A pleased looking Donald Trump next to the dictionary definition of Bully

The Schoolyard Bully Pulpit – Part 2: The Media Misses the Boat

We’ve gone over the case for Trump as narcissistic bully. Now what?

Now we need to start talking about it, beginning with how the media is not talking about it.

The media has called Trump a narcissist or a bully before, but they don’t actually analyze Trump’s behavior using those terms. Instead, they keep falling back to comfortable analyses frequently applicable to other headline makers. But trying to explain Trump’s behavior in the usual political or even business terms does not work.

As a result of trying to apply analytical models that don’t fit, the media misses the boat. Further still, it normalizes the behavior. Even worse, the media praises it, labeling petty behavior as clever political strategy to be emulated, although not necessarily admired.

One tends to think of bullying as being between the bully and his target. But third-party observers play a role too, often enabling the behavior. In addition to those who assist the bully, or who reinforce and support him, there are those who provide no feedback, remaining silent. They may not mean to, but can end up encouraging the bullying behavior.

The media right now largely falls into that last category. The silent observer, not calling out the narcissism and the bullying. Perhaps not really seeing it. Sometimes the media even falls into the role of supporting the bully, by attributing the behavior to such positive values as “solid political strategy,” or a “valid and tactical response.”

As a result, a great opportunity for national understanding and awareness gets lost, while the behavior itself is encouraged to spread throughout our society.

THE BULLY AT THE RALLY

To see how this plays out, let’s take a look at a common example of the media’s analysis falling short.

On January 8, 2019, Trump addressed the nation on television from the Oval Office in support of his border wall. Trump stuck to the written script, instead of veering into off-the-cuff territory, as he usually does. He seemed subdued. And privately, he indicated he did not want to do the speech, thinking it pointless.

In offering his assessment, MSNBC contributor John Heileman confirmed Trump’s general distaste for making addresses from the Oval Office, indicating Trump does better with live audiences cheering him than when addressing only a camera. But the media doesn’t quite get it. They talk about Trump loving rallies for the admiring crowds, but, in the same breath, they also talk about how Trump enjoys jousting with the press. That’s not what’s really going on.

Everyone talks about Trump and rally crowds in terms of stirring up and appeasing his base. That’s how a normal politician operates: appeasing a base and expanding it. These same pundits, however, frequently admit that Trump does not use the typical political playbook. They admit that the typical analysis and interpretations of a politician’s actions have not fit Trump, yet they refuse to abandon and look beyond those typical analyses when discussing Trump’s behavior. And so end up missing the boat.

If we look at Trump as a politician, it makes sense to keep the base that elected him happy. But then the analysis begins to fall apart. Trump’s base has, at best, remained flat and, at times, appears to have shrunk. Most politicians learned long ago that they must expand their base and, further, that elections have to also be won among undecided voters. Trump addresses neither of those concerns, despite receiving a clear message in the 2018 elections that not doing so may cost him the 2020 election. So attributing Trump’s love of rally crowds over regular speaking engagements in terms of base appeasement doesn’t quite explain what’s going on adequately enough.

However, look at Trump’s behavior through the lens not of him as a politician, but of him as a narcissistic bully, and things start making more sense. A narcissistic bully does not perceive speaking to the base and going to rallies the same way a conniving politician would.

Appeasing the base? More like the base appeasing him. Sure, he says words, and the crowd gets reassured about his promises to them. But from Trump’s perspective, as a narcissistic bully, he says words, and the crowd cheers for him, helping assuage his ego. Trump does not go to a rally to convince his base to love him. He goes believing they should already love him and cheer for his obvious superiority.

Trump does not view his interactions with the press at rallies as jousting. A narcissistic bully sees himself as the superior. Jousting means sparring with potential equals. Trump does not spar with the press. He insults them; he calls them enemy of the people. He threatens them with lawsuits and changes to defamation laws. He demands their complete adoration or labels them false. And like a schoolyard bully surrounded by his sycophantic pals, he taunts a victim who has limited ability to do anything about it, while the crowds cheer. Like a bully, Trump uses his attack on the victim to boost his own ego. At rallies, Trump does not joust with the press; he bullies them. Including through the threat of implicit or actual violence.

In fact, being a frequently abused target of the bully-in-chief no doubt contributes to the media’s inability to properly apply the narcissistic bully model to Trump’s behavior. It’s not just that victims sometimes can’t see the true extent of the behavior which victimizes them. It also is because the fear Trump seeks to invoke as a bully has taken hold. He has the press afraid that if they do start applying such terms fully to his behavior, they will be everything of which he accuses them: unfair, biased, crossing a line, fake. Or at the very least, they fear that is how they will be perceived by even those who don’t support Trump. And they fear the real violence they may face from those that do support Trump.

The press has fallen prey to the bully’s script flipping techniques, designed to keep the bully large and in charge and the victim fearful and terrorized. Thus, the media agreed to air Trump’s Oval Office address on the government shutdown, even though they knew it would only serve as a brief infomercial for the border wall, and despite having previously refused to air an address by Obama over similar concerns. They give Trump more latitude and hesitate to fully apply terms such as narcissist or bully because to correctly label his behavior would be to invite abuse. So they stay silent.

Trump constantly goes back to his base in rallies and tweets because he knows they will cheer him. Analyzing Trump as a narcissistic bully, instead of a normal politician, begins to explain why. Why doesn’t Trump try to expand his base, or worry about whether it shrinks, or concern himself with losing independent and swing voters? He’s not playing a political game. He’s just behaving as the narcissist and bully he’s been his whole life. The media, afraid of his bullying accusations, keeps trying to explain and treat this president as a politician, even though he does not act like one. As a result, it keeps finding its explanations of Trump’s behavior falling short and giving Trump credit where none is due.

Trump in front of an apparently large crowd at a rally

LEARNING TO ASSESS THE PRESIDENT MORE ACCURATELY

The results are reporters and pundits constantly trying to puzzle out the motivations for Trump’s words and actions in the political arena, without offering any cohesive insight. Is it a clever strategy? Does he have his finger on the pulse of America, or, at least, a sizeable part of it? Is he mentally incompetent? Why did he say that, when it doesn’t help him? Why did he bring in cameras, only to be embarrassed? Why is he contradicting himself? What’s the ploy here? What’s the scheme?

When the media looks at the incidents in isolation, they have trouble figuring them out. However, look at them through the filter of Trump as narcissist and bully, and everything makes much more sense. Just not the reassuring kind.

The key here is not to stop at saying Trump is a narcissist only because he keeps saying he is the most successful president ever. Nor to stop at saying Trump acted like a bully only when he threatened Canada into capitulating to NAFTA 2.0 (or the USMCA, if you don’t mind confusing the U.S. Marine Corps with a trade agreement). We also need to recognize Trump is being a bully and a narcissist, for example, when he tries to distract us in the face of policy criticisms, bad economic news or the Mueller investigation. We must recognize that these terms apply not just to an analysis of Trump’s actions and reactions here and there, but overall.

If we call Trump a narcissist and a bully, that means we need to look at all of his behavior in those terms. When the behavior fits the terms, we need to add that to our assessment. We know that narcissistic behavior can damage. We know that bullying behavior is toxic. We are obligated, therefore, to make clear that our president consistently exhibits this behavior. We definitely need to stop tacitly approving it by suggesting it is acceptable political strategy.

GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN THROUGH A MAGNIFYING GLASS

Trump’s behavior matches expert descriptions of narcissism and bullying. But how can the press and other citizens constructively apply any of that to Trump’s actions as a whole in order to understand them better? Sometimes it’s easier to see how things work on the large scale by first looking at things in small scale. So let’s look at some of Trump’s behavior surrounding the government shutdown in terms of him as a narcissistic bully, and examine how the media could have covered the moments more accurately.

Charles Dana Gibson's "The Weaker Sex", four early 20th century women looking at a tiny man through a magnifying glass

BULLYING DEMANDS

Leading up to the December 2018 government shutdown, President Trump repeatedly said he was willing to cause such a shutdown if Congress’ continuing resolution bill to keep the government funded did not include $5 billion to begin construction of a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Just like a bully, Trump used his position’s Constitutional veto power to threaten someone weaker. In the December 11, 2018, meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the whole purpose of which was to negotiate a solution to keep the government open, Trump said, “If we don’t get what we want one way or the other, … I will shut down the government, absolutely.” Essentially, “My way, or else.” That’s Bullying 101.

As they have many times before, the press hesitated to describe Trump’s negotiation tactics in those exact terms. The few times the media managed to say Trump was acting like a bully, they failed to truly apply the analysis.

As a result, the press droned on about negotiating, base appeasement, misleading wall claims, hostage taking, and sad tales of unpaid government employees and contractors. The AP had to walk back its “takes two to tango” assessment of the situation, but the “both sides” claim still persisted in press coverage. All of that served to legitimize Trump’s petulant demands as tactics, when they were merely the result of a bully’s need for aggrandizement and propensity for zero-sum thinking rather than having anything to do with actual negotiation.

The media has done this a lot when it comes to Trump’s supposed negotiating skills. For example, the media repeatedly attributes Trump’s zero-sum thinking on trade, the economy or foreign policy to normal real estate deal making. Wrong. No one worth their salt in real estate makes deals based on zero-sum thinking. Real estate deal making is give and take, where both sides have to believe they get something out of the deal. According to John Macomber, a lecturer on business administration for Harvard’s Business School, people in Trump’s line of real estate and hotel management, “typically… see the shared value. They seldom get into a zero-sum negotiation. They think, ‘How can we help each other?’” In other words, the opposite of winners-versus-losers-only or zero-sum thinking. By attributing Trump’s zero-sum thinking to canny real estate business practices, the media falsely paints Trump’s narcissistic bully demands as justifiable deal making.

About a month into the shutdown, the press sounded shocked to discover Trump had no long term or short term plan. Had the media viewed Trump’s demands through the narcissistic bully filter, they would have known that from the start. Instead they spent nearly a month talking about solutions that had no bearing on how Trump actually thought about the situation. For example, as a narcissistic bully, Trump had no empathy for the hardships government employees faced as a result of the shutdown. Since it was about his ego, negative consequences to the country did not factor into his position. Neither personal nor national tales of woe provided much leverage in getting Trump to agree to open the government.

In the end, Trump agreed to temporarily open the government only after a cascade of events over the span of a few days, some of which affected him very personally. Nancy Pelosi punctured Trump’s vulnerable ego over the State of the Union fight. The shutdown failed to impede the federal courts or the FBI sufficiently to prevent the arrest and indictment of Roger Stone, one of Trump’s longtime advisors. LaGuardia, Trump’s home airport, stopped flights due to a lack of air traffic controllers. Trump had already been stuck in DC, away from the ego-stroking of rally crowds and sycophants at his resorts, for close to two months. And he most likely had been told that his scheduled February mutual admiration fest with Kim Jong Un could not go forward in Vietnam due to inadequate security resulting from the shutdown. The result was a begrudging deal to end the shutdown.

Even after all this, Trump only agreed to a temporary ceasefire, while still threatening to use his get-out-of-jail-free card, i.e., declaring a national emergency. Doing so would result in court battles, but Trump could then blame any losses on the rigged judicial system, as he has done with other court reversals. Meanwhile, by entertaining the idea that the shutdown was about border security, rather than Trump’s vanity, the press gave legitimacy to calls for a policy compromise Trump’s ego would never have allowed him to accept. This misinterpretation of reality kept the public dialogue focused on unrealistic solutions rather than the political and personal realities keeping the government shut down.

Trump's December Reversal

Trump’s brief change of tune on the march to the shutdown highlighted just how much the struggle was about personal ego rather than politics. As the December 2018 shutdown deadline loomed, Trump backed off of his demand for $5 billion to fund his border wall. Then Trump quickly reversed himself after conservative media pundits made their displeasure clear. This, too, is what bullies do.

The media noted the reversal and conservative media’s influence over Trump, but failed to go any deeper than“base appeasement”, the media’s go-to excuse for most of Trump’s perplexing behavior.

Among those most likely to bully are people susceptible to peer pressure. In Trump’s case, we aren’t talking social or political peers. Think instead of the schoolyard bully’s pals, egging him on while he beats up his victim and then cheering him on afterwards. That’s exactly the role the conservative media has served for Trump.

Those types of supporters hang in the bully’s orbit only as long as the bully delivers the goods. When Trump does what they want, they feed his ego with outlandish praise. With Trump’s border wall reversal, however, Trump backed down on his threats and, worse yet, considered compromise with Democrats. Just like a schoolyard bully’s cheering section, the conservative media essentially called Trump “chicken” until he changed his course from conciliation back to bullying.  

An inflatable chicken with hair resembling Donald Trumps, within sight of the Capitol dome

And being a good bully, Trump immediately tried to keep his gang impressed. Strong. Tough. Not backing down. Did he say $5 billion? He meant $5.7 billion. Did Pence go to the Hill saying that the president would take $2.5 billion? Too bad; it’s at least $5.7 billion, or no deal. And Trump’s gang cheers him on.

Had the media analyzed Trump’s behavior through the right filters, it would have made the public aware that Trump’s flip was no more than a bully trying to impress his buddies. While they talked about the pressure on Trump, the press failed to use the moment to highlight just how much this whole thing was tied not to border security, or even a campaign promise, but to Trump’s ego responding to right wing critiques, and thus why normal political solutions could not work in this instance. They also failed to discuss the danger the U.S. faces in having a president so easily swayed by pressing his bully buttons.

CONTRACT CONFUSION

Another example of media failures came after the shutdown had started, when Trump sowed confusion about the border wall’s status, boasting that he had just approved a contract to build a 115 mile portion of the wall in Texas and implying construction would start in January. However, any such contract would have required Congressional approval first. Funding, and thus awarding a contract for such projects, lies solely in Congress’ purview, not the Executive branch’s. No such contract had been approved. In fact, Congress was not even in session when Trump made his claims about giving out the contract.

The press scrambled to figure out what Trump was talking about. Perhaps a contract for 33 miles of some kind of border barrier in Texas, approved in March 2018 and due to begin construction in early 2019? But that did not match the key details in Trump’s claim, 115 miles and a contract approved on Christmas Eve.

Had the media already been analyzing Trump’s statements through the narcissistic bully filter, they would have quickly said Trump was lying. It’s not whether Trump misunderstood or was even capable of understanding. Trump could not be bothered to try to understand. The wall’s actual status mattered far less than his ability to brag in true narcissistic bully style by lying about his accomplishments.

When the President of the United States makes claims like this, people have no choice but to respond on the assumption the statements are, to some degree, accurate. By not calling Trump’s behavior out for what it is, the media fails to make clear the danger of operating a government based on false premises, founded not even on political spin, but solely on an old man’s lies to protect his vanity.

WALL CONTRADICTIONS

Trump also muddied the waters as to what physical object he was demanding. Trump suggested that, if terminology was a problem, Democrats could call his wall a fence, or whatever else they wanted. “I can tell you it’s not going to be open until we have a wall, a fence, whatever they’d like to call it,” Trump told reporters. “I’ll call it whatever they want.”

In the December 11 meeting with Pelosi and Schumer, Trump also implied the existing border fence already was the border wall, despite making it clear on the campaign trail and elsewhere that he meant no such thing. In 2015, Trump tweeted:

Trump pushed for a concrete border wall. At a December 2015 rally, Trump said, “It’s going to be made of hardened concrete, and it’s going to be made out of rebar and steel.” After the shutdown, he talked about a wall made of slats.

So Trump insisted on a wall. Or was it a fence? Concrete? Or slats? The media pointed out the waffling description, sometimes with a little laugh at the president’s contradictory statements, but failed to offer convincing explanations. “Base appeasement” came up again.

However, just as Trump’s narcissistic bullying compelled him to lie about an 115 mile contract, it drove him to make contradictory statements about the wall in order to delude himself into believing he already won. This was not confusion or dementia in the normal sense. When pressured or backed in to corners, narcissistic bullies, by nature, tend to protect their egos by flailing around, throwing up any of the various bully defenses and script flipping techniques that cross their mind. They don’t have to make sense, they just have to sooth the bully. Trump originally described a concrete wall, and his ego required he stand firm on those types of demands. But if Trump only gets a slat fence, his psyche can still be satisfied that he won, because he said that’s what he meant too.

Look at it from a narcissistic bully’s mindset. If Trump gets billions for border security to make fencing repairs, he can still call it the border wall and point back to when he was talking about that very thing as the border wall back in December 2018. He applied typical bully techniques of script flipping in order to later convince himself and his bully gang he won, regardless of the outcome. In fact, we know this technique works, since that was used to appease Trump in past government funding fights – offering up money to repair existing fencing as if it equated to building his proposed border wall.

The President of the United States’ willingness to rely on delusions over reality should raise red flags and ring alarm bells. In failing to assess Trump’s behavior through his narcissism and bullying, the media has left incredibly important elements out of the national dialogue.

SKIPPING OVER ACTUAL ACCOMPLISHMENTS

As the government shutdown tension built in December 2018, Trump had two major legislative accomplishments worth bragging about. On December 20, 2018, Trump signed into law an $867 billion farm aid bill, designed to aid his much talked about base. On December 21, Trump signed into law a criminal justice reform bill. Being a narcissist, Trump mentioned both briefly, but much of his attention remained focused on his demands for a border wall.

The media mentioned the new laws as well, but mostly ignored them in favor of the juicy government shutdown story. In the process, the media passed up another opportunity for a deeper examination of Trump’s behavior.

The press has repeatedly evaluated Trump to be a canny politician, a savvy businessman, or even just a skilled manipulator of people or con man. However, had Trump been any of those, he would have dialed back his border wall fight in order to tout his new legislative accomplishments and build credit before getting into the thick of the shutdown skirmish. It would have appealed to Trump’s ego too. Instead, Trump tripped over his own narcissism.

Narcissistic bullies can get distracted from the big picture in their need to defend their ego from all blows and demonstrate their superiority on all fronts. At the time Trump signed the bills into law, he had already committed his ego to bullying border wall demands and faced strong criticism over it. So his ego focused on that fight, to its own detriment.

The media missed a wonderful opportunity to point out that Trump had not acted as a good politician, businessman or even con man might and to highlight the real political problems Trump’s behavior creates. A president losing sight of real legislation over a vanity project should concern everyone.

A sign that reads CAUTION Tripping Hazard with an illustration of a person tripping

PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER

The press dances around what it really means to have a narcissist and a bully as president. Therefore, they miss opportunities, like the ones discussed here, to bring that into focus for the rest of us.

The contradictions, and in fact, all of Trump’s posturing about the wall during the government shutdown, demonstrate for us in microcosm that Trump’s actions can be best explained by recognizing he is a bully and a narcissist, and that the press, for all that Trump gets called a bully or narcissist from time to time, really doesn’t comprehensively apply those terms to Trump’s behavior.

The media can acknowledge that Trump make contradictions or misrepresents, but repeatedly falls back to “base appeasement” as a one-size-does-not-fit-all explanation. The media reports on Trump’s problematical lies and contradictions, but can’t really figure out the why behind them. They imply a normalcy of behavior, instead of pointing out that it stems from Trump’s toxic traits of narcissism and bullying. They make it sound like there is political savvy involved in actions that stem from a petty need to lash out or a vain desire for admiration.

That in turn leaves in the shadows the real dangers inherent in the President of the United States exhibiting such behaviors. It enables those actions and gives them a sense of legitimacy. It gives people fuel to praise toxic behavior as something to be emulated. And that emulation spreads the behavior not just into our politics, but into every aspect of our lives.

Whether the media continues to miss it or not, we have to turn this boat around.


Please be sure to check out the rest of The Schoolyard Bully Pulpit

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