics, mixing serious messaging with personal ridicule and ruthless absence of context -- a genre that increasingly became a fixture of White House races these past few decades.

- Political cage fight -

Trump, however, has shifted presidential elections from occasional attack ad to full-on, 24/7 cage fight.

His 2016 surprise victory revolved partly around an unprecedented campaign to brand Democrat Hillary Clinton a criminal.

Trump led chants at rallies of "lock her up!" He continues even today, a full three years after beating her.

The eventual Democratic nominee challenging Trump can expect to meet worse.

Trump brazenly warned Biden that he will troll him incessantly if he wins the nomination by raising unproven allegations of corruption against the Democrat's son Hunter.

"I sort of hope it's Joe because he will hear 'Where's Hunter?' every single debate, nine times a debate," Trump said gleefully.

And the best -- or worst -- is yet to come, Trump said.

"We're too far ahead of the election," Trump said.

"We're going to just take our time and we're going to relax. You're going to join some rallies about a month before -- you're going to hear the real facts."