Donald Trump is revealing inconvenient truths about bullying and American culture.
Adult bullies shape bullying by kids. Political leaders and major national institutions encourage bullying values. Despite the anti-bullying programs in schools, and the controversy about his own bullying, Trump’s success shows how deeply bullying influences kids and resonates among major sectors of the general adult public.
According to a major 2016 survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), teachers across the U.S. are reporting an alarming rise in bullying by school children against Latinos, Blacks, Muslims and other groups targeted by Donald Trump. Teachers say the bullies “seem emboldened” by Trump to taunt and insult while the bullied kids are terrified that they will be walled off, deported, or even killed.
The SPLC study did interviews with 2000 teachers. They received 1000 comments reporting heightened incidents of bullying explicitly in response to Trump’s rhetoric.
In New Hampshire, one high school teacher wrote that “A lot of students think we should kill any and all people we do not agree with. They also think that all Muslims … want to kill us.”
A Wisconsin middle school teacher wrote that “At the all-white school where I teach, ‘dirty Mexican’ has become a common insult … Before election season it was never heard.”
A Michigan junior high teacher reported at a school assembly on bullying: “I had students tell me it [insults, name-calling, trash talk] isn’t bullying, they’re just ‘telling it like it is.’”
The SPLC reports that Trump’s rhetoric and policy are threatening to undermine the effort by psychologists, social workers and teachers to create an anti-bullying culture in schools. This partly reflects truths about bullying that psychological analysis has obscured.
Psychologists see bullying as a part of childhood development and a mental health problem. Trumpism is revealing the limitations of this view. Much bullying by kids is copied from an adult world plagued by adult and institutional bullying. Trump shows that when powerful adults bully, kids follow their lead.
It is not just kids who follow. Think of Trump supporters at rallies and even his opponents who sucker-punch or threaten partisans on the other side. Some send death threats to local party leaders or convention delegates. These are not kids but adults who feel empowered by leaders to carry out bullying in the streets and party caucuses.
Many politicians bully, but Trump is super-charging certain dangerous norms of politics as an institution, normalizing severe bullying by political leaders and parties, with bullying ramifications in the economy and foreign policy.
But why is there a public resonance to bullying that helped Trump rise in the first place? Part of the answer is that many people learned long before Trump’s political ascendancy to accept the bullying values and behavior helping shape our national culture.
Trump exposes the reality that institutions and entire nations bully.
Studies of workplace bullying show the ways in which corporations bully rivals, workers, consumers and community. Corporations threaten uppity workers with layoffs and pay cuts. Corporate bullying has always existed but globalization, neoliberal trade deals and technology have ratcheted up its scale. U.S. bullied workers are finally reacting strongly, voting against corporate trade deals denounced by both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. British workers, bullied by austerity policies of the ruling Tories, voted for Brexit, or leaving Europe.
But workers in both the U.S. and UK are also reacting by bullying immigrants and other racial or ethnic scapegoats. This protects the big corporations and banks – and their political handmaidens – who are their true bullies and have orchestrated the scapegoating.
Powerful nations have always bullied weaker ones. The Roman and British Empires were paradigms of military bullying. Much like these earlier imperial powers, the U.S. as global superpower has policed and bullied its client states and its enemies. It harshly bullies recruits, starting in boot camp, and spreads bullying values in military sponsored-programs in schools, sports, and communities.
Institutionalized racism and sexism, historically embedded in major U.S. institutions, and now especially rampant in prisons and the police as well as in many financial and mortgage companies on Wall Street, also sustains bullying values and behavior.
Trump is thus both promoting and reinforcing bullying in a “bully nation.”
Trump did not create our bully nation. He is the product of it, and especially, of the corporate and militarized political culture, and the dog-whistle racism, that the Republican establishment has intensified since the Reagan revolution.
The GOP establishment is struggling to undo Trump because he exposes so nakedly their own biases. Hillary Clinton may stop Trump but it will take strong grassroots movements seeking to transform militarized capitalism to move beyond our bullying culture.
The astonishing appeal of Bernie Sanders as a self-identified democratic socialist suggests this is not a pipe dream. The Sanders’ millennial legions could mark a generational turning point ending the primacy of bullying values, moving us toward a new politics of equality, non-violence, and healing of ourselves and the earth.
Derber is co-author, with Yale Magrass, of the new book, Bully Nation: How the American Establishment Is Creating A Bully Society. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore.