The Schoolyard Bully Pulpit – Part 3: High Societal Stakes

We have a narcissistic president who bullies as if he knows no other way to behave. By virtue of the office Trump holds, that behavior now involves all of us Americans, whether we like it or not.

As observers, we can end up encouraging bullying behavior by joining in, by supporting the bully, or by simply remaining silent. Maybe we can’t see what’s going on. Maybe we don’t know what to do and, so dither indecisively. Maybe we are too terrified to say anything. Even the media has difficulty handling the level of narcissistic bullying coming from the president. Our silence equates to consent for people like Trump. And so the behavior continues, unaddressed.

In addition, by enabling Trump as the bully-in-chief, we also enable bullying tactics to continue to thrive as a very successful way for politicians to conduct themselves, for businesses to operate, for our society to function and our kids to behave. And we teach our kids that this is the kind of behavior they should accept, if not emulate, even when they are its victims. .

Welcome to our bullying new world order. What does it look like, and what can we do to change it?

IMPACT ON SOCIETY

First, we need to come to grips with the wide ranging consequences of having a narcissistic bully-in-chief.

THINK OF THE CHILDREN

Bullying already exists as a true problem our children face. We used to think of it as outlying behavior, but studies indicate that at least 1 out of 5 grade school children experience bullying.

Bullied children suffer. Bullying can result in decreased academic achievements, physical health issues, mental health issues, substance abuse, and suicide. The bullied child’s damaged self-esteem can lead them to become bullies themselves, driven by the need to prop up a shattered ego. In this way, bullying propagates itself. Nor does it stop at the playground. It carries forward into adult life.

The connection between political bullying and children’s behaviors isn’t theoretical. Since Trump’s election, teachers and counselors have reported a rise in bullying in schools, referred to as the Trump Effect. More recently, a study has come out specifically correlating the increase to Trump’s behavior. The study reviewed incidents of bullying in the purple state of Virginia from before and after the 2016 election, comparing trends in districts that voted Republican to those in Democratic districts. It found a significantly higher increase in bullying in Republican districts compared to Democratic ones since 2016.

Trump’s bullying behavior has been serving as an example which has had a direct negative impact on our children. Additionally, our acceptance of his behavior teaches children to resign themselves to bullying. The president acts that way, so that must be how adults want things to be, right? But it’s not only for the sake of our children that we need to address the larger problem.

A boy kicking a soccer ball at a cage holding several smaller boys

Bullying follows us into adulthood. Look at workplace bullying, including harassment, and hazing. Sometimes people are so harried they have to quit a job or change careers altogether. Sometimes they stick it out, in mental anguish, for fear of losing a job.

Whether suffered on the job or elsewhere, sexual harassment falls in this category too. In fact, a lot of sexual misconduct has deep roots in power games, i.e., exercises of imbalance of power to make one party feel superior at the expense of another. Essentially, bullying.

Trump himself has been repeatedly accused of sexual assault. As a narcissistic bully facing such accusations, he defends, protects, and even elevates, other men accused of sexual assault, as a reflective self-vindication and a sop to his own ego. For example, his defense of Roy Moore and elevation of Brett Kavanaugh. Also, his administration’s changes to campus sexual assault guidelines. Trump uses those moments to flip the script, with the intention that, as a society, we shift our thinking and allow these types of attitudes to spread. The victims are the wrongdoers. We should fear for our young men, according to Trump, despite the overwhelming number of women who are victims of sexual assault, and the incredibly small number of false reports, the vast majority of which are easily debunked with little consequence to the falsely accused.

Then we come to domestic abuse and violence aimed at spouses or children. Again, often rooted in the same type of power dynamics as bullying behavior. This ruins family units and causes victims to suffer real, lasting physical and/or psychological harm. In fact, child bullies themselves frequently come from such homes. Again, the behavior perpetuates itself. Yet the Trump Department of Justice has changed the definition of domestic violence to one which is substantially more limited and less informed, effectively denying the experiences of victims of abuse by attempting to cast domestic violence as an exclusively criminal concern.”

Bullying follows us and impairs us in all aspects of our life. We can’t escape it at work, on the streets, or in the home.

Bullying damages people directly, but it also does lasting damage to our society.

Humans band together in societies as a survival mechanism, where individual failings or omissions can be covered by other individuals in the group. Unlike a bully’s zero-sum approach, society works best by give and take and mutual exchanges in which all parties receive a benefit. Contrary to a bully’s intolerance, a society also functions better the more diverse it is, and when everyone has the opportunity to contribute as much as they can to make things work. Applying Trump’s bullying model to social behavior hinders society for everyone.

Additionally, when an individual’s ability to contribute is impaired, society’s effectiveness also suffers. The healthier in both mind and body the individuals are, the healthier the society is, and the greater benefits to society’s individual members. As noted, bullying can affect the mental and physical health of both the bully and his victim, impairing that ability to contribute.

Bullying clearly affects all of us, even when we are not a bully’s direct targets. And right now, it is being endorsed from the top down.

A woman holding her hand up towards the viewer, blocking her face, showing only her shoulder

TWISTING OUR POLITICAL LANDSCAPE

How has politics changed in the era of Trump? We have seen other Republican politicians echoing Trump’s antics – name-calling and racist dog whistles; demeaning of opposition for simply existing; fear-mongering instead of addressing actual issues.

Meanwhile, useful policy debate happens less and less. How can our legislators solve the real issues facing Americans if they won’t take the time to thoroughly examine them, and instead turn to insults or diminishment solely over the fact that people are of different parties, or once voiced opposition? Let’s not forget a GOP senate overriding President Obama’s veto, only to immediately regret doing so, recognize Obama had valid concerns, and still try to blame Obama for it all.

Worse still, we lose our ability to compromise. Like it or not, our government requires compromise to function properly. That’s how the founding fathers intended it, because they knew compromise is the best chance of arriving at a decent solution.

However, now the GOP tactic is “My way, or the highway.” Or in bully-speak, “Do what I say, or else.” In fairness, this tendency was present even prior to Trump’s election. In fact, that pretty much was the reason that Obama could not get federal judges seated, why a Supreme Court vacancy remained open for over a year, and why the government shut down in 2013.

Under Trump, these trends have deepened and calcified. Now Republican politicians add to the refusal to debate and compromise: open mocking, utter ignoring of ethical norms, and deployment of some of the same tricks that Trump uses. Whataboutism. Technicality/letter of the law defense. Use of power imbalance to ram through agendas without debate or even proper consideration. Opposition has become a cardinal sin. Script flipping exists to a degree even politicians had not managed previously (or at least in any living memory).

Up is down. Black is white. A man who lies and makes threats under oath should be made a Supreme Court Justice. It’s he who is the victim, and anyone trying to point out the problems with his nomination should be ashamed. Never mind that the confirmation process should not be rubber stamped. The whole point is to investigate and probe whether this person is qualified for and should have the job. Regardless of party, if senators aren’t questioning whether he’s fit, they literally are not doing their jobs.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh gesturing during his confirmation testimony

We watch our ability to effectively legislate fall apart, leaving us open to losing protections, failing to address needs (What ever happened to that Trump infrastructure initiative, anyway?), and solving imaginary problems by creating new actual ones. The bully demands and will make no concessions, nor face any consequences, because he has twisted the meaning of reality with his deflections and script flipping.

Breakdown of the legislative process due to Republican bully tactics in Congress has eroded balance in our judiciary as well, where seats sat unfilled for years due to obstruction and now are rammed through despite inadequate qualifications. When combined with gerrymandered district lines and voting laws, we are set up for a de facto one-party Republican state. If one party, like a bully, persists in using every trick and advantage it can to permanently lock out the other party, leaving the first party without effective opposition and free rein, we no longer have an effective counterbalance to Republican power, and our democracy ceases. In addition, the more Republican bullying successes rack up, the more likely Democrats are to employ the same tactics in retaliation, deepening the trend, to the nation’s detriment.

Trump, as a narcissistic bully, leans toward authoritarianism by default. He sees no reason to steer us away from our current course. I doubt he is aware of it all, beyond that the authoritarian, brook-no-opposition nature of it appeals to him. So again, he encourages these trends to deepen and calcify.

And what will Trump himself do as an authoritarian by default? He sought to use the military to shut down immigration and build a border wall, and various laws allow him to skirt around considerations like posse comitatus more than one might think. Trump invoked tariffs via executive action on the basis of national security. In January 2019, the military agreed to send troops to upgrade and build 160 miles of border fencing, using Pentagon discretionary funds. In February 2019, Trump invoked the National Emergencies Act to get his border wall built without Congressional approval.

Trump accepts no ethical limitations on himself as president. He constantly demonstrates he accepts no bounds on his executive power, including the limits found in the Constitution. He speaks openly in admiration and defense of leaders like Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, or Rodrigo Duterte. And because he does not seem to possess an understanding of what the limits to presidential power might be, Trump continually presses against them, stressing them. Someday they may break.

So whether we are talking Trump himself, or the impact of his style of politics, the consequences to our nation are quite large.

WIDER SOCIAL CONSEQUENCES

When bullying behavior is met by success after success in the political arena, it begins to impact our society and culture as well.

Shaped by the lack of political discourse, people no longer try to discuss matters socially either. More and more often, no matter what the topic, they go straight to their respective corners and begin fighting. Obviously, deep divisions on social issues are nothing new and will continue to exist absent Trump’s input. However, Trump’s bullying model of “my way, or else”, intolerance, and lack of empathy, has set an example for his supporters to follow. As a narcissistic bully, Trump naturally fear-mongers while bragging about himself as the only solution to the fears he peddles. All of this serves to discourage social discourse and widen rifts, rather than heal them.

Increasingly, it seems disagreement is met not with debate, but with personal insults and death threats. Pew research has found that political partisanship under Trump now dwarfs the usual divisions in our society, and that negative views of the opposing party have worsened among Americans. Pew also found that a sizeable number of Americans believe that those who hold differing views about Trump also do not share many of their own other values or goals. If we lament the crippling divisiveness rampant in our society, then, among other things, we need to tackle the role played by Trump’s bullying behavior and its success.

Trump’s “do it my way or else” approach in politics validates the public using the same approach in everyday life. Moreover, because Trump repeatedly gets away with denying news and facts to assuage his ego, he enables other Americans to do the same for anything.  Thus, people feel free to ignore what science says, even as evidence mounts in support of scientific findings. They argue, without evidence, against vaccination, while failure to vaccinate causes previously eliminated diseases to resurge, and the World Health Organization lists vaccine hesitancy as one of the top ten worldwide health threats. They may increasingly accept that climate change is real, but still argue that any effort to advance technologies in response to climate change should be abandoned as a waste of time, even in the face of ever more alarming scientific assessments of the perils of climate change and the limited time we have left in which to act. Even support for flat-earth theory has risen dramatically over the last few years, despite the global model of the planet having been proven from space, and the fact that anyone can disprove the flat-earth model simply by observing the horizon. While anti-science stances pre-date Trump, Trump’s own anti-science approach encourages these stances in his supporters.

On top of sowing deep divisions, protracted exposure to toxic bullying behavior and responses re-conditions how we think. The schoolyard bully relies on the flipped script to sell supporters and the adults that what he is doing is okay. When that bully is our president, then in the process we all get conditioned to accept the flipped scripts as reality. Worse yet, we start regularly making decisions based on that false reality, and any chance at critical thinking goes out the window.

Intolerance and the right to exclude help drive a bully’s contempt. So naturally, racism, prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination often find bullying characteristics at their roots as well. Add to that script flipping about these concepts to make them sound palatable, and society is encouraged to embrace rather than reject them.

Years ago, Trump put out a full page ad in The New York Times calling for the execution of five African-American teens, and said, “maybe hate is what we need if we’re gonna get something done. Even after it was proven the five were falsely convicted, Trump continued to assert that he was right and that they were guilty. In 2017, Trump hesitated to call out neo-Nazis and white supremacists in the wake of events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the end saying there were “very fine people on both sides” and trying to blame those that opposed hatred for violence done by those espousing hate.

Protestors carrying Nazi and Confederate flags at the Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally

We’ve seen Trump’s behavior and attitude reflected in our society in the wake of his campaign and presidency. Hate crime has been on the rise since 2016. From bomb threats against Jewish community centers, to hunting for and killing black people, to someone arrested after trying to force his Iraqi neighbors out feeling assured that if he didn’t manage to get rid of them, “Trump will handle it.” Discrimination is wrong. Ending racism and bigotry should be a goal. Yet even these no-brainers are under question in our current divided society.

Another obvious social consequence of the narcissistic bully-in-chief’s influence is the encouragement of self-centered and selfish outlooks on life. Of course, selfish behavior has always been a part of humanity. However, psychologist Ryne Sherman’s study of the 2016 election found that Trump supporters tended to identify with and exhibit the same traits as Trump himself, including toxic behavior associated with collective narcissism and an attraction to Trump’s threats of violence and other antisocial behavior.

In 2017, two PRRI surveys indicate that, even as American society has become more tolerant in some areas, overall white Republicans lack empathy when it comes to matters of discrimination or poverty. In summarizing one of the surveys, Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post noted, “The unpleasant reality is that there are two kinds of Americans — one inclusive and tolerant, the other not. The latter seems disproportionately supportive of Trump.”

As Trump constantly reaps rewards for his narcissistic bullying behavior, many of his supporters feel they have been given license to loosen their grip on their own self-indulgent tendencies. In fact, as Sherman’s study indicates, part of Trump’s appeal is the permission his narcissistic bullying behavior gives to his supporters to think and act the same way. Through his electoral victory, they can feel free to embrace Trump’s narcissistic support of Ayn Rand’s cult of selfishness. Trump’s example has made moral virtues out of the vices of selfishness, lack of empathy, and rudeness. His supporters tend to adhere strongly to self-centered lines of thought, expressing “I got mine, so fuck you” attitudes, particularly when it comes to assessing or offering solutions to social problems. In many ways, those attitudes factor into the growing intolerance noted above, providing continual fuel for fires to which Trump already added the spark or the accelerant.

Thus, in the Trump era, conservatives’ approaches to issues appear to have shifted. In January 2019, Republican strategist Evan Siegfried lamented, “There has been a remarkable erosion of compassion from conservatism, which is particularly evident among conservative and religious leaders, as well as figures that align themselves with the Republican Party. They have willfully walked away from evangelizing how conservatism is a vehicle by which to improve the general welfare of the public in favor of espousing a warped ideology that is, at best, apathetic to problems in society, but more likely devoid of warmth and kindness toward those facing such problems.” Those self-centered attitudes make social common ground harder to find, and social problem solving extremely difficult.

Our social discourse, our view of what is acceptable, even the way we think and approach problems, shift the longer Trump’s behavior and its influence remain unrecognized and undiscussed. Worse, the long term consequences may prove difficult to fix if we don’t start addressing the problem now.

SIGNS OF HOPE

The good news is that there is hope we can turn things around. Lately the media has shown some small signs of life, attributable to chinks appearing in Trump’s bully armor. The media may have largely acted as a silent observer to Trump’s bullying behavior, but they also are one of his prime targets. Trump routinely uses his imbalance of power to instill fear in the media, causing them to hold back in their assessments.

Trump has operated as a narcissistic bully for decades largely unassailed. Originally associated with mobster John Gotti, the moniker “Teflon Don” now refers to Donald Trump. But recent setbacks have demonstrated that maybe Trump is not that bulletproof after all.

Despite deploying several of the bully’s tricks, Donald Trump recently lost his ego battle with Nancy Pelosi over giving the State of the Union during the government shutdown. A few days later, his bullying demands over the border wall fell apart, as he signed a bill reopening the government for three weeks. Those served as a rapid one-two punch combination signalling that maybe this bully can sometimes be stopped.

A bully uses fear to maintain his position. The victim doesn’t want to get beaten up, so he gives in to the bully’s demands. Third-party observers don’t want to become victims, so they don’t intervene or otherwise draw the bully’s attention. However, when someone successfully challenges the bully or gets away with refusing his demands, the death-grip of fear holding victims and third-parties in check loosens, and they act a bit more freely.

It seems that is what has happened for the media in recent weeks. In the wake of Trump’s capitulations, more of the press began speaking about Trump’s border wall demands in terms of bullying. Some talked more freely about how Trump seeks comfort for his ego from cheering crowds.

For example, in an appearance on MSNBC on February 5, 2019, Jonathan Capehart, of the Washington Post, previewed Trump’s approach to the State of the Union address in terms of narcissistic needs for ego stroking, without referencing base appeasement or showmanship skills.

“The president standing in the well of the House of Representatives fits with what the president likes. The pomp. The circumstance. The adoration. The difference between this year’s State of the Union and last year’s State of the Union is that a majority of that chamber will be Democrats. And the president, as we have seen on the campaign trail, as we have seen at his rallies as president, he loves applause and he will do anything to get that applause… The other thing I’m going to be looking for tonight, Stephanie, is how will Republicans bend over backwards to deliver the applause that the president desperately wants. How shameless are they going to look to try to prop up the president?”

The media has begun to show some signs of comprehension after years of Trump’s bullying. But we have still have a long way to go.

FINDING A POSITIVE WAY FORWARD

President Donald J. Trump is a narcissist and a schoolyard bully. The continued ratification of his behavior, via political successes and public outcries of support, coupled with the media’s hesitancy to analyze the behavior properly, damages our politics, our society, and our children.

What can we do about it?

These behaviors fall in the realm of mental health, a topic we struggle to understand and tend to stigmatize as a culture. Furthermore, we have only recently begun to understand just how pervasive and damaging bullying can be to our children.

Unfortunately, that means we have only just begun seriously trying to tackle these issues. We haven’t even worked out how to effectively handle bullying in our schools yet. With that the case, how do we handle it in the president?

Trump has acted this way for over 70 years. He’s set in his ways, and he really has no one in any position of authority over him who can offer any kind of discipline or counseling to curb the behavior. Since we are talking narcissism and bullying, it seems very unlikely Trump would seek help on his own, since, for his psyche’s sake, he must believe he does not have a problem. Trump is very unlikely to change his behavior. He is stuck with it. We don’t have to be.

A stylized image of Donald Trump shouting

First, we need to recognize the behavior for what it is. Trump’s narcissism and bullying permeate all of his words and deeds. We need to learn to recognize what that really tells us about those words and deeds, policies and decisions.  

Having recognized it, and recognized its toxic consequences that impact all of us, we need to go farther. We need to call it out. No more normalizing it or crediting it as some political strategy or business acumen.

We need to offer feedback, not silence.

That means we should start making others aware too. We need to call out the behavior patterns for what they are whenever we see them. That includes calling out Trump’s desperate, defensive flailing and his script flipping as the tactics a bully employs to convince us to let him keep bullying.

We need to do this every time, even if it sounds like a broken record. He lies to make himself sound good? Then we need to say he is lying because that’s what narcissists do to make themselves look good. He says ridiculous lies at the U.N., and the world laughs at him for it? Don’t stop at mentioning he got the U.S. laughed at on the world stage. Say why this happened–that as a narcissist he can’t stop using superlatives that end up being lies because he needs constant ego stroking. He allows the government to shut down over funding for a border wall? Don’t just talk about how a wall would be an ineffective waste of taxpayer money. Talk about how he is only doing this because, as a bully, he needs a victory on this issue to feel better about himself, and that the wall is about his vanity, not actual border security. Talk about how Trump’s own ego was more important to him than the lives of the millions of Americans impacted by the recent shutdown.

Beyond that, we need to provide feedback that makes clear the behavior is undesirable. A narcissistic bully learns people manipulation skills, first and foremost, through trial and error. He learns to do a trick because, almost every time he has done it, he has gotten a treat. We need to stop rewarding him with treats.

That means not only when Trump does it, but also anytime anyone does the same thing in politics. That means voting out of office politicians who rely on tricks like ”my way, or the highway” tactics and script flipping. That means stop cheering for something just because your party proposed it and booing something else just because the other party proposed it. The only way for us to address the lasting impact of this behavior on our politics and society is to stop letting it work.

This ultimately means recognizing and being alert for the type of behavior that is or supports bullying, not just in others, but in ourselves.

Ask yourself: does my lack of concern about a particular issue actually stem from an “I got mine, so why should I care about you” attitude? Have I bothered to look at the various factors surrounding the issue and tried to conduct a rational analysis before coming to my conclusions, or did I just shoot from the hip to satisfy my gut feelings on the matter? Have I tried to look at something through another person’s eyes and honestly tried to assess whether they have a point? Which have I exhibited, empathy or contempt?

This takes work, repetition, and constant vigilance. It’s easier to unconsciously be conditioned to behave a certain way than to consciously change that behavior. Change may be hard, but the stakes are too high.

A "No" icon superimposed over a drawing of a bully raising his fist to a smaller child

Our politics, our society, our national dialogue, even the way we think, are at risk. The consequences reach far down, tearing at the functioning of our government, ripping our bonds of society, and setting up our children early for even worse.

Solutions start with us. And they start with recognition, speaking up, acting accordingly, and remaining alert. Otherwise, we remain silent, enabling observers as bullying behaviors spread to all levels of our lives. Like the teacher on the playground, we need to refuse to be taken in by the bully’s tricks as he tries to squirm out of a reprimand. For the sake of our democracy. For our society. For ourselves. For our children.

No more joining in. No more supporting it. We must choose to replace silence with feedback. Otherwise this behavior will continue to grow and spread, until we only get to choose between being a bully or a victim.


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

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