While it is true that we find ourselves caught in a sadomasochistic conundrum having to do with the desire to neither suffer nor inflict upon others any real consideration of Donald Trump, the fact is that he is the Republican presidential frontrunner and nobody really understands why. Then again, perhaps part of our confusion is a seemingly contradictory, perhaps paradoxical need for some pretense of civility. That is to say, “Republicans are idiots”, or, “Conservatives are assholes”, just doesn’t suffice.
Jesse Singal of New York magazine’s Science of Us blog opens with the obvious statement: “It is clear at this point that Donald Trump acts more like a bully than a ‘traditional’ presidential candidate.”
And then there are those of us who wonder what part of being a Republican in the twenty-first century doesn’t involve a bully cult.
Part of what’s been strange about the trajectory of the campaign so far is that Trump hasn’t been punished, in any real sense, for engaging in the sort of behavior that almost everyone agrees is terrible in any setting. Yes, each gross incident is followed by a wave of denunciations, but they don’t seem to have an impact — if anything, Trump seems to be gaining popularity by bullying. He’s now the first GOP candidate to break 30 percent in the polls. Even non-supporters — the media very much included — seem more transfixed than indignant.
This isn’t an unusual dynamic in many real-world bullying settings. So examining Trump’s behavior through the lens of bullying research can offer up some insights into how he has been so successful so far, and why his rivals have been unable to knock him down a peg. Jaana Juvonen, a psychologist at UCLA who is the co-author of a recent literature review and an upcoming book chapter about bullying, said that Trump seems to tick many of the requisite boxes when it comes to how bullies act. “Not that bullies are a uniform, homogeneous group, but the sort of classic bully is one who is narcissistic, is after power, often charismatic, and therefore popular,” she said. Check, check, check, and check. But she said there’s an “important and interesting” distinction between being popular and being liked — many bullies may have high status in that their classmates rate them as popular, Juvonen explained, but when individual students are asked if they’d like to spend time with the bully, they respond with resounding nos. This dynamic might help explain some of the personnel shuffling and general chaos that went on in the early days of Trump’s campaign.
To the one, there isn’t anything particularly new about the analysis; the Trump effect remains mysterious. In the end, it is easy enough to find oneself still wondering why so many people admire bullies.
Nonetheless, and setting Mr. Trump aside for a moment―for a lifetime, if we could―we might consider part of the bully phenomenon in and of itself:
“They feel like they’re going to be the next target,” Juvonen said of bystanders and victims in bullying situations. “They don’t want to further risk their status or make themselves more vulnerable, so they know to stay quiet. But then the bully has further promoted his status, because nobody is now publicly coming out to say, ‘Wait a minute, this is not right what you’re doing’ … that’s why you need a coalition, you need a united force.” As of yet, that united force hasn’t quite emerged in the GOP primary. The bully is still shoving and screaming his way across the playground, and the teachers are nowhere in sight.
Practicality is one thing, but let’s face it: There really isn’t a bad time to stand up to bullies. If The Donald can take that away from us, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.
Image note: Donald Trump shows an angry face, in undated, uncredited photograph.
Singal, Jesse. “An Expert on Bullying Explains Donald Trump’s Mean, Consequence-Free Rise”. Science of Us. 10 September 2015.