Standing Up to Bullies
and Saving Democracy
Across the United States, we are facing an epidemic of bullying masquerading as lawmaking. It is an approach to governance, or at least a distorted facsimile of the concept, that is rooted in cruelty. At the national, state, and local levels, we see a toxic brew of bad faith, hypocrisy, and sneering viciousness that is poisoning the wellspring of our democracy.
Instead of tackling this nation’s actual problems and challenges, instead of trying to unite and lift up the populace, instead of tending to the fickle flames of hope, opportunity, and community, we have political actors who use the power and privilege of their positions to debase, troll, and outright attack their fellow citizens. And like most schoolyard bullies, they seek to target, ostracize, and abuse the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society.
The laws they are passing — around “critical race theory,” LGBTQ rights, and now even tenure at state universities — won’t fix broken bridges, lower health care costs, reduce crime, or secure our environment. These purveyors of manufactured outrage don’t even pretend that they care about the myriad issues to which politicians usually pay lip service. For them, the act of proposing and passing legislation is merely another manifestation of an endless political campaign based on culture wars and calibrated — with lethal precision — to stoke the worst instincts of their base.
Bullying is what helped sweep Donald Trump into office. He showed he could smash every norm of polite discourse and not only pay no price, but be rewarded with the presidency. And then he bragged about it, with his signature shamelessness. On his scorched march to the White House, Trump mocked a disabled reporter, attacked the Gold Star parents of a dead soldier, and created juvenile nicknames for his political opponents (and that’s just the beginning of a long and sordid list). He had the cunning and instinct to recognize that if he was always on the attack, he could dominate news cycles. The more outrageous he acted, the more he obliterated the boundaries of what was once considered “acceptable,” and the more attention he attracted.
It would be giving Trump too much credit to say he was the first politician to weaponize cruelty. This is, after all, the playbook of autocrats and dictators the world over. American history is also full of examples of politicians rising to power by fomenting division. Our fitful journey to becoming a multiethnic, multiracial, multicultural democracy illustrates that the diversity of our populace has often provided fodder for those who recognize that there can be great advantage in playing to fear. Sadly, some version of “us” and “them” is too often a winning campaign strategy.
All that being said, I think there is something different about this moment. Where once politicians at least pretended that their objective was service to the people, many now spend most of their time tending to the bile of their Twitter feeds or ratcheting up the hateful rhetoric on right-wing media. All pretext for civility is gone. For many, there is little to no interest in going through even a pantomime of governing. It’s a circus of the absurd, with twirling stunts and carnival barkers who seek roars of approval as they distract, disgust, and dishonor.
One of the hallmarks of bullies is that they appear to possess all the power. They are usually stronger physically, or more popular, or wealthier than the people they pick on. They find and exploit the weakness and insecurities of their targets. But another hallmark is that they are often cowardly and insecure. The only way they know how to feel better about themselves is to make others feel worse. They go after those they perceive as weak, because they themselves are weak.
I have found that it’s not just in the movies or books that bullies can’t take a punch; it’s true in real life, as well. They hope that they can be so fearsome that no one tests whether the only thing there is to fear is fear itself. Now, we must be clear. Few emerge from a fight unscathed. Bullies can cause a lot of damage even when they are defeated. But the lesson is that they can be beaten.
I would submit that we are witnessing this dynamic in the war in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is the epitome of a bully. And he came to believe the mythologies he told himself. Having bombed Chechnya and Syria into submission, he felt he could amass an awesome display of military strength, and Ukraine would cower in fear. He believed that NATO would appease him once more. He figured he was so tough that he would win by everyone else just letting him. Obviously he misjudged, on an epic scale.
We are far enough into this war that the conventional wisdom has been completely rewritten. But let’s try to go back to the early days. The consensus among much of the Western military establishment was that Putin would be doing a lot better than he is. Many expected Kyiv to fall, or at least to descend into brutal urban conflict. Almost no one expected that Russia would still lack air supremacy. Almost no one predicted the Russians would be so outmaneuvered and so inept in their planning and execution. Almost no one, except the Ukrainians.
The defense of Ukraine has come at a horrific cost to those who live there. The atrocities perpetrated by the Russian forces are sickening. They represent more than just the hell of war; they are war crimes. They include murder, terrorism, and probably genocide. And the Russians may yet prevail.
But in their courageous fight for their homeland, the Ukrainians are showing the world once again that bullies can be pushed back, even when they seem to have a preponderance of power. And that some fights are worth undertaking even if you are beaten. If you fight the right fight for a worthwhile reason, you can be beaten but never defeated.
What happens when we view our politics through this lens? I believe that the vast majority of Americans do not like bullies. That aversion is a big part of why Donald Trump was walloped in the popular vote in 2020, even losing states like Georgia and Arizona. His brand among the public as a whole was largely toxic, because he is toxic. And Republican leaders know it.
What they want is to have it both ways. They can play the bully to please the base and hope that the rest of the electorate looks the other way, preoccupied by inflation, COVID, and the war in Ukraine. If the trendlines of most midterm elections hold, Republicans figure they can win up and down the ballot merely by not belonging to the president's party.
But what if those who oppose these contemptuous tactics were to loudly and unequivocally call out the bullying, and the bullies? What if politicians, the press, and good and decent people across the country were to, at least rhetorically, punch back? What if the upcoming election focused on the fact that Trump's outrages have now infected large swaths of the Republican Party? Can we imagine what that might look like? Would it galvanize voters? Would it inject energy into the fight for the soul of America?
I subscribe to the maxim that it is better to show than tell. So today, I leave you with three video clips of politicians condemning the bullying in clear, unambiguous terms. Perhaps you have seen one or all of these; judging by the millions of views they have received, that is likely. Nonetheless, they are worth watching again.
This speech by Michigan state senator Mallory McMorrow has gone viral for a reason. It is an eloquent, unapologetic, and forceful rebuttal to the actions of a fellow state lawmaker — and an impassioned plea for decency.
Here, an openly gay Missouri state representative, Ian Mackey, addresses the real-world impact of a bill to ban trans girls from playing on female sports teams.
And in the U.S. Senate, Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz shined a necessary spotlight on the outrageous hypocrisy of Missouri Senator Josh Hawley.
These are the voices of conscience and outrage. This is a clarion call of “we have had enough.” This is standing up and pushing back. This is how bullies who have overreached end up losing, maybe not in the short run, but eventually, if enough people say this is not who we are and certainly not who we want to be.