Given the amount of attention one particular Donald has commanded, the past year or so has been a tough time for anyone else who shares a first name with the president. This is not to say it’s been a picnic for Muslims, Latinos, immigrants, women, veterans, journalists, the judicial branch, Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, or any Americans who care about civil liberties and spelling. But let’s think, just for a moment, of the Donalds.
Take it from Donald Bell, a 38-year-old in Alameda, California, one of several Donalds I recently spoke with after requesting that my friends and colleagues connect me with anyone they know named Donald and then also searching Twitter. These days, he said, “I’m more sensitive about my name when I say it out loud to people. You can tell that people will flinch almost, not even meaning to, but just hearing the name, it produces such an emotional reaction in people. I’m just going to Starbucks for a cup of coffee, they ask me for my name, I have to say my name and then kind of apologize for it.”
In sum, “It’s a bit of an embarrassing time to be a Donald right now.”
Bell, an early adopter, happens to be the owner of the handle @Donald on our president’s favorite microblogging platform, and for the past few years his mentions have been full of words for that other Donald. “No matter what, it’s bad news,” he said. “It’s either I’m looking at people who are supporting Donald Trump or are violently against Donald Trump. It’s kind of like a depressing view of the world.”
Donald Burke, a 29-year-old in Washington, D.C. who goes by “Don,” can relate. “I absolutely hate to be called ‘the Donald,’ ” he said. “You can call me literally anything else, but that’s just one thing I never liked, and now even more so, it’s kind of, ‘Please, just don’t put a the in front of my name because someone already ruined that for us.’ ” While he allowed that “it’s not like we’re all part of some secret society of Donalds or anything like that,” that doesn’t mean he can’t assume the the is annoying for all Donalds.
In the course of my hunt for Donalds, I happened to connect with Donald Luskin, a Chicago-based economic strategist who supported Trump in the election. His firm, TrendMacro, was by his estimation one of the earliest predictors of a Trump win.* So does Luskin love all the attention he’s getting just because of his first name? “I can’t think of a single case where anyone’s ever raised it,” he said. Still, he’s worked it into a few jokes, sure. “Part of my work is to talk about political developments, so I’ll say something like, ‘I just want to make it perfectly clear that I am only a Donald, I’m not the Donald.’ ” And that’s really it. “Donald’s just not all that unusual. I think it’s less weird than if my name happened to be Barack.”**
While Luskin is right that “Donald” is not exactly Pilot Inspektor, experts say the name has long been in serious decline. According to Social Security data, Donald peaked in popularity in America in 1934, the year Donald Duck was introduced, and it’s been downhill ever since. “Even Donald Trump was born on the down slope of Donald,” said Laura Wattenberg, the name expert behind BabyNameWizard.com. Other than Don Draper—“the Mad Men Don Draper years were the heyday of being a Donald,” Donald Bell lamented—most of the Donalds in popular culture are elderly, and any lingering Donalds—Glover, for example—tend to be named after older family members. (I reached out to Donald Sutherland and Donald Glover for this piece, but they both declined to comment through representatives. Whether that’s because they too did not want to be associated with Trump, we’ll never know.)
“To modern ears, the full name Donald, all those consonants weigh it down,” Wattenberg said. “The style today is very much about vowels. The equivalent of Donald, Ronald, Gerald, Harold today would be Aiden, Hayden, Jayden, Kayden. We have a lot of long vowel sounds, not a lot of voiced consonants together like that -ld.”
According to both name experts and Donalds themselves, most Donalds don’t use the full name. They’re usually Dons, maybe Donnies—not Trump, however, a fact the Donalds I spoke to found notable. As Bell put it, “I feel like all the best-looking, most famous versions of Donald out in the world usually go by Don.”
According to Wattenberg, “The full name Donald and the nickname Don are far apart in the impression they give, kind of like Rodney to Rod, just a very different image.”
“I think he probably prefers the most impressive-sounding version of his name, which is Donald J. Trump, as opposed to Don John Drumpf, which sounds I think a little less imperious,” mused another Donald—Donald Moynihan, a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
“The meaning of the word Donald in certain name meaning books is ruler of the world,” Burke was quick to note, “which terrifies me!” A brand strategist by profession, Burke also sees the lack of nickname as a calculated move. “It’s always Donald Trump, first and last name, or it’s just Trump. ‘Trump did this, Trump did that.’ ” This may have at least helped minimize any negative impact on the name Donald, he surmised. “Thank God.”
Still, there is something about Donald. “The one noteworthy feature of the president’s name is that both nickname and given name score extremely high on my dimension of success,” Albert Mehrabian, a professor emeritus of psychology who has studied names, told me in an email. According to his research and surveys, Don scored an 88 and Donald a 95 out of 100 in terms of “impressions generated by the name in the general population.”
I was interested to hear the opinions of one more Don, the one who happens to be my dad, on the matter, so I called him up. He wasn’t wild about the comparison. “I’m not a crook. I don’t deceive people,” he said, summarizing some key differences between himself and his name twin. At this point I tried to clarify the lifelong mystery of why his name is actually not Donald, just Don. But before I could request his long-form birth certificate, he handed off the phone to his press secretary, aka my mom. “I don’t think it sullies his name,” my mom offered. “Rational people know that everybody is their own individual.”
No one is moreso his own individual than Donald Trump. And the sui generis nature of our president may have actually kept Donald-smearing to a minimum. “It’s remarkable that no one in my social circle has ever explicitly made that association,” Moynihan said of sharing a first name with the president. “It’s an incredibly obvious thing to say, but there are so many other things to say about this president that people tend to default to that first.” Burke agreed. “Most of the people at least in my particular circles don’t want to make any reference to him. It’s like Voldemort.” That hasn’t stopped Burke from giving a little thought to the possibility that things get so bad that he has to abandon his given name: “In that case, I’ll just start going by my initials, or I don’t know, I’ll figure it out when that happens.”
Moynihan isn’t quite ready to give up. “I think I can say this for the collective of Don or Donalds across the world, which is: We hope our name does not go down in infamy.”
For his part, Bell also hasn’t let the Donald problem ruin his good name. Would he ever considering selling his coveted @Donald handle to Trump? “It’s a firm ‘never,’ ” Bell told me. “I still have my own affection for my name. It’s not gotten so bad yet. There’s probably a group of people named Adolf somewhere who are in worse shape than I am.”
Speaking of things that have fallen off, do baby name experts expect any spike in the name Donald given his “unpresidented” victory?
Wattenberg thinks it’s unlikely. Normally, “Even a deadly hurricane can make the name of the hurricane spike up in popularity.” But Wattenberg thinks the presidency is unlikely to revive the flagging Donald. “Donald is likely to be a nonstarter on style grounds.”
“The traditional baby name dictionary lets you look up the linguistic origins in Old High German or tells you what proto-Celtic root was behind Donald, but that’s not what we hear when we hear names,” Wattenberg went on. “We’re all constructing the meaning of names every day as we live, and there’s no question the meaning of Donald has changed dramatically over the last year.”
Mike Campbell, who runs Behindthename.com, agrees that the name Donald is unlikely to see much of a resurgence, but he did mention another possibility. Citing the vogue for presidential last names becoming first names—Reagan, Kennedy, and the like—he said, “I’d be curious to see whether Trump as a first name ever made it onto the top-1,000 list.” Imagine that—a bunch of little Trumps running around your local playground. Now there’s a branding opportunity.
*Correction, Feb. 14: This piece originally misstated the name of Donald Luskin’s company. It is TrendMacro.
**Update, March 8: The wording of this paragraph has been updated since publication.