An Expert on Bullying Explains Donald Trump’s Mean, Consequence-Free Rise

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 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Photo: BRIAN SNYDER/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

It’s clear at this point that Donald Trump acts more like a bully than a "traditional" presidential candidate. The current leader in the GOP polls gleefully flouts all of the usual rules of political and social decorum, constantly launching attacks — many of them rather offensive — against both his political rivals and members of the media he believes have treated him unfairly. Earlier this week, he released a short video making fun of Jeb Bush — who was supposed to be creaming him in the polls by now — for being such a boring speaker; the video shows a Bush supporter snoozing while the candidate discusses health-savings accounts. And as the Cut noted, a new profile in Rolling Stone has him making some rather harsh comments about Carly Fiorina’s physical appearance.

Part of what’s been strange about the trajectory of the campaign so far is that Trump hasn’t been punished, in any real sense, for engaging in the sort of behavior that almost everyone agrees is terrible in any setting. Yes, each gross incident is followed by a wave of denunciations, but they don’t seem to have an impact — if anything, Trump seems to be gaining popularity by bullying. He’s now the first GOP candidate to break 30 percent in the polls. Even non-supporters — the media very much included — seem more transfixed than indignant. 

This isn’t an unusual dynamic in many real-world bullying settings. So examining Trump’s behavior through the lens of bullying research can offer up some insights into how he has been so successful so far, and why his rivals have been unable to knock him down a peg. Jaana Juvonen, a psychologist at UCLA who is the co-author of a recent literature review and an upcoming book chapter about bullying, said that Trump seems to tick many of the requisite boxes when it comes to how bullies act. “Not that bullies are a uniform, homogeneous group, but the sort of classic bully is one who is narcissistic, is after power, often charismatic, and therefore popular,” she said. Check, check, check, and check. But she said there’s an “important and interesting” distinction between being popular and being liked — many bullies may have high status in that their classmates rate them as popular, Juvonen explained, but when individual students are asked if they’d like to spend time with the bully, they respond with resounding nos. This dynamic might help explain some of the personnel shuffling and general chaos that went on in the early days of Trump’s campaign.

Bullies also “feel really good about themselves,” said Juvonen — a description that certainly appears to apply to Trump. But it’s a shallow sort of confidence. “They come out looking like they have very high self-esteem,” she explained, “but one way to think about it is that self-esteem is so highly dependent on the popularity, so if there’s any problem, if somebody dares to criticize them, that might make them more vulnerable … [So] when somebody criticizes them, they attack immediately … they can’t stand that they are being criticized.”

Trump’s nasty spat with Megyn Kelly, the Fox News commentator who co-moderated the first GOP debate, immediately comes to mind, as do his anti-Jeb comments. In both cases, he seems to have reserved special ire and bile for people he likely perceives as posing serious threats to his current status as front-runner: Kelly since she asked tough questions highlighting his past misogynistic comments during the first GOP debate, and Bush since he’s still seen by many in Establishment circles as the most likely "real" front-runner to emerge once the zaniness of early primary season has receded (though the number of people who believe this will happen may well be shrinking).

So, given that Trump pretty clearly fits the pattern of a bully, what’s the best move for political rivals hoping to counter him and his hot-tempered rhetoric? Juvonen said she hasn’t seen much evidence of Trump’s targets unifying to aggressively go after Trump, and that this, too, fits a standard bullying pattern. “That’s a classic bystander effect — they are No. 1, afraid of their reputation; they are afraid that he will next target them if they criticize him. And again, in the school context, when we talk about bullying among kids — one of the most effective ways to deal with bullies is that the kids are united. So in fact, if I were advising the Republican Party I’d say to the other candidates, ‘You guys, together, should be shooting Trump down,’ since there’s more power in numbers when the bystanders feel like they are not making themselves personally vulnerable by alone criticizing Trump, but if they were more united they would have a chance to deal with him.”

Strictly speaking, as Ezra Klein wrote in August, the GOP and its conservative allies have tried to gang up on Trump — the effort just didn’t really work. Meanwhile, some candidates — Ted Cruz and Ben Carson — have made it clear that, as of this moment, they’re not interested in forming a united front against the bully (Carson reversed course a little yesterday, but offered up only tepid anti-Trump remarks). Even Bush has more or less acknowledged that he won’t go after Trump with Trump-like levels of vigor unless Trump attacks his family — he’s preferred to offer up factual rebuttals of Trump’s claims he is low-energy. (Imagine one boy calling another boy a nerd on the playground, and the bullied kid responds, “Actually, I’m not a nerd — and here are some reasons why … ”) In other words, one could be forgiven for developing the impression that no one is effectively pushing back against Trump’s bullying.

 They feel like they’re going to be the next target,” Juvonen said of bystanders and victims in bullying situations. “They don’t want to further risk their status or make themselves more vulnerable, so they know to stay quiet. But then the bully has further promoted his status, because nobody is now publicly coming out to say, ‘Wait a minute, this is not right what you’re doing’ … that’s why you need a coalition, you need a united force.” As of yet, that united force hasn’t quite emerged in the GOP primary. The bully is still shoving and screaming his way across the playground, and the teachers are nowhere in sight.