the national interest

The President As Adolescent Bully

Biff Tannen in “Back to the Future II” from 1989. The character was based in part on Donald Trump. Photo: Universal Pictures

At his rally Thursday night in Grand Rapids, President Trump delighted supporters by publicly unveiling his derisive nickname for Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “Little pencil neck Adam Schiff” — he announced, pausing for the crowd to jeer — “he’s got the smallest, thinnest neck I’ve ever seen.”

“Pencil neck” is an old-time insult that would have been hurled in the hallways of a 1950s high school by the beefy jocks against the wimps. Rush Limbaugh has been using it against Schiff, and Trump has recently mimicked the insult. The two men, neither of whom could be accused of inadequate neck width, share a predilection for adolescent bullying tactics. Limbaugh was so proud Trump picked up his term, he boasted to his audience that he came up with it two years before.

Trump’s use of bullying tactics against his rivals for the Republican nomination in 2015–2016 played a critical role in endearing him to the Republican base. Trump’s rollouts of new terms of abuse for his rivals have become mini-events celebrated by his fans. The Trump campaign capitalized on the new insult by hawking celebratory T-shirts. His continued use of these methods, and the delight it gives his supporters reveals something important about what binds them together.

Bullying is most closely associated with adolescence, because teenagers are most naturally prone to it. Children that age tend to lack empathy or well-developed moral worldviews, and they often gravitate toward peers who engage in displays of dominance and cruelty. It is also the age when people are most prone to judge themselves and others by their appearance, and when social relations tend to be the most hierarchical.

Like a teenage bully, Trump fixates on a superficial characteristic in his target. He mocks male targets (Marco Rubio, Schiff, Bob Corker) as short, and a variety of women as fat or ugly. When reporter Serge Kovaleski challenged one of his lies, Trump mimicked his disability. He mocked Senator Charles Schumer for tearing up over Trump’s Muslim ban, either disgusted or unable to comprehend that somebody would empathize with the plight of immigrants.

Trump’s innovation of winning the election through adolescent-style bullying has carried over to his presidency. Presidents traditionally inculcate the virtues of decency, gentleness, and generosity as part of their role as ceremonial head of state. One little-noticed feature of Trump’s presidency is how little time and attention he devotes to what used to be the banal presidential work of celebrating charitable good works and public service. Speeches and photo ops with volunteers, do-gooder business leaders, hospital visits and the like, once the barely noticed daily bread of presidential messaging, has all but disappeared.

Trump does heap praise on the police and military, but in a very different fashion than his predecessors. The qualities of service he highlights are not selflessness and sacrifice but toughness. He is especially fascinated with the appearance of toughness. Trump has praised “his” generals as looking like they come out of “central casting.” He has praised his ICE director, “He looks very nasty, he looks very mean … that’s what I’m looking for.” He has famously urged police officers to treat suspects in their custody with more brutality. Of course, abusing a person who’s in handcuffs does not take courage.

Actual courage is a virtue Trump regards with indifference sometimes bordering on hostility. He has spent years mocking John McCain for having been captured in the Vietnam War, completely disregarding his perseverance under torture and refusal to give his captors a propaganda victory by accepting their offer to be sent home ahead of his order of capture. This is not simply Trump’s habit of automatically flaying anybody who attacks him. “He was captured. Does being captured make you a hero? I don’t know. I’m not sure,” Trump said in 1999, long before McCain had crossed him in any way.

Trump of course avoided military service by having his father arrange to have a friendly doctor diagnose him with bone spurs. Trump has performed his own machismo by flaunting his series of trophy wives and girlfriends (both real and imagined). He has also rather oddly associated his prowess with golf. Trump is a legitimately skilled golfer, though also a massive cheater, and seems to see his talent at this game as a proxy for physical dominance. In a recent closed-door rant to Republican allies, Trump said that Pencil-Neck Schiff “would be a horrible golfer who could drive the ball only 50 yards.” Aspiring sidekicks like Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul have grasped the role of golf in Trump’s mind as a symbol of prowess. Both have publicly shared sycophantic stories of the boss man defeating them on the links as a way of easing their way into his inner circle.

The explanation — or to put it more sharply — rationalization for Trump’s effect on the national discourse is that his white working-class supporters have suffered economic and social injuries. The wounds of their closed factories, or the disdain of the coastal snobs, have driven them into the arms of a man who will strike back at the elite on their behalf.

It’s telling, however, that Trump is unable to stick to the populist script that is written for him. One of his favorite riffs is to complain about the fact that his opponents are called elite, to declare that he is more elite than they are, and his supporters are elite as well. He recited it again Thursday night:

“They say the elite they’re, the elite … I have a better education than them, I’m smarter than them. I went to the best schools. [I have a] much more beautiful house, much more beautiful apartment, much more beautiful everything and I’m president and they’re not right, and then they say the elite. The elite they’re, not elite, you’re the elite, we’re the elite.”

The message of any bully is that he is a winner — as are, to a pointedly lesser degree, his flunkies — and his targets are the losers. What is so remarkable about Trump is that he has no interest or need to conceal his cruelty. Trump is a highly familiar social type: the leader of a gang, taunting his targets while his flunkies guffaw. Before he came along, it was never possible to imagine such a person occupying the Presidency of the United States.

The President As Adolescent Bully