There are surprisingly few examples of truly effective political insults. Cautious politicians avoid them because they can easily boomerang, the insulter appearing over-aggressive while the chosen target is undamaged. But somehow this calculation does not apply to Donald Trump whose abuse of almost everybody has notably failed to sink his bid to be the Republican presidential nominee. In last week’s debate between Republican candidates in Las Vegas, Jeb Bush rounded on Trump, saying “you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency”. He may be right, though Trump pointed out that he is doing a lot better than Bush. It is the Trump insults that have become the attention-grabbing feature of a dull campaign. They dominate the news agenda for days, while counter-insults by the other candidates sound phoney and only reinforce Trump’s image as the more authentic prospect.
How does Trump get away with it? Probably, there is no great mystery here: people expect Trump to be outrageous and would be disappointed if he was not. The political and media elite denounce him so automatically that they discredit themselves as unfair and partisan. Trump’s demagoguery is all the more effective because it is mixed with occasional shafts of honesty and originality. Back in July, he was supposed to have capsized his candidacy by attacking the war record of Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, who was shot down during the Vietnam War while a navy pilot. Trump said: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured.” Trump critics expressed shock and pounced on the remark, convinced he had finally gone too far in denigrating a patriotic icon.
In the event, besmirching McCain did Trump no harm and his criticism was something of a relief for those who had watched with irritation over many years as the Senator posed as a military expert while talking misleading nonsense about Iraq and Syria. On one notorious occasion, he was filmed walking down a street in Baghdad that had been especially cleared by hundreds of US troops as a demonstration of how safe it was for Iraqis, though they would have been promptly murdered if they had tried to do the same thing.
Just how easily political insults can rebound, was underlined at the start of the month by David Cameron’s description of Jeremy Corbyn and MPs voting against British air strikes in Syria as “terrorist sympathisers”. This was always going to be self-destructive for Cameron because it was obviously untrue. It could have been even more damaging to the Government if MPs had pointed out that recrimination over who is and who is not “a terrorist sympathiser” is the sort of divisive and over-heated dispute that Islamic State likes to provoke through its atrocities.
Effective political abuse mixes venom with truth and has to be about some issue of significance; otherwise it comes across as merely hysterical and spiteful. The most successful verbal upper-cut in British political history was famously delivered by Stanley Baldwin as leader of the Conservative Party in 1931 during a newspaper campaign against him, when he denounced the newspaper proprietors Beaverbrook and Rothermere for seeking “power, and power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”. The press lords’ campaign promptly collapsed.
The rolling cadences and episcopal tone in which the press lords were branded as power-hungry prostitutes may have been provided by Rudyard Kipling, Baldwin’s first cousin. But what really gives Baldwin’s philippic its force is that it is true, its analogy is apt and it is quite funny. This is unlike Churchill’s description of Clement Attlee as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” which was rather obviously untrue and has the smell of midnight oil about it. This is the weakness of many of the insults which end up in books of quotations. They have the feel of being too carefully contrived and too polished and therefore come across as insincere. One of the best knockout rhetorical blows was delivered in 1938 in front of my father, Claud Cockburn, by Robert Byron, a high Tory and author of that great travel book, The Road to Oxiana. The target was Chips Channon, a wealthy Chicago-born Conservative MP who admired Hitler and favoured appeasement. “I suppose,” my father reported an enraged Byron as saying to Channon, “I ought not to be surprised to see you betraying the interests of your adopted country in the supposed interests of your adopted class.”
In the early 1930s my father worked as a correspondent for Sir Wilmot Lewis, The Times’ bureau chief in Washington, whose conversation was peppered with damning observations of an insulting but memorable nature about politicians and governments. He said of one figure in Washington that “he is one of those American politicians who believe that the women of his country are more virtuous and its diplomats more stupid than any other. Since he is wrong on both these counts, it is reasonable to assume that he is wrong on every other, too.” The reference to American women sounds a bit dated now, but otherwise the description retains its punch. It may have helped that during a varied career Lewis had once been a Shakespearean actor. On another occasion, he advised my father to take a charitable view of state policy, “bearing in mind that every government will do as much harm as it can and as much good as it must”.
For a political insult to take wing it needs to be funny or at least interesting. American news coverage has become more drearily reverential to the powers-that-be than it used to be. Reporters and talking heads on television echo each other’s views. This ponderous output helps open the door to somebody like Trump who is entertaining and purports to be spontaneous and different. Silvio Berlusconi is the European politician who most resembles him, and whose critics were likewise long frustrated by the way in which his antics unaccountably failed to end his career.
Wilmot Lewis’s astringent epigrams could be directed not only at politicians but his own profession of journalism. He once gave my father a little homily that sticks in the mind. “I think it well,” he said, “to remember that when writing for the newspapers, we are writing for an elderly lady in Hastings who has two cats of which she is passionately fond. Unless our stuff can successfully compete for her interest with those cats, it is no good.”
Sometime later my father submitted to him a carefully written article for The Times of which he was extremely proud. Lewis read it through twice with enthusiasm before delivering his verdict. Holding the typed pages between finger and thumb, he said: “Old boy, this piece is not only informed but erudite. Its material is accurate and solidly observed; its style polished – and, in my estimation, witty. In fact, it is everything that one imagines to oneself an article in The Times should be. Yet, I am afraid – my instinct tells me – that” and Lewis opened his finger and thumb dropping the article into the waste-paper basket “the cats will have it.”