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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 2/3/21

Good morning!


We are living in the age of bullying. While physical intimidation, like that experienced at the Capitol and by voters at polling places, is a big issue, I’m mostly worried about the psychological kind. The kind that made Donald Trump’s opponents cave during the primaries. The kind that makes people like Kevin McCarthy fly to Mar-a-Lago to abase himself for fear of attack.


IT FEELS LIKE WE ARE STILL IN MIDDLE SCHOOL


I’ve been concerned for some time that Congress feels more like a middle school student council than a great deliberative body. Obstruction seems to be the role of the “loyal opposition.” No longer is there negotiation; rather, it’s an “all or nothing” environment and where the exercise of power seems to take precedence over the nation’s interests. Sadly, too many politicians get elected and then act like high schoolers. Or maybe they act like high schoolers to get attention and get elected.


Another behavior modeled in middle school is bullying. Once children learn to “use their words,” they move from physical to verbal bullying. As with physical bullying, these bullies tend to isolate a victim, while other students fearing similar abuse cower in silence. Psychology Today lists three ways high schoolers bully another (beyond physical bullying), ways mirrored by adults in the public sphere and on-line: “verbal,” “relational,” and “cyber” bullying.


High school bullies eventually learn either to modify their behavior or become irrelevant; in the public sphere, however, there does not seem to be a similar imperative to change. Adult bullies are given platforms (whether in Congressional “debate,” on the Internet, on cable news or via direct mail) to say anything they wish about an adversary, often without consequence. Sometimes I think the more outrageous and insulting the speaker, the more likely they are to get more airtime.


The lack of push-back against bullies creates an alternative reality. Once said over and over, their bullying assertions become “sticky” and these assertions increasingly are seen as one of many “truths” in the public square. Sadly, the Republican party has given every indication this past week that they will not break from Mr. Trump, for fear of his bullying…!


HOW IT PLAYED OUT IN 2016


1. Verbal bullying. Mr. Trump was a master at this. As Eliot A. Cohen noted in the Atlantic, “Trump…has, as authoritarians often do, a feral sense for weakness. Hence his usually spot-on dismissive nicknames for his opponents in 2016.” Can anyone look at Ted Cruz the same after watching him prostrate himself to gain President Trump’s support after President Trump said his father was complicit in JFK’s murder and then calling his wife ugly? Cruz prioritized maintaining power over self-respect. This shameful capitulation has played out in repeated acts of self-abasement and selling out, reaching a pinnacle in his shameless displays in the Senate over the past few weeks.


2. Relational bullying: In high school, bullies use the threat of friendship termination to hurt others. Who doesn’t remember (and love!) the movie Mean Girls?! Because relational bullying happens within the context of a friendship, it is particularly painful and often surprising. Look at how President Trump treated Jeff Sessions, his earliest and most helpful friend and supporter. Not satisfied with forcing Senator Sessions from his cabinet role, Mr. Trump sent word to all his friends on-line by going all-in, pushing Sessions out of politics altogether. A particularly insidious manifestation of this is the “excommunication” of those supporters who try to exercise independent thought or diverge from the Trump narrative. Note the constant reference to people as “RINOs” (Republicans in name only) and the excoriation of election officials or legislators who would not go along with the false allegations of fraud and his desire to “stop the steal.” As the unravelling of the Trump presidency continued, he jettisoned many other dependable allies, including throwing the loyal Mike Pence under the bus.


3. Cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is especially challenging because how easily cruel and often false messages can spread. While there are too many examples to cite, Mr. Trump was the master at being a bully on-line. Cyberbullying continues to be rampant and abusive phenomenon that doesn’t seem to be abating. While there are fringe elements that have no problem saying anything to anyone in public, social media has afforded overwise reasonably rational people the opportunity to rant and rave at a computer screen, rather than directly at a person. The rules of polite engagement that one adheres to in direct contact (whether in person or via phone) is lost on social media platforms and it’s Katy-bar-the-door-crazy.


President Trump has been banned from Twitter and Facebook, albeit likely temporarily and a little too late. While his banishment was based primarily on his clear incitement of violence last month, he has been rallying violent conspiracy theorists like QAnon for some time. These people continue to aggressively attack those debunking their theories.


Mr. Trump may be the most visible and most ruthless of the cyberbullies, but he is by no means the only one. Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms are hotbeds of name calling, public shaming and bullying. It is a tragic byproduct of the times we live in and an amplifier of some of the worst voices. The multiplier effect of posting falsehoods and bullying on these platforms, without consequence, suggests that it is time to rein them in.


ARE MANY ON-LINE BULLIES REALLY THE INSTRUMENT OF OTHER BULLIES?


Psychology Today did not address another type of bullying, one I would call “proxy bullying.” Deep down, I suspect many people secretly yearn to lash out and attack others—to bully those they think are “lesser” and to humiliate perceived adversaries. They derive pleasure—self worth—from the attacks on others. When Mr. Trump says something awful, they are emboldened, “liking” his tweets (when he made them), and republishing, accentuating, and acting upon his rantings. Eliot A. Cohen wrote about this bullying and how it attracts traction in the November 15 issue of The Atlantic:


“It’s not just that Trump learned how to use television cameras to his advantage while doing The Apprentice. He also learned (or maybe intuited) the diction, grimaces, japes, chippy belligerence, and malicious wit that millions of Americans have yearned to display on a public stage but could not. He flipped the middle finger at cultural elites, overly sensitive liberals, woke activists, patronizing professors, and condescending atheists, and people loved it, wishing only that they could do the same. He knew how to dabble in race-baiting without quite ever going full George Wallace. He had the great skill of propounding absurd or evil things and adding “It’s what I’ve heard” or “People are saying,” so that there was always enough room for TheWall Street Journals editorial page to sigh wearily rather than face up to what his words meant.”


SHOWS WITH GREAT LANGUAGE


A couple of weeks ago I discussed the expressive language of the great August Wilson in his “Pittsburgh Cycle” of plays highlighting the 20th century Black experience in America. Often it is through words and posturing, more than plot, that can keep us at the edge of our seats.


If you love the interplay of people in ordinary circumstances confronting complex issues in thoughtfully scripted dialog and monologue, look no further than David Mamet. And of his great plays, including Oleanna and American Buffalo, his greatest has to be Glengarry Glen Ross. Set in a New York “boiler room” real estate sales office, it is a study in capitalism, sales, lost dreams, and loneliness. The all-star cast includes Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, and Kevin Spacey. It’s delicious and quotable. “Put that coffee down. Coffee is for closers…”


For a television version of Shakespearean dialog, try Deadwood on HBO. It remains one of my favorite pieces of television ever, beautifully written and phenomenally acted. Set in the town of Deadwood as it starts out as a mining camp, we witness its evolution a full-blown town, with telephones and electricity. It is as good as television gets. It’s right up there with the Sopranos, the Wire, and Breaking Bad. And as opposed to many series, it isn’t too many seasons (there are only three immersive seasons). And then, as opposed to the various satisfying and unsatisfying endings that either don’t provide resolution or stay true to the show’s essence, this one actually ends with a fitting denouement, in the form of a brilliant movie that ties up loose ends and shows us the evolution of the town and the characters ten years later.


Stay safe,


Glenn

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