I get a knot in the pit of my stomach when I listen to the current occupant of the White House. The rambling incoherence is bad enough, but I really get dispirited from the taunting and the belittling and the name calling. And from the way his loyal followers and trusted advisers stand behind him and give him encouragement. It’s so ugly. So familiar. It evokes such visceral images of high school that I can practically feel the acne erupting.
If you mentally superimpose an image of a school cafeteria behind him when he speaks, Trump’s behavior becomes crystal clear: The school bully, emboldened by his minions standing behind him. They snigger when he mocks the kid with the disability. The pretty girlfriend at his side smiles her bloodless smile when he calls the smart girl names. They all laugh when he cracks a joke at someone else’s expense. They whoop and encourage him.
Around them, the other kids stand uncomfortably, looking down at their shoes, not wanting to say anything, because then the attacks will surely be turned on them. Better to stay quiet and safe. Out of the line of fire.
The bully isn’t the popular kid. No one actually likes him. But there will always be those kids who are broken enough inside that they’re willing to latch onto him. Sad, lonely, unhappy people who find a sense of belonging with other sad, lonely, unhappy people. They like the security that comes from being part of his crowd. And the bully draws his power from the ugliness that they feed back to him, like some perverse super-villain. Without them, his power would vanish.
Trump is the consummate bully. You know that. We’ve been watching him do it for years now: The mocking. The mimicking. The vague incitements to violence. The nasty, demeaning nicknames: Little Marco Rubio. Low-energy Jeb. Little Rocket Man. Crooked Hillary. Pocahontas.
Trump belittles, taunts, teases, and the people who surround him lap it up. At rallies and press conferences, they chuckle and sneer. They laugh. They chant. They pile on. His loyal MAGA minions turn instantly on any victim the moment Trump singles someone out. They betray their own values without a moment’s hesitation. The very people who for years screamed “Support Our Troops!” now giddily disrespect war heroes and Gold Star families and our military’s leaders. His millions of Twitter followers descend on anyone, like vultures on carrion, pick pick picking. Devouring. Destroying.
They’ll turn on their own mothers if he tells them to. When he tells them to.
The most painful part about watching the bully ply his trade is the intense feeling of helplessness that arises in me. There’s no way to fight back. He flings everything you say right back at you. You can’t argue: there’s no logic in his taunts to argue against. You can’t shame him: he has no shame. By definition, he has all the power. Or in this case, the nuclear launch codes.
And the more his victims fight back, the worse the bullying gets. Like a Chinese finger puzzle, the more you struggle, the more it tightens around you.
Elizabeth Warren tried to fight back. She took the bait. She had the DNA test. It blew up in her face. You can’t fight back against a bully.
Sadly, the Bully-in-Chief has spawned a generation in his own image. Don Jr. has penned an entire book of bullying snark, “a high-pitched rant against American liberals.” Clearly, he’s learned at the master’s knee.
And now, the latest Trump bully to hit the news cycle is Lara, wife of The Other Son, Eric. In a speech at a Trump event in Iowa she said “I feel kind of sad for Biden … every time they turn to him I’m like, ‘Joe can you get it out? Let’s get the words out Joe.’”
Many people took the comment to be a poke at Biden’s childhood problem with stuttering. Of course, Lara denied the implication (“What? Who me? Never!”). She says that she didn’t know that he’d been a stutterer and was just commenting about his general lack of fluency. (The irony that anyone in the Trump camp should criticize someone else’s ineloquence is just too rich). And quite honestly, I doubt that Lara or any of the other Trumps actually have any factual knowledge about any of their opponents. They’re simply too busy chasing debunked conspiracies.
But one person who did take her comment as an attack against the former Vice-president’s problem with stuttering was Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. You may remember him as the airline pilot who heroically landed his plane on the Hudson River, saving all 155 people on board. You see, Sully stuttered as a child. And he knows a bully when he sees one.
In a column for the NY Times, Captain Sullenberger took Lara Trump to task, telling her to “Stop. Grow up. Show some decency. People who can’t, have no place in public life.” He then went on to say:
“So, to every child who feels today, what I felt, after hearing those cruel remarks by an adult who should know better, here is what I want you to know: You are fine, just as you are. You can do any job you dream of when you grow up. You can be a pilot who lands your plane on a river and helps save lives, or a president who treats people with respect, rather than making fun of them. You can become a teacher to kids who stutter. A speech disorder is a lot easier to treat than a character defect. You become a true leader, not because of how you speak, but because of what you have to say — and the challenges you have overcome to help others. Ignore kids (and adults) who are mean, or don’t know what it feels like to stutter. Respond by showing them how to be kind, polite, respectful and generous, to be brave enough to try big things, even though you are not perfect.”
Captain Sullenberger’s words to children, their parents, and every person who struggles with their human imperfections reminded me that, although you can’t fight against a bully, you can nevertheless win. And you do that not by railing at the bully, but by turning a helping hand to the vulnerable. By encouraging and lifting up others rather than tearing them down. By remaining decent, embracing your humanity, and striving to live your own best life every day.