President Donald Trump pushed back after Joe Biden called him a bully last month: “I don’t think I’m a bully at all.”
It is interesting that Trump hasn’t defended himself from the bully accusation sooner. After all, he’s been labeled a bully for years, and he isn’t a man who ignores attacks. The Washington Post once dubbed him “Bully-in-Chief.” Even social scientists have joined in the bully allegations. A widely publicized study blamed Trump for a rise in bullying among American children.
The Talmud teaches that silence is equivalent to admission of guilt. Thus, we may have thought Trump agrees he’s a bully. Now we know that he doesn’t.
Can Trump not see the obvious?
But how is that possible? Can our President really be blind to what everyone else sees so clearly? Or is he simply lying?
There is no reason to believe Trump is lying. And the reason is simple. It’s not just Trump. None of us think we are bullies.
Everywhere there is freedom of speech, the national leader is the most criticized, insulted individual in the country. With the United States being the most powerful nation, our Presidents are often the most vilified persons on the planet.
Trump’s un-presidential behavior has made him an especially attractive target. The news and entertainment media pummel and ridicule him ceaselessly and the public relishes the negativity and ramps it up with their own contributions. Even President Obama, a model of calm and civility, was no stranger to this phenomenon.
Who is engaging in this malevolence if not you and I? We all have our favorite targets of ridicule and loathing. Yet none of us think that we are bullies. We believe that those we put down deserve it.
Joe Biden doesn't think he’s a bully either. He announced with bravado,
“I’m looking forward to this man [Trump]. You walk behind me in a debate, come here, man. You know me too well. The idea that I’d be intimidated by Donald Trump? He’s the bully that I knew my whole life. He’s the bully that I’ve always stood up to. He’s the bully who used to make fun when I would stutter, and I smacked him in the mouth.”
No, Biden only sees those he punched in the kisser as the bullies.
More surprisingly Adolf Hitler, evil personified, didn’t think that he was a bully. He wrote in Mein Kampf:
“Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: 'by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.'”
“Cognitive dissonance”, a term coined by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957, describes our amazing ability to justify our own bad behavior while blaming others. An excellent book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aaronson, is dedicated to cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy.
Jonathan Haidt, who has deservedly become one of the world’s most influential psychologists, makes the same case in a chapter titled “The Faults of Others” in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, as does psychologist Richard Smith in The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature.
Anyone who has worked in a professional capacity with people in conflict has discovered that each side is convinced they are the good guy and the other is the bad guy. If we want to help people, we must see the problem from their point of view. If we accuse them of being the bad guy, they are likely to turn against us and stop treatment.
These simple truths, though, have been upended by bullying psychology, which demands that we identify people as good (the victims) and bad (the bullies).
A scientific definition of bullying has three elements: (1) intention to cause pain or harm; (2) repetition; and (3) a power imbalance.
This describes the behavior of cowardly psychopaths, people who routinely seek pleasure by hurting weaker people. That is precisely what we mean when we call someone a bully, whether it’s Trump or a school kid.
Labeling people bullies precludes us from seeing them as complex human beings. We ascribe all of their behavior to a desire to inflict pain on weaker people. A prime example is an article by a Washington Post columnist, “Above All Else, Trump is a Bully”, attributing all of Trump’s policies to a primordial drive to trample on weak people.
There is no scarcity of legitimate reasons to criticize President Trump. However, anyone who thinks that he sought the Presidency to obtain a throne from which he can enjoy hurting the weak and innocent is not only deluding himself, but also engaging in the same character assassination–bullying–for which they condemn him. What worse insult can there be than “cowardly psychopath”?
Labeling people bullies makes us think they are evil, but it turns us into the evil ones.
Trump’s true motivation
So if Trump’s motivation is not the simple pleasure of hurting those weaker than himself, then what is it? He spelled it out clearly in his response to Biden:
“I don’t think I’m a bully at all. I just don’t like being taken advantage of by other countries, by pharmaceutical companies, by all of the people that have taken advantage of this country.”
In other words, he doesn’t want to be a victim, and he is fighting on our behalf against the true bullies of the world. He could be totally wrong in his assessments and policies. But as President he wants to be a protector of victims, not a bully.
Likewise, Joe Biden doesn’t think he’s a bully when he publicly taunts Trump and compares him to the kids he punched in the mouth. He sees himself as a hero standing up to the big bully in the White House.
Not even Hitler saw himself as a bully. The Jews were the real bullies from whom he was saving the world.
Nor do you and I think we are bullies when we insult Trump or Obama or whoever we disapprove of. They are the bad guys and they deserve our abuse.
The doomed anti-bullying movement
The goal of the anti-bullying movement is to convince us all to stop bullying or tolerating bullying. Unfortunately, the message falls on deaf ears because hardly anyone believes that they are bullies.
So, rather than getting us to take responsibility for our own nasty behavior, bullying awareness campaigns have solidified our conviction that we are the good guys and others are the evil bullies who need to change, and has provided us with a scientifically sanctioned insult with which to attack our opponents.
The great 18th Century literary critic and observer of human nature, Samuel Johnson, wrote:
“…he who hath so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition, will waste his life in fruitless efforts and multiply the grief he proposes to remove.”
And that’s why, after two decades of anti-bully campaigning, the bullying problem is just as intense and intractable as ever.
Izzy Kalman is the author and creator of the website Bullies2Buddies.com and a critic of the anti-bully movement.