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Hail To The Beef

Elizabeth Warren steps up as Secretary of Spite

Elizabeth Warren is reportedly being vetted as Hillary Clinton's possible vice-presidential pick. Even if she doesn't end up at the candidate's side — and it's not clear why Warren would jump at the chance to take the most thankless job in politics — she has already been tapped for another crucial role this campaign: Assistant Strategist of Giving Donald Trump a Dose of His Own Rhetorical Medicine. Given how Warren has used words in getting to this point in her career — as a battle cry, as verbal poison ivy — it seems almost inevitable that she would one day use them against someone who thinks he uses them in the same way.

So get ready for the insults to continue. Why pivot, after all, when your opponents' surrogates keep encouraging you to be yourself?

And, judging from what Warren told Rachel Maddow when endorsing Clinton a few weeks ago, she thinks she's far more qualified in this matter than the rest of her party. "As a Democrat, one of the things that frustrates me the most is there are a lot of times that we just don’t get in the fight," she said. "We ask pretty please if we can have things or we make the argument for why it is the best thing to do, and then wait patiently for the other side to agree to come along. … But you also ought to be willing to throw a punch."

You probably already knew that Elizabeth Warren felt that way, because she says the word "fight" nearly as much as she says, "the rigged economy." Her memoir is titled A Fighting Chance. She ran an ad in her Senate campaign featuring a boxing trainer saying: "Elizabeth Warren is a real fighter." In case that wasn't enough fighting for you, the trainer happened to train the guy who inspired The Fighter. Her combat tactics have lifted her into a state of clickbait nirvana usually reserved for John Oliver. She "rips," "eviscerates," and "keep[s] up assault[s]." One friend of Warren told The New York Times Magazine that verbal warfare was "exercise for her, like swimming a faster lap.”

Taking a stand against Wall Street is more challenging than battling Donald Trump. Nonetheless, few people seem to be good at it. Trump's primary opponents tried impugning his ideas. It didn't work because he doesn't have any. They tried to play by his rules and insult him, and instead only embarrassed themselves by revealing that they didn't understand why Trump's maligning masterworks worked in the first place. “He’s flying around on Hair Force One," Marco Rubio said during his attempt to show that he could win a game of Campaign Iron Chef featuring Donald Trump. “Donald is not going to make America great, he’s going to make America orange.”

Donald Trump sometimes throws out slights this superficial, but they aren't the ones that stick. To craft a truly devastating Trumpian insult, you must attack the image of your opponent's very character, look at the color of their aura, find their weaknesses, translate it into a single word, and repeat it over and over again until everyone else is too. Other politicians might care about how their policies are seen, but to a lifelong showman who confessed that his brand valuation can fluctuate every day based on his "feelings," those flim-flam first impressions are one of the world's most precious resources, turning "low-energy" into a Chekhovian explanation of why Jeb could never win, "Lyin'" into a word that highlights how it always felt like Ted was a soliloquy performer who couldn't quite break the fourth wall, and "Little" foreshadowing how a foam hammer would send mechanical Whac-a-Mole Marco into a poll hole, never to be seen again.

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The election results won't come down to insults — at least we still hope that might be the case — but as the primary campaign shows, if Trump is present, they make essential hors d'oeuvres. In those rare moments when a perfectly quotable criticism sticks — although politicians have proven less than gifted at this task, reporters have been doing the job with facts and well-placed words for decades — Trump also tends to respond in a way that sends him shuffling to the Not-So-Presidential Swear Jar to pay penance.

Thus far, most Democrats have shown that they fail at the exercise as much as the rest of the Republican primary field. The party's first attempt at trying to beat Trump at his own game was "Dangerous Donald," a phrase that, if it contains any truth at all, manages to pinpoint one of the reasons his supporters like him in the first place. President Obama has beaten Trump at his own belittling game — but only on the one night a year when the press casts a spell and lets Obama speak in actual jokes instead of bureaucratic riddles. After Obama's fusillade of quips at the 2011 White House Correspondents' Dinner, Adam Gopnik wrote that "Trump’s humiliation was as absolute, and as visible, as any I have ever seen: his head set in place, like a man in a pillory, he barely moved or altered his expression as wave after wave of laughter struck him." Mocking him does damage in a way few other things can.

Hillary Clinton showed that she can memorably disparage Trump, too, in her national security speech earlier this month — but using her careful, if sometimes sarcastic, language, not translating it into choppy Trumpese. (A language best described as what would happen if Tony the Tiger, Mo Willems, and a very tired E.E. Cummings, determined to only write poems using words from World War II–era speeches, teamed up to write a stream-of-consciousness trail map of em dashes and a Machiavellian guide of run-on sentences for an 11-year-old boy trying to take over the zoo.) The same goes for Mitt Romney, one of Trump's most prominent Republican detractors, who often speaks with the same measured and mocked cadence as Clinton. "Now, Donald Trump tells us that he is very, very smart," he said in his big anti-Trump speech. "I’m afraid that when it comes to foreign policy he is very, very not smart." True, but it lacks that Trump-a-dump je ne sais quoi.

Warren offered her own entries into Bartlett's Book of 2016 Taunts earlier this month. They were no "short-fingered vulgarian," but most politicians' vocabularies are somewhat limited by design — which is why we will have to listen to Warren say the words "leveling the playing field," "fight," and "rigged" so many times in the next few months. But they verged closer to words that Trump could understand as similar to his own than anyone else has managed thus far.

One of the most recent offensives from the newest contestant on American Gladiators: This Is What Democracy Looks Like edition was, "Thin-skinned, racist bully." Then, "small, insecure moneygrubber." Or, "small, insecure, thin-skinned wannabe tyrant," if the first two didn't work. All are cutting summations of how Trump has conducted himself for much of this campaign cycle — and far more succinct than anyone else has managed.

In case Trump didn't hear her, Warren — or, rather, the people operating her social media presence — took the game to Trump's home field, throwing her argument into the candidate's tweet template (Sentence. Sentence. Short Sentence!) and pressing send.

Trump has since been trying to come up with a good comeback. None have come to him yet. He has mostly relied on calling her the less-than-illuminating "Goofy," or "Pocahontas" — a reference to the debate about her claims of Native American heritage back in 2012. These attacks do little but hold a mirror up to Trump himself — like most things Trump says — ricocheting back and highlighting his own weaknesses, like his tendency to be racist and thin-skinned. As you might imagine, Native Americans have not been impressed by the nickname "Pocahontas."

Effectively vilifying Trump might not only make him go off on a Twitter bender, it might also temporarily shut down the part of his brain responsible for coming up with efficient doggerel.

He'll probably come up with a decent retort eventually — maybe one of his 30 staffers can help — but Warren will probably soldier on, chafing at his thin hide until his entire brand is exfoliated. It might seem like Elizabeth Warren's entire career has been endurance training for a battle of wits with Donald Trump — but the story she has been telling for years about the necessity of an economic overhaul has also been waiting to get edited by the 2016 election. Fighting and throwing punches only works if you know who you're aiming at, and "Wall Street" and the "big banks" are an amorphous enemy for voters to completely understand.

In 2011, Rebecca Traister wrote that "what sets [Warren] apart is her ability to tell a coherent, populist story … in a way that other members of her party are either unwilling or unable to do." Five years later, that's still true, and Warren's language is ever more combative. In many cases, the clearest language is also the quickest and most cutting, capable of filleting an opponent one comma at a time. Warren's stories about economic inequality have been catching on with an even bigger audience this year, thanks to Bernie Sanders's warm-up act, and now, thanks to the ascendancy of a billionaire who can't stop talking about how much he helps people — despite evidence to the contrary — they also have a much clearer villain.

Who knows what that means for the 2016 race, but it means that we'll be seeing a lot of Warren between now and November. No matter her official role, she'll be talking endlessly about the economy, verbally poking Trump, and competing in an all-out war for who can mention the words "tough" and "fight" the most on Twitter.

Despair or cheer as necessary.