Donald Trump’s flagrant bullying — much denounced even by the Republican Party establishment, with both President Bushes refusing to endorse him — is no sign that he will lose the presidential nomination or election. The dirty secret is that GOP leaders secretly admire and envy his power as a bully. Worse, Trump’s bullying resonates not only with his hardcore supporters, but also to many in the elite classes and much of the population.
There has been endless elite and media bemoaning of Trump as a bully. Much of this misses the key point and is hypocritical, for Trump’s bullying is largely a reflection of the establishment’s own bullying and the centrality of bullying in our culture and society.
If we look honestly in the mirror, we will likely see some reflection of Trump.
The mainstream media and party establishments say, “Isn’t it terrible that Trump is such a bully?” Many ordinary people say the same thing. But the truth is that Trump’s bullying is a deep part of US culture. If we look honestly in the mirror, we will likely see some reflection of Trump. This is especially true of the political and media establishments, who present themselves as being civil and anything but bullies.
The inconvenient truth is that bullying is embedded in our culture, our governing elites and our most powerful institutions: the military, the corporation and the state. Whatever our personal values, we all live in a bullying society — militarized capitalism — and must learn to play by its rules.
Many GOP leaders genuinely want to stop Trump. His threats of “riots,” his egging on of supporters to punch out protesters at rallies and the death threats by Trump’s most hardcore followers to wavering Republican delegates represent extreme bullying that is dangerous, because it threatens to expose the disguised bullying built into the Republican Party and the kind of capitalism and militarism it embraces.
The Republican Party’s neoconservative establishment embraces a global militarism that threatens and bullies all nations opposing US interests. And it embraces an unfettered, neoliberal capitalism with few restraints on corporations bullying workers and consumers. But these policies are packaged in moral ideals about preserving freedom and American exceptionalism. High-flown rhetoric hides the underlying GOP establishment’s commitment to institutionalized bullying. Although Trump preaches many of the same values, with a pledge to “make America great again,” he is embarrassingly explicit in his embrace of xenophobia, nativism and even torture.
The nation will be in danger of “Trumpism” until we change the system that the establishment runs.
Trump’s overt bullying threatens not just Republican leaders, but leaders of both party establishments because it draws attention to the subtler bullying that is commonplace within both parties. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton, who could easily be described as the “Pentagon’s favorite Democrat,” is more hawkish than many generals. She favored the war in Iraq, the intervention in Libya, no-fly zones in Syria where Russian planes fly and more ground troops in the Middle East. She bullies domestically when she meets behind closed doors to raise millions of dollars from Wall Street and the oil industry, who need her support for fracking and oil drilling. The companies bully her in return, withdrawing funds if she interferes with their power and profit.
It is crucial to elites that their bullying be disguised as a legitimate practice that serves beneficent purposes. Faith in their rule can be maintained only if most of the population sees national militarism and corporate power not as bullying, but as “moral intervention” in the case of the military, and “protecting the good or efficient operation of the market” in the case of capitalism.
The common wisdom is that Trump’s bullying power is attractive only to his downwardly mobile and authoritarian white working-class male supporters. But when he makes bullying statements or threats toward women, people with disabilities, gay people, people of color, Muslims and whole countries, such as China and Mexico, he is saying what many within the elite — and many ordinary citizens — really think, but are hesitant to say publicly.
There is a great deal of ambivalence in the general public. Many Americans have begun to embrace an anti-bullying culture. This counterculture is particularly strong among groups such as women, LGBTQ people and people of color, who are frequently subject to systemic bullying. And many teachers at all levels of the education system endorse the anti-bullying culture and critique bullying’s authoritarian undertones.
But even these Americans still have to live in the existing system and must abide by its rules. Generals and soldiers alike have to embrace the bullying code of the military, learning to view state violence as “moral heroism.” Likewise, workers and managers seeking to survive and succeed in a corporate culture — and even supervisors in schools — cannot be sentimental about the use and abuse of power. Threats to workers, competitors and colleagues are part of the game, and those who can’t live by bullying often lose out.
Trump’s extreme bullying offends large groups that he targets, but the power he wins and projects is secretly admired by many, even those who would never vote for him. The doublethink of the GOP establishment is present in various forms throughout much of the population. Trump is too extreme for the majority to openly accept, and many will never vote for him. But there is a barely concealed recognition and admiration of how he is openly playing out a hidden code of bullying embedded deep in our culture and our dominant national institutions.
A January 2016 poll of 1,689 working-class voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania by Working America, a labor group, showed that Trump was the favored candidate, getting more support than Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders combined. The reasons were less related to his policies than what one respondent called his “pugnacious personality.”
The nation will be in danger of “Trumpism” until we change the system that the establishment runs. We need to build a new, more democratic economy, end militarism and reject the authoritarianism of a bullying culture. Trumpism is just the visible tip of the bullying that drives our core institutions and culture.
Through his unvarnished bullying, Trump inadvertently begins to reveal the “civil bullying” built into our national institutions and everyday life. When people and pundits ask why such a bully has won so much power and so many votes, it can open up a discussion about the real nature and roots of bullying.
That conversation could be transformative. If led by progressive teachers, media and social movements seeking to end systemic economic and political violence in all forms, it may help transform the nation’s hidden system of bullying.