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.