Trump’s Nickname for Nikki Haley Could Backfire on Him During Primary

Nikki Haley, left; Donald Trump, right.
Haley  (AP Photo/Matt Rourke); Trump (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

  • Donald Trump has found a new racist name to call his rival Nikki Haley, who is Indian American.
  • Trump is no stranger to turning to racism and name calling against his political foes.
  • A political science professor told BI the tactic often backfires against the candidate.

He’s doing it again.

Donald Trump is reaching for racism against his political opponent — this time, against former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

On Friday, the former president and the frontrunner for the Republican Party posted on his Truth Social account an attack against Haley, repeatedly referring to her as “Nimbra,” a play on her birth name, Nimrata Nikki Randhawa. Haley is the daughter of Indian immigrant parents.

It’s difficult to say what Trump is referencing here, whether this is one of his many spelling errors or a deliberate sign of disrespect.

The same week, he referred to Haley as “Nimrada” and, before that, lobbed “birther” claims, saying that she is ineligible to run for president because her parents were not US citizens when she was born. He’s also referred to her as “birdbrain,” mocking Haley’s intelligence.

“I know President Trump well,” Haley recently told CNN’s Jake Tapper in response to Trump’s insults. “That’s what he does when he feels threatened. That’s what he does when he feels insecure.”

For now, Trump maintains a more-than-comfortable lead against his GOP rivals, as recent polling and the Iowa primary have shown. But, in a small silver lining for the former South Carolina governor’s campaign, results of New Hampshire polls show that Haley is a favorite among independents.

A Trumpian tactic

Trump is no stranger to racially charged name-calling against his rivals and those whom he may view even as a remote threat. The tactic is so par for the course that Wikipedia has dedicated an entire page to the “List of nicknames used by Donald Trump.

When asked for comment on the story, Trump’s spokesperson, Steven Cheung, told Business Insider in an email: “Sounds like those who take offense are engaging in fake outrage. They should get a life and live in the real world.”

Trump has repeatedly made a point to emphasize Barack Obama’s middle name — Hussein — when referring to the 44th president as a not-so-subtle Islamaphobic dog whistle for his base.

Trump also deliberately mispronounces Vice President Kamala Harris’s name as “Ka-MAH-la” rather than the correct pronunciation “KA’-ma-la.”

After the January 6 Capitol riot, then-Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao was one of the first cabinet members to resign from her post. Though she didn’t make any direct statement against Trump, her resignation and the subsequent media coverage of her move appeared to be enough of a slight to provoke Trump into later calling her “Coco Chow.” Those attacks came with accusations of Chao enriching herself through her ties with China.

DeSantis also has been a target of Trump’s childlike ire but that may soon end after the Florida governor announced he is suspending his campaign on Sunday and endorsed the former president.

Among the nicknames Trump has reportedly brainstormed for DeSantis, one of the names he thought of for the Florida governor, according to a New York Times report, was “Meatball Ron.”

DeSantis is Italian American.

Trump seemed to think the detail in the Times report was imperative enough for him to come out and deny that he privately called DeSantis a meatball.

But after DeSantis announced his campaign suspension, Trump jokingly told a crowd that he was retiring one of his nicknames for the Florida governor, “DeSanctimonious.”

Name-calling can backfire

Some political consultants have argued that Trump’s name-calling is an effective campaign tactic.

“These nicknames really work for Trump. They’re not only an attempt to diminish an opponent, they are code words for something else. And they distract people’s attention,” Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist, told Roll Call in 2018.

But studies indicate that the effectiveness of name-calling has yet to be shown and could instead backfire on the perpetrator.

A 2021 study led by Aaron Dusso, associate professor of political science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, showed that name-calling did nothing to impact a voter’s perception of the insulted candidate.

Instead, the name-calling backfired and impacted how the respondents viewed the perpetrating candidate.

“Whatever effect we found was all focused on the actual attacker,” Dusso told BI in an interview.

Dusso’s study also found some partisan differences in the impact of name-calling.

When a Democratic candidate uses a pejorative or engages in name-calling, Republican and Democratic respondents rated the candidate lower. However, when a Republican candidate engaged in the same tactic, the respondents’ perceptions did not change.

“They just kind of shrug their shoulders,” Dusso said.

No study explains what explains the “partisan symmetry,” but there is some speculation.

“The obvious is that this is happening so much on the right as opposed to the left that we become numb to it happening on the right,” Dusso said. “We just don’t really notice it.”

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