Thursday, April 25, 2019

Trump Lawyers Use "Democrat" as an Adjective: How to Respond

by Michael C. Dorf

On Monday, Donald Trump (in his personal capacity) and various Trump-affiliated companies sued Congressman Elijah Cummings and the Chief Investigative Counsel to the House Oversight and Reform Committee, seeking to block the subpoena issued by the House to an accounting firm demanding various Trump-related financial records. The complaint alleges that the subpoena exceeds the Committee's authority because it is unrelated to any potential legislation.

I am not interested right now in whether the complaint has merit. Rather, I want to focus on the repeated references in the complaint to the "Democrat Party."

The name of the party to which a majority of members of the House of Representatives belong is the "Democratic Party," not the "Democrat Party." Anyone with any familiarity with American politics or  even no political knowledge but an eighth-grade education sufficient to distinguish between an adjective and a noun knows as much. We can only assume that the use of "Democrat Party" by Trump's lawyers was meant to invoke a familiar slur.

Hendrik Hertzberg's 2006 New Yorker article traces the (surprisingly long) history of the use of Democrat as an adjective in order to slur Democrats. He and others suggest that by dropping the "ic" and thus ending with "rat," purveyors of "Democrat Party" and the like mean to invoke vermin. This hypothesis gains support from explicit rebranding efforts like that of off-again-on-again FoxNews commentator Jeanine Pirro, who has tried (unsuccessfully) to label Democrats "Demon Rats."

Hertzberg and others also point to another, less childish, explanation for the substitution of Democrat for Democratic. Some Republicans apparently object to the suggestion that only Democrats support democracy.

In saying that this explanation is less childish, I'm not saying it makes sense. "Democrat" would seem to connote democracy about as much as "Democratic" does, after all. Moreover, everyone who pays any attention pretty much understands that party names in US politics have never really said much about the nature of their platforms. The current Democratic Party is a descendant of Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party, which was often shortened to simply "Republican." And during and following Nixon's Southern Strategy, the two current major parties more or less exchanged views on civil rights and other issues.

In any event, whatever the source of "Democrat Party" as a slur, there can be no doubt that the term now is a slur. It is thus remarkable--and further evidence that Trump is no outlier in the modern Republican Party--that the slur appears in a complaint signed by a named partner of a firm of well-credentialed lawyers. That lawyers who clerked at and routinely appear before the Supreme Court would submit such a document speaks volumes.

The migration of "Democrat Party" from right-wing talk radio to right-wing legal elites also raises a question: How, if at all, should Democrats fight back? Let's consider a few possibilities.

(1) Respond in kind. Back in 2008, Prof Colb wrote an essay here on DoL addressing, among other things, the Democrat-as-an-adjective phenomenon. At the end, she suggested that we Democrats might try to come up with an insulting name for Republicans. Commenters made some interesting points but no one had a suggestion along those lines. It's challenging, because an exact parallel is impossible: "Republican" is already both an adjective and a noun. And anything else would be contrived. Still, I'm happy to renew the call for proposals.

(2) Ignore it. As Michelle Obama said, when they go low, we go high. The idea here is not simply that we don't want to sully ourselves by being dragged down to the level of juvenile name calling. Rather, the idea is that a tit-for-tat response plays right into the hands of Republican name callers. The pragmatic version of the former First Lady's admonition would be don't feed the trolls.

(3) Embrace it. The LGBTQ+ movement turned "queer" from an insult to a proud identifier. "Obamacare" was coined as a means of denigrating the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but President Obama eventually embraced it, in no small part because it's good branding: Obama does/did care. Could we "take it back"? Maybe. "Rat" sound aside, there's nothing inherently insulting about using a noun as an adjective.

Finally, we come to my tentatively number one option:

(4) Call them on it. Every time a Republican or someone else says "Democrat Party," Democrats should take the opportunity to say "actually, it's the Democratic Party." If someone then responds that this is petty quibbling over a small matter, we can turn around a point I made above with an answer like this: Although the parties' names did not originally reflect distinct philosophies, nowadays it is clear that in fact only the Democratic Party supports democracy, because the Republicans want to suppress voter turnout, especially minority turnout, by limiting voting hours and unnecessarily requiring ID; they want to flood the public square with corporate, PAC, and dark money; they want to gut the Voting Rights Act; and they (more than Democrats) want to gerrymander districts. So yes, the suggestion that only one party is democratic is accurate.


Shag from Brookline said...

How about referring to the GOP as the REPUBLICAN PARTY." Adapting Will Rogers, a member might declare "I am a member of an organized party, I am a REPUBLICAN."

Also, identify the members of the law firm that filed the Complaint who clerked for SCOTUS Justices, also identifying such Justices., dates they served, and other relevant information on their careers post-clerkships of a political nature. This might disclose a tab of legal brown nosing. (Query: Might there be a SCOTUS rule against pejoratives in filings with federal courts?)

Joe said...

One of the members [Gerry, of the "gerrymander" fame] of the Constitution Convention who didn't sign on later argued, apparently tongue in cheek:

Those who were called anti-federalists at that time, complained that they were in favor of a federal government, and the others were in favor of a National one; the federalists were for ratifying the constitution as it stood, and the others did not until amendments were made [the Bill of Rights]. Their names then ought not to have been distinguished by federalists and anti-federalists, but rats and anti-rats.

These days, "Republicans" aren't acting very republican, including state legislatures stripping or trying strip power from newly elected Democratic (sic) governors. Not wanting to mislead, perhaps using the name is problematic. Perhaps, "Trump Party" will work in various cases. After all, some Republicans themselves don't want to associate themselves with their party when running for office.

Anyway, I think calling them on it is a good policy. Just ignoring it at some point won't work very well. It is sometimes useful to do that but you have to face up things sometimes. And, name calling isn't really ideal though mild ridicule carefully used does work at times.

BeauB said...

When I worked for Republicans I noticed this trend. I thought it played to regional and ideological divisions in the GOP. On the hill, at least when I worked there, it was only Republicans from the deep South and the Freedom Caucus crowd that used the "Democrat Party" consistently.

I think you're right to suggest that it plays the role of branding and slurring the opposing party, but I also noticed it played a intra-party communicative role as well. You kind of knew where people stood within the GOP circles by whether they called the opposition party the "Democratic Party" or the "Democrat Party" (among other tics). Savvy staffers would consciously switch their use depending on the context. So I think it plays this additional role in a really fractured party.

Howard Wasserman said...

If the solution is to call them on it, do you bother moving to strike the first paragraph of the complaint?

Michael C. Dorf said...

Thanks for these comments. Beau, that's very interesting. The first time I heard the usage I thought it might just be a regional variation (like "pop" versus "soda" or "hero" versus "grinder"), but that can't have been the origin, which appears to have come from a time when the South was still solidly Democratic.

Joe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael said...

Calling them on it just makes us sound like an uptight prigs, and that particular response sounds absurdly self-regarding, even though it's completely accurate.

This filing notwithstanding, I think use of the jab is receding. This is not what wins or loses elections. Go high(er than this).

Lloyd said...

What would you think of calling them "the Publicans", as a reference to the Roman contractors and tax collectors who were widely despised at the time of Christ (although Christ Himself didn't despise them)?

Shag from Brookline said...

Check out the Urban Dictionary definition of "repube" at:

My earlier 7:48 AM comment first paragraph should have referred to "REPUBELICANS" in two places. So here's the correction:

How about referring to the GOP as the REPUBELICAN PARTY." Adapting Will Rogers, a member might declare "I am a member of an organized party, I am a REPUBELICAN."


Got to watch spell-check more carefully.

Joe said...

"just makes us sound like an uptight prigs"

Can I just keep on calling you by a name not your own, to your face at times (on talk shows with both sides there, for instance), then? If you say anything about this basic lack of respect, you are just some sort of uptight prig.

CEP said...

This is both sarcastic and serious:

So much for right-wing-elite-lawyerdom's grasp of the English language. Perhaps its members should reconsider English-as-official-which-is-to-say-only-language legislation if they can't master English-language adjectival forms better than, say, a stereotypical comedy-relief-in-the-movies Russian spy. Of course, they might BE Russian spies... or at least unregistered foreign agents.