I didn’t see much news coverage on the subject last week, but Donald Trump drew attention to himself and his highly anticipated 2024 presidential run – again -- by claiming that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was, drumroll please, “fat, phony and whiny.”
What? Was this out-of-the-blue nastiness just the first cut-to-the-bone salvo in the 2024 Republican presidential primary race, or was there more to it?
Everyone knows Trump enjoys branding opponents with unflattering nicknames to give himself a leg-up in the minds of potential supporters – and voters. Who can ever forget “Low Energy Jeb” (accurately depicting his main establishmentarian rival, Jeb Bush, in 2016), or “Little Marco” (obviously a reference to boyish Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who at 5’9” is not exactly “little”, but must seem so to the much taller Trump), or “Lyin’ Ted” (referring to Senator Ted Cruz, which I never found to be the truth about the Texan, but it certainly made a point)?
Or how about “Crooked Hillary”? It’s hard to imagine a better way to synopsize the 2016 Democrat presidential nominee in a term everyone could understand – and agree with. Hill and hubby big bubba Bill had milked the American political system and their connections for every dime they could possibly extract from their sucker supporters to obtain and maintain the necessary power to keep the slush gravy train rolling. With everything the Clintons did, perhaps labeling them “Crooked” was being too kind.
At any rate, Trump made the “fat, phony and whiny” comments during an interview with the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman (who is writing a book on him), so I initially thought there had to be some sort of context to the words. No reporter/writer from the ultra-liberal Gotham news rag would ever give the former president a realistic hearing, so why would this occasion be any different? Time will tell whether DeSantis runs for president and whether Trump himself will take a different type of approach to a rival who has a tremendously favorable reputation with Republican voters.
Right off the bat, it’s blatantly unfair to call DeSantis any of those names Trump tossed out. The Floridian may not be bone-thin, but he certainly isn’t Chris Christie or Teddy Kennedy “fat”, and his numerous successful public relations battles against a myriad of leftist politicians and causes definitely could never be labeled “whiny” or “phony”. Ron is so dedicated to conservatism and good governance that he comes across as incredibly sincere, forthright, courageous and brave.
Besides, Trump wouldn’t gain much from bashing DeSantis, especially this early in the process.
What could have been Trump’s motivations for talking to Haberman in the first place? After years of constant bickering with the always unfriendly establishment news media, Trump realizes he’s never going to get a fair shake from them. And that goes double for any writer from the New York Times. Is there more to all of this?
In a piece titled “Trump on the couch: What he spilled to Maggie Haberman”, longtime Trump observer Howard Kurtz wrote on what drives the man at Fox News:
“At one point Trump turned to two aides who had joined an interview with Haberman, and declared, ‘I love being with her, she’s like my psychiatrist.’
“[Haberman wrote] ’The reality is that he treats everyone like they are his psychiatrists — reporters, government aides, and members of Congress, friends and pseudo-friends and rally attendees and White House staff and customers. All present a chance for him to vent or test reactions or gauge how his statements are playing or discover how he is feeling.’ “I’d make a broader point: The whole country has Trump on the couch. I remember him asking me in a solo session eight days before he took office what I thought about the North Korean nuclear situation, toggling between that and political and showbiz gossip that he always devoured. For nearly eight years now, supporters and critics alike, along with social media posters, have tried to psychoanalyze Trump: Why did he say this, tweet that, attack this person, defend that person, not appear to know or care how things worked? It’s part of the secret sauce that, in marked contrast to low-key Joe Biden, has seemingly everyone debating Trump’s state of mind all the time. And there’s no hourly fee.”
At the outset, it should be noted that Kurtz didn’t even mention in his commentary the comments Trump allegedly made to Haberman about Ron DeSantis.
My initial reaction to Kurtz’s theory was, ‘Wow, he’s really got something there’. From everything I’ve seen and heard from Trump – through the media coverage, of course – the man has a unique way of dealing with people one-on-one. One anecdote I recall from before he was president relayed how Trump was once so accommodating to an interviewer that he personally adjusted the photographer’s lighting equipment to create the best photo angles and then offered to bring his visitors coffee, which he went and retrieved himself.
Over the years, Trump clearly has adopted a strategy of trying to make people like him on the most basic of levels, which heavily contrasts with many, many other testimonials that suggested he’s so extremely testy, selfish and constantly image-driven that he’s nearly impossible to work with. His enemies have used this repute to bolster their accusatory impressions whenever there was a changeover in White House staff, which happened a lot when he was president. Yet still it’s somewhat rare when Trump would make these types of insults to anyone’s face. No, Trump saves those pointed barbs for the most deserving of political creature recipients such as Nancy Pelosi or “Chucky” Schumer or Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, or (name any stodgy establishment swamp dweller Republican here). Or “fake news” journalists such as CNN’s Jim Acosta. What a bozo.
When Trump doesn’t care about your opinion, he transforms from the “psychiatrist’s couch” to the hard-hitting MAGA defender who much prefers steamrolling his opponent to playing nice and seeking a virtual détente so the combatants can go out for a beer after the exchange and still remain friends. Trump is no Barack Obama. He wants people to like him, but he also demands results and has little patience for the Washington political game that, prior to his arrival – and after his departure – swamp dwellers were so fond of playing.
Trump particularly seems to relish back-and-forth banter with people like Haberman and Kurtz who will ask him questions and then permit him to pretty much say whatever he wants to say. Then, later when they write about his responses within a context he wasn’t trying to use, Trump criticizes them for getting it wrong, or for simply making him appear non-thinking or unflattering.
When Trump called Jeb Bush “low energy”, for example, did you think he meant it as a personal insult to the Bush family? Or when he referred to Marco Rubio as “little”, did Trump mean to personally hurt the much younger Republican? Probably not. At the same time, there’s little doubt Trump aimed to cut deeply when he called Ted Cruz a “liar” and Hillary Clinton “Crooked”.
I believe Trump thoroughly appreciates having everyone speculating about his thought processes. It’s fascinating to witness Trump conducting his business like a ringmaster in the circus, using a megaphone to direct attention to one ring while pointing to another and watching how people react. It’s almost as though he employs an invisible lion tamer’s whip and chair to get folks to do what he wants, and he’s been doing it his whole life.
Obviously, not everyone’s wild about the way Trump does things. The establishment media despises him for answering their questions directly without the subtle nuances of “The One” Obama or phony obtuseness of a Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden. Or a passive trust like Mitt Romney. A Trump press conference where he’s attempting to draw attention and mold public opinion at the same time is the opposite of a psychiatrist session.
Trump carries with him the baggage of universal name recognition and the fact he was rarely shown in a positive light during his decades of intense tabloid coverage. He seemed to revel in everyone knowing his personal business but would react quickly and harshly when the purveyors of gossip painted him in an uncomplimentary light. This is where Trump learned to shamelessly self-promote and exaggerate and always make himself, his business ventures and his family look better.
As has been thoroughly documented by many sources, the Trump family is far from perfect or free from personal snafus, yet Donald will never criticize them. They all look like angels compared with the Bidens, however. Who wouldn’t?
So it’s not exactly clear why Trump would call Ron DeSantis “fat”, “whiny” and “phony” in an interview. What was the context? Was Trump merely bouncing ideas off his journalist “psychiatrist”, Maggie Haberman? Was he jabbing at DeSantis knowing that a New York Times reporter would pass along every word and thus generate head-turning publicity? Was he testing out possible unbecoming nicknames for his most serious potential 2024 rival?
Was he joking? Was Trump looking for deference (Trump believes DeSantis owes him for the latter’s 2018 win in Florida)? Was the former president simply trying to scare DeSantis away from challenging him in a primary? Maybe it was all of the above; or none of those reasons. Perhaps time will provide the answers.
Donald Trump cares about polling numbers just as much as every other politician and he clearly doesn’t enjoy having his own party members questioning his intentions and putting forth alternative candidates who might be better for the GOP in 2024. Ron DeSantis has arguably done more for the MAGA cause since Trump left office than anyone else. Does that sound like a budding enmity? You decide.
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