Why you should care

Because the road to the White House comes littered with nicknames.

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The question came during an Oval Office media scrum on Thursday with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, and Donald Trump had prepared his retort well. What did the president think of the announcement that Beto O’Rourke would like to have his job?

“I think he’s got a lot of hand movement,” Trump replied, seated, arms at his sides. “I’ve never seen so much hand movement. I said: ‘Is he crazy? Or is that just the way he acts?’”

It was a fitting welcome to the race for the endlessly profiled, social-media-happy ex-congressman, fresh off a losing Senate campaign and vision quest across the country. Though O’Rourke, 46, lost some steam by publicly vacillating on whether to run, his youthful flair has many Democrats looking at him as the next Barack Obama.

You’re thinking about the hands, though, aren’t you?

How long before we see tweets about “Jazz Hands Beto”? This is what Trump does. It’s frivolous and childish … and effective. Before 2015, candidates and aides might snicker such schoolyard taunts in private, leaving them to late-night TV. Trump bellows them from the podium. There was Lyin’ Ted Cruz, Little Marco Rubio, the particularly apt Low-Energy Jeb Bush. And, of course, Crooked Hillary Clinton — a nickname Trump pulled out again Friday on Twitter, nearly two and a half years after Election Day.

The “We don’t like the tweets, but …” Trump voters — a critical group to determine how the election swings — will say they disapprove of the personalized mud fight. But the taunts matter, as much to their targets as any voter.

Think about “Pocahontas,” Trump’s nickname for Sen. Elizabeth Warren. It’s ugly, arguably racist and yet it continues to draw out the saga of Warren’s past embellishing of her Native American heritage. “Crazy Bernie” is a little more generic but is an attempt to brand Sanders’ aggressive agenda as wildly leftist. (To be fair, Trump would do this even if the Democrats nominated Mitt Romney.)

The president takes these monikers seriously. According to the Associated Press, he’s been testing out possible names around the West Wing and in calls with outside pals. The best nicknames draw out existing neuroses in the candidates and play on voters’ underlying perceptions. Clinton held together well, all things considered, and briefly turned Trump’s stray debate insult — “nasty woman” — into a rallying cry. But FBI Director James Comey’s infamous letter helped reinforce the Crooked Hillary mantra at just the right electoral moment in a vanishingly close race.

It’s far too early to know whether Trump’s hand gestures slam will puncture the O’Rourke balloon. It could find its mark as a performance critique of someone who is best known as a great political performer, whose indefatigable and earthy style nearly allowed him to unseat Lyin’ Ted from the Senate last year. Or Trump could take a page from Cruz’s book and use “Robert,” rather than the childhood nickname Beto, to reinforce that O’Rourke is not Latino.

But as voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere kick the tires on a fast-growing Democratic field — still waiting on you, “Sleepy Joe Biden” — their most urgent questions are not on policy differences but on how to beat Trump. Nicknames come with the territory.

Read more: The millennial trying to break into the 2020 conversation.

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