“When I was a kid, somebody would have pasted that S.O.B. right in the mouth.”
My 11-year-old son visibly recoiled when I said it. He edged closer to the passenger door and shot me a look as if I had just blasted my way out of a biker bar in Waco.
Sure, he was as disgusted as I was by the steady stream of vile, hateful, crude, misogynistic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-almost-everybody sewage that was pumping out of the radio in my truck at a thousand gallons a minute, the latest mash-up of Donald Trump’s greatest hits as compiled and released by his breathless enablers in the media.
But what really got to my son was the idea that his old man would even consider resorting to violence as a response to bullying. The very notion of it was anathema to him. That’s when it dawned on me that, at the age of 11, an age by which I had already honed my technique through countless schoolyard dust-ups, my son had never thrown a punch or taken one.
To tell you the truth, I was a bit torn by that realization.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some crotchety old pug itching to unfasten some guy’s jaw. It’s been more than 30 years since I last threw a punch. Sure, I’ll go to my grave relishing the look on the face of a guy who picked a fight with me outside the McDonald’s on Washington Street in Hoboken, just because he was in a bad mood and I was a head shorter than he was and a stone lighter. The memory of him crumpling to the sidewalk remains a pleasant one. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve had any real desire to deck anyone since, at least not until Trump came along.
Meanwhile, I am sincerely thrilled that my boy is growing up in a world where a right to speak your mind is valued a lot more than the ability to throw a solid right to the gut, where violence is not the first, or second, or even fifth reaction to a foul-mouthed lout.
But at my desk later that night, as I pondered my son’s reaction, I couldn’t help but wonder whether in our long slog from the swamps toward a more tolerant, less violent culture, we’ve lost something valuable: the willingness and the ability to nip a nascent bully in the bud.
I’m pushing 60. And maybe at my advanced age, my memory is starting to play tricks on me. But the way I remember it, when I was my son’s age, if a guy — any guy — had said what Donald Trump routinely says about women, the handicapped, and his own daughter, the nearest gentleman would have clocked him right in his flabby marmalade jaw.
It wouldn’t necessarily have been out of anger. It might not even have meant the gentleman disagreed with the overall thrust of Trump’s arguments, such as they are. Plenty of men in the “good old days” were just as bigoted, authoritarian, and misogynistic as Trump is today. But they hailed from a time when there were certain rules of public behavior, and it was incumbent upon a gentleman to make sure that those rules were observed, sometimes aggressively.
Those rules were enforced from childhood. I remember being no more than 8 and being taught that a bully was just a weakling playing tough. My sainted Irish mother taught me to confront them whenever necessary. “And make sure,” she used to say, “that he finds himself picking up his teeth with a broken arm.”
I’ve never told my son that. I’ve never taught him, as my father did when I was just Liam’s age, to keep your thumb outside your clenched fist so you don’t risk breaking it on the first punch. Neither Liam nor I live in a world where a good punch well-thrown is particularly valued.
There are a few exceptions. Just last week, for example, a restaurant owner rewarded Texas Rangers second-baseman Rougned Odor with smoked meats for life after he delivered a beautifully executed and well deserved fist in the jaw to the Blue Jays’ Jose “Bat-Flip” Bautista in front of a few thousand approving Texans.
But Rougie didn’t grow up in America. He grew up in Venezuela, where, even if macho sometimes runs amok, there is still an appreciation for the lost art of standing up to punks.
This, however, is a very different place, a country where a bully may face suspension at school, maybe even expulsion. In several Wisconsin municipalities, a bully’s parents may even be fined — about the same amount of money they’d have to fork over for driving with an expired inspection sticker. But will the bully himself be confronted by his peers? Would his peers even know how to confront him anymore?
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not advocating some kind of Fight Club–esque orgy of self-indulgent brawling. That’s just narcissism with bare knuckles. And while I freely admit that a righteous Donnybrook can be an exhilarating thing, I do believe that we’ve done well to rein in that primal urge.
Nor am I endorsing the notion of plowing the Donald in the kisser. First of all, it’d be a crime. Second, even if you could get through the phalanx of Secret Service agents and the cluster of private goons that surround him long enough to cock your fist, it wouldn’t do any good. He’s beyond redemption. Punching Donald Trump would be like punching a vat of Orange Julius. Your knuckles would be vaguely orange-colored and sickeningly sticky, but when you pulled your hand back, the Orange Julius would be no different than it was in the first place.
Finally, there’s a big part of me that understands that to take a swing at Trump would be to swallow the bile-flavored snake oil he’s been selling for months now. It would, in effect, be taking a lesson from a man who is, himself, one of the most shameless agitators for political violence our nation has seen since the Civil War.
But having said that, I have to confess, the sight of Trump supporters — including one cowardly loser, John McGraw from South Carolina who shares my last name, but nothing else of mine — sucker-punching protesters, urged on by Trump himself in many cases, backed by a howling mob, stirred something in me: an almost forgotten urge from my youth to stand up, to fight back, to pound some sense into the bully. In that respect, you could say I’m not entirely different from the Trump fans we saw at those rallies. And now, I can’t help wondering whether, by teaching my son that all violence is always wrong, I have left him unprepared to meet the threats that, like it or not, may someday confront him.
I’ve never seen Liam come home from school with a bloody nose or a black eye, and I’m grateful for that. But a few days ago, as we drove home, he seemed him downcast, not because anybody was picking on him, but because a little girl who didn’t quite fit in was getting a hard time from some of his schoolmates. No matter how many times he told them to back down, they didn’t. He wished he could have done more. And maybe I could have shown him a few ways to do that.
But should I? I thought of Hemingway, the great chronicler of unabashed maleness, a guy who as a kid I turned to as kind of an arbiter of manly virtue. What would he have done?
I put in a call to David Gonzales, curator of the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, and a noted expert on the author, who thinks Hemingway wouldn’t have worried much about what to tell an impressionable young boy about the bullying tactics of a guy like Trump — and indeed, might well have found the candidate a kindred spirit. He probably would have reveled in Trump’s unbridled appetites and admired his willingness to spew the first thing that came into his head without giving a thought to the consequences.
That’s not to say that Hemingway might not have hauled off and slugged the Donald anyway, Gonzales added. It’s just that he would have done it out of sport, not out of anger or any sense of obligation to protect society at large from his excesses. ”Hemingway liked a worthy competitor,” Gonzalez said, and Trump would “have seemed like a worthy competitor.” (Despite those tiny hands.)
Great, I thought as I hung up the phone. I still don’t know what I ought to tell my son, but now I wish I had been born early enough to have knocked Papa’s lights out.
I turned to Dr. Michele Borba, a child-development expert with a special focus on bullying. While she shared my revulsion over the tenor of the political debate, she was far less sympathetic to my inclination to teach my son the finer points of an underhanded left hook. Borba didn’t mean to suggest, she added, that we teach our kids to simply roll over in a “world that is becoming increasingly more unjust and uncivil.” We need to teach them to fight back, but with ideas — “to teach our kids to fight with their words, to mobilize their courage so they can step in and demand respect.’”
Of course, conversation only takes you so far, especially with a guy who claims to “have the best words” and wields them pretty much the way a sock stuffed with stove bolts would be wielded in a street fight. With a guy like that, said Rosalind Wiseman, the educator and author of Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope With Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World, sometimes there is no alternative to a fat lip.
“We just have tons of dishonest conversations with our kids — about sex, about the internet, about pornography,” she said, “and one of the most dishonest conversations we have is about fighting. We say you should never, ever, ever, ever fight. You should always, always, always use your words. But sometimes you get into a situation where you don’t want to escalate the fight, but you have to throw down the gauntlet and say, ‘This stops, and it stops right here.’”
And even if you lose, she pointed out, you’ve gained something important: “There are plenty of people who lose a fight but show courage, and the fact that they can stand there means they win the fight for public opinion.” Wiseman added, “One thing I know after 20 years of working with boys is that every man knows a guy like Trump,” the swaggering bully who seems to get away with the most obnoxious behavior because no one’s willing to challenge him. Whoever finally does is often seen as a hero.
The sentiment was echoed by The Young Turks host Cenk Uygur, who’s been having long discussions lately with his wife over how to respond after their 5-year-old son got into an altercation. “When I was a kid we used to fight all the time,” he told me. “I was a bully corrector. A bully wanted to push little kids around? I like to fight anyway, so good, I’ll fight for justice.”
“I know from personal experience that nothing stops a bully like stepping up to the plate,” he said. In fact, he argued, if some of the Republican candidates had learned that lesson back in school, maybe they would have found the backbone to stand up to Trump early on in the race.
To Uygur, one of the few people in the whole political universe who seems willing to give Donald Trump a run for his money is Elizabeth Warren with her series of relentless in-your-face tweets. He added that he hopes Hillary Clinton will pick the Massachusetts senator as her running mate.
Then they could both go after the bully, and maybe, in the process, teach my son that what he really needs to learn is how to fight like a girl.