The most frustrating thing about President Trump's bullying isn't so much the crudeness and rank misogyny of calling the women on his enemies' list "fat" or "ugly" or (most recently) "horseface" or the clunking cruelty of his nicknames for "Crooked Hillary" or Jeff "Mr. Magoo" Sessions or the half-fawning, half-terrified accolades for Dear Leader from his intimidated cabinet.
No, the frustrating — and arguably the worst — thing is that America's 45th president has taught our children that, too often, bullying can get you what you want.
Consider the recent caper in which now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh borrowed Trump's bully pulpit of angry bluster and, in some matters, implausible denial to force his way onto the high court. In rallying his base behind Kavanaugh, the president tossed aside a rare, fleeting moment of what seemed like empathy for accuser Dr. Christine Blasey Ford to instead pour on the ridicule for an alleged victim of sexual assault and for the #MeToo movement, while a Mississippi crowd hooted and cheered like JV football players at their hallway lockers.
Pressed by Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes to look back on one of the uglier moments of an ugly 21 months in the White House, Trump displayed a bully's talent for personal reflection, which is less than zero. "It doesn't matter," the president said. "We won."
Since Trump's shock victory Nov. 8, 2016, readers have been bombarded with books — and understandably so — on rising fascism in America and where our current president might fit on some kind of sliding autocrat scale that starts with the boorish Berlusconi and ends up on the alarmingly Hitler-ish.
That's an important discussion to have, but lately I've been wondering if those who resist Trump should worry less about a looming Mussolini and more about standing up to Back to the Future's Biff Tannen, the high school bully who morphed into adulthood with his posse of suck-up friends intact, along with a penchant for handling any situation with a blend of malapropisms and cruel insults.
In pop culture, a bully always melts like the Wicked Witch of the West when someone simply stands up to him. Real life is more complicated. Abusive people, such as bullies, have a knack for taking any type of resistance and spinning that as a hysterical and even unhinged overreaction — in other words, the thing they claim justified the abuse in the first place.
American women looked at Trump — accused of sexual misconduct in well over a dozen incidents — placing the credibly accused Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court and saw an existential threat that caused them to flood Capitol Hill in protest and pour out their angry frustrations to senators in hallways and elevators. The bullies didn't melt. Instead, any protesters were called an "angry mob" by GOP leaders and their TV acolytes and even compared to the tiny far-left fringe group known as "antifa."
In other words, the Back to the Future flicks might have ended very differently if Biff Tannen had the Fox News Channel behind him.
I think the reason the sometimes forgotten majority — folks who believe autocracy would be an unhappy outcome for the American Experiment — have been in such a funk since the Kavanaugh confirmation (in addition to, you know … Kavanaugh) is because the apparent options for stopping Trump seem so daunting. No one wants to say nothing, and have a bully get his way. But fighting back only seems to have energized Trump's base by reminding them how much they hate liberals and the media, and right-wing rage on Nov. 6 may surround Trump with his high school clique on Capitol Hill for two more years.
Hopefully November can still change the equation for the better, but right now old-time politics isn't working. That's why I figured it's time to stop talking political science with the same tired pundits. To stop Trump, you need to know how to stop a bully. I reached out to Jaana Juvonen, UCLA psychology professor, who has written extensively about bullying and harassment in middle schools.
It was Juvonen who — back in 2016 and 2017, when the rest of America was trying to wrap its collective brain around what we'd just done — wrote that Trump showed the classic signs of a narcissist and bully. "Not only does Trump flatly deny almost every accusation leveled against him, but he also claims no personal responsibility for problems," she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. "Instead he blames others, most recently the media and the White House staff. Refusal to accept personal responsibility and a tendency to blame others are indeed trademarks of aggressive children."
Juvonen also has written that bullies can become liked for their assertiveness — especially in an anxious situation, whether that's middle school or the flagging Rust Belt economy — but they aren't truly popular, and their power can wear off. This week, I called the professor in L.A. and asked why The Donald's base has instead stuck with him for nearly two years as president. She said Trump has proven effective in rallying the resentments of his core supporters — white working-class males — but the core may be slowly shrinking. That would certainly explain Trump's shrinking TV ratings that have led even the Fox News Channel to no longer air his rallies in full.
Contrary to the popular myth, Juvonen said, it typically doesn't work for the victims of bullying to fight back using the same tactics, including force. "It just escalates," she said. She said research has shown the people who ultimately tip the scale against a bully are actually the so-called bystanders, those who see bad behavior for what it is — yet tend to do nothing.
"In classic bullying situation, what gives the power to the bully is the bystanders — they stand by and let it happen," Juvonen said. "It's their indifference, or the fact that they didn't object, that allows the bully to feel more powerful." She noted this is a common dynamic in an office sexual-harassment situation, when coworkers see bad behavior but stay silent.
With Trump, Juvonen noted he did actually back away this spring from his family-separation policy at the border — not when immigrants complained but when powerful people around him, including daughter Ivanka and wife Melania, actually said something. (But when the din from official Washington died down, Team Trump started making plans to bring family separation back.)
It's not hard to pick out some of the bystanders in Trump's cowed Washington — the members of Congress in both parties who disapprove of the president's antics but fear they'll be the bully's next target if they dare speak out, or the newspaper editors afraid of pitchforks if they don't interview angry farmers in Trump Country every three or four days. And it's not unfair to ask how long they'll continue to let Biff and his cronies steal other kids' lunch money.
Of course, the media have a particular problem with giving Trump the other thing that Juvonen stressed that bullies truly need: nonstop attention. "That's the only way they're able to get socially rewarded — to get a reaction," she said. That certainly raises the question of what would happen if journalists ignored the most terroristic tweets — like calling ex-mistress Stormy Daniels "horseface," an insult the obsessed president reportedly bounced off his friends for hours before hitting the send button. We may never know. So far, the media have proven too addled by high ratings to attempt such a thing.
We do know America can beat back a bully, because we've done it before. In the early 1950s, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy tormented the body politic for four years with his fake lists of alleged Communists in the U.S. government. Even President Eisenhower, a fellow Republican, would not take him on — until one of the bystanders, an attorney named Joseph Welch, confronted the senator on national TV to ask if he had "no sense of decency, at long last." It took only a few months for Washington's other bystanders, led by revered broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, to join the scrum and end the reign of terror that was McCarthyism.
It's the savvy thing to insist that would never work in 2018 — but have we really tried? How many men stood up and voiced support for our sisters when the president bullied Dr. Ford or other women? There is strength in numbers, and America needs to hear not only from the victimized but from the millions more who are deeply offended by bullying, especially in the Oval Office. Simply put, don't be a bystander. Indeed, when it comes to a 21st-century bully like Donald Trump, Murrow's famous words still echo 64 years later:
He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves." … Good night, and good luck.