You have to hand it to Former President Donald Trump and his unmatched nickname-calling tactics. The unwanted monikers succinctly capture the most negative framing of a fundamental characteristic in his opponents, and they usually roll off the tongue, making them fun to say.
At first glance, his latest creation, aimed at Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, seems to fit the bill. “Meatball Ron” checks all the same boxes as Trump’s other assigned nicknames, which include “Crooked Hillary,” “Low energy Jeb,” “Little Marco,” “Sleepy Joe,” and “Lyin’ Ted,” to name just a few. All have resonated with at least a good portion of the public, and “Meatball Ron” will surely elicit a chuckle for the way it pokes fun at DeSantis’s stocky, wide frame. A quick anecdotal survey among Tallahassee insiders found most thought the name to be rather clever.
But the 2024 election cycle will be far different from the 2016 election cycle that pitted traditional presidential politics against Trump’s new, aggressive style of campaigning. While the nickname might stick, here’s three reasons why it won’t matter.
The tactic looks different when Trump’s not the front-runner
In 2016, Trump’s needling of his opponents quite clearly got under their skin. During the Republican primary, Jeb Bush’s exasperation on the debate stage was palpable. Few of the candidates had ever endured playground style name-calling like they were subjected to on the campaign trail, and none of them knew how to deal with it. Worse, Trump was leading in the polls and his opponents simply could not come up with an effective way to return fire.
In 2024, should DeSantis choose to run, the shoe may well be on the other foot – that is, Trump may be trailing in the polls, making his name-calling look more like a desperate plea for attention than an assertion of dominance.
Unflappable DeSantis isn’t likely to care
Regardless of where he stands in the polls, DeSantis has shown he’s not about to respond to any of Trump’s jabs, which could prove to be a brilliant strategy, forcing the former president to engage in increasingly more frequent, and thus desperate, attempts to provoke DeSantis into a reaction. As long as DeSantis leads Trump in primary polling, the name-calling is more likely to be seen for what it really is: a ploy to prompt the front runner to come down to Trump’s level and wrestle in the mud.
“Spicy Meatball” has a nice ring to it
Another potential ploy DeSantis might try: embracing the nickname.
Already, the national media has given Trump a free pass on the fact that “meatball” is an obvious ethnic slur when used against DeSantis, whose grandparents came from Italy. But DeSantis is probably the least likely Republican on the planet right now who’s going to claim victimhood over what amounts to playground mockery.
Instead, DeSantis might decide to undercut any potential snickering by simply embracing the nickname. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the MAGA crowd was sharing “spicy” Trump memes. DeSantis may decide the nickname isn’t that bad, and his supporters may embrace it too. It’s not hard to image big crowds chanting “Spi-cy Meat-ball! Spi-cy Meat-ball!” before the next DeSantis rally just to prove a point.
Bottom line: DeSantis has learned from Trump
Over the last decade, DeSantis has had the opportunity to observe and learn from Trump’s effective battles with the media. In many ways, the Florida governor has shown that he’s not only adopted, but adapted Trump’s campaign style to fit his own personality, and it’s proven incredibly effective.
The 2024 presidential race will almost certainly contain some surprises, but Trump’s name calling won’t be one of them. Trump shouldn’t expect any of the candidates on the campaign trail – least of all DeSantis – to be bothered in the least by his name calling.
Trump changed the game in 2016, but Republicans like DeSantis understand the strategy, how to counter it, and how to make it fit their own personal campaign styles, too.
“Meatball Ron” might stick, but will it matter? Probably not to DeSantis.