Is President Trump a bully? It certainly seems that he fits the definition of a bully as someone who uses superior strength and/or influence to harm or intimidate others. However, unlike your average school-age bully or your typical adult bully, President Trump does not hide in the shadows to avoid detection. Instead, he flaunts his bullying, putting it on public display and, with the help of the media and the vagaries of human attention, turning it into a controversial spectacle.
Rather than adjusting to his high office President Trump seems at present at least to be more intent on reshaping the office to fit him. For the most part, he continues to act as he did as a business man and as an unconventional presidential candidate, who against all odds won a surprising victory, the run up to which featured bullying and back biting antics that he used to scorch his rivals. Think of Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz -- and more recently think of news anchors Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough.
By engaging in sporadic displays of audacious conduct, the President seems to show little if any respect for the breath-taking accomplishments of many of his worthy predecessors, most notable among whom are the Founding Fathers, who served at the birth of our nation, and President Abraham Lincoln, who served at its re-birth and expanded the reach of freedom and justice to those previously bound in slavery.
It might benefit President Trump to absorb the spirit and meaning of Lincoln's second inaugural address, which was delivered at the end of the Civil War and just prior to his tragic assassination. In that speech, President Lincoln exhorted both sides to set aside their animosities and with "malice toward none" to work toward rebuilding a nation on new and expanded meanings of equality, mutual respect, and justice for all. It is incumbent on those who have followed Lincoln and the Founding Fathers into the highest office in the land to uphold and further broaden those values through word and action.
President Trump is not the first to have stumbled while in office, but he may be the first who seems to have dropped significantly below the norm through the deliberate and gleeful use of thuggish strong-armed-tactics that are not only inconsistent with the traditions of his office but also out of step with his role as an exemplar to our nation's children and youth. There can also be little doubt that by his on-going use of bullying tactics he is making it more difficult for parents and teachers to socialize children in keeping with such principles as cooperation, respect, fairness and civility.
So far the public reaction has been divided between President Trump's fervent supporters and his outraged foes. On the one hand, his supporters, acting largely out of a combination of vicarious and sycophantic reasons, cheer him on and hail him as the first "genuine" or "real" president. On the other hand, his critics often use a mix of righteous indignation and sarcasm in an effort to condemn his actions as egregious violations of basic moral codes and social values wildly out of step with the Office of the Presidency. At their worst, however, his critics sometimes veer off into reactive bullying, engaging in name-calling and denigration, which, in turn, gives the President a lame excuse to continue his bullying as a form of retribution or justifiable "fighting back."
Paradoxically, President Trump appears to be playing both to his supporters and his critics. The reason is that he wants both groups to pay attention to him. His tweets, particularly his tweets at dawn, are intended to attract both the adulation of his fans and the condemnation of his foes. Either way he wins. He wins big when both sides react.
Regardless of its source or type, attention seems to satisfy two basic human wants. In the first place, clinical experience teaches that it validates our somewhat fragile sense of personal self. Deprived of attention we feel like we exist as objects, but we wonder whether or not we exist as individuals with specific identities. To feel comfortable in our own skins, we need to know that others, especially significant others, are thinking about us. By dominating the news cycle and as the center of public attention, the President is reminded that he exists at the top of the heap -- for now.
In the second place, attention also empowers us to repeat actions that elicit it from others. With respect to the President, he seems to want a reaction, and public attention confirms that he has done something shocking or disruptive enough to be noteworthy -- something that has placed him at the center of the minds of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people worldwide.
It is simply part of human nature to give maximal attention to events or other stimuli that violate our expectations. This automatic startle response served the survival of our remote ancestors. Today it seems too often to make us vulnerable to the machinations of media savvy persons who seek notoriety by continually "stretching the envelope." Startled, we look. Then often, as curiosity takes over, we get sucked in. The President has figured out that by behaving contrary to conventional standards in front of TV cameras or on social media he can capture large quantities of our collective attention. Moreover, he can project an image that he is both his own boss and a master manipulator who has outsmarted and befuddled panels of political, social and media experts.
If they truly want to be effective and decrease the President's anti-social behavior or non-Presidential actions while increasing pro-social actions and Presidential decorum, his critics need to re-think how they distribute their attention. Of course, Presidents can be voted out of office, but in the meantime a change in the public response of his critics may be in order. Rather than focusing on his bullying behavior, which only serves to reinforce the President's existence and empowers him to do more bullying, his critics need to largely ignore his offensive conduct and only or mainly give him attention when he behaves in keeping with the dignity and responsibilities of his office. The President wants or needs his critics as much as he wants his supporters. He is likely to be sensitive to any sizeable reduction in the attention he is used to getting.
While this recommendation to change the President's behavior through the re-distribution of attention may seem simple, it can be highly effective. Shunning is known to be an effective means for bringing about conformity in unruly individuals, especially when it is linked to a compassionate response to a repentant rebel. Let me also note that a "time out" for misbehavior is useful in socializing children. Hey, it might work on an aging President who sometimes acts like a petulant child. To maximize the success of this effort, it would help tremendously if news outlets, both print and electronic, drastically reduced the amount of attention given to Presidential bullying and increase the time and space allocated to reporting on behaviors in keeping with the venerable traditions of his office. It is time to get smart about how we use attention as individuals and in the print, electronic and social media. The reputation of our nation and the welfare of our children may be at stake. Are you listening David Books, Frank Bruni, Lester Holt, Anderson Cooper, Charlie Rose?
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