“He’s like an eighth-grade girl,” Rosalind Wiseman told me. “As an educator who works with children, it’s an amazing thing to watch,” she said, “because you really wish the adults would be the adults and be able to check the person who’s abusing power and being so callous to other people.”
Wiseman knows a child bully when she sees one, having written a series of books on the topic, most famously Queen Bees and Wannabes, about middle-school girls’ viciousness and upon which the movie Mean Girls is based.
But Wiseman wasn’t talking to me about some unruly kid who threw rocks at a mathlete or called his frenemy names in a Burn Book. She was talking about a 69-year-old man from Queens who is seeking the Republican nomination for president of the United States.
She was talking, of course, about Donald Trump.
“He’s absolutely operating as an intelligent, manipulative bully who truly does not care about the consequences of his actions,” Wiseman said. “He delights in his own ability to manipulate and to show that nobody can stop him.”
From the moment Trump announced his candidacy, on June 16, no one has been safe from his wrath. His announcement speech itself felt like a roast of everyone in the world not named Donald Trump. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Since then, Trump has pilloried, in no particular order, John McCain (“not a war hero”), Jeb Bush (“low energy”), Lindsey Graham (“a beggar”), Anderson Cooper (“waste of time”), Megyn Kelly (“blood coming out of her wherever”), Juan Williams (“like a child”), Forbes magazine (“failed magazine”), The Des Moines Register (“very dishonest”), Arianna Huffington (“liberal clown”), The Weekly Standard (“small and slightly failing magazine”), Rick Perry (“should be forced to take an IQ test”), the Republican National Committee (“very foolish”), Heidi Klum (“no longer a 10”), Univision (“they are doing really badly”), The Wall Street Journal (“ever dwindling”), Carly Fiorina (“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”), Bobby Jindal (“I only respond to people that register more than 1 percent in the polls”), Rand Paul (“didn’t get the right gene”). I could go on.
Trump has ridiculed so many people and places and things that enterprising content creators have made Trump insult generators in his honor. Regular English words are for the time being inextricably linked to Trump because he deploys them so frequently from his insult arsenal: loser, in particular, but also lightweight, stupid, weak, and clown.
But it’s not just that Trump is a prolific and vitriolic critic—it’s that the way Trump tends to make his disapproval known comically calls to mind the schoolyard bully.
Bullying, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, “involves repeated exposure of one person to physical and/or relational aggression where the victim is hurt with teasing, name calling, mockery, threats, harassment, taunting, social exclusion or rumors”—or, to put it more concisely, the entire Trump doctrine.
His behavior can be intimidating. Like when, in July, he stood at the lectern at a South Carolina rally and read aloud to the world Lindsey Graham’s personal cellphone number. It was difficult not to wonder, as Trump gleefully encouraged his audience to “give it a shot” and call Graham, whom he might doxx next.
He is relentless. Jeb Bush, the establishment favorite for the nomination, is known for being wonky and serious, and has had some difficulty exciting both the public and the press since launching his campaign. He is, you could say, the anti-Trump. And so, in true Trump fashion, Trump began a campaign to brand Bush as “low energy.” During an interview on Morning Joe recently, Trump said, “He’s a nice person. He is a low energy person, there’s no question about it. And, you know, I think we need much more than a low energy person right now to put this country back in shape.”
Perhaps sensing that he was getting under Bush’s skin, Trump made sure to call Bush “low energy” everywhere he went. He even went as far as to release a video based on this insult. “Having trouble sleeping at night? Need some energy? Need some low energy?” the narrator says before introducing footage of Bush speaking.
Taking cues from the boss, the behavior of Trump’s campaign operatives, too, can be bullying. When, also in July, The Daily Beast reported that during Trump’s divorce from his first wife, Ivana, she accused him of sexual assault (though she later recanted), Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer, threatened reporter Tim Mak on the record: “I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly,” he said, “because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?”
Naomi Drew, a conflict resolution specialist and the author of No Kidding About Bullying, told me she sees in Trump, as Wiseman does, signs of a classic bully.
“People bully to gain power over others, and Trump’s behavior is the epitome of this,” she said. By insulting Fiorina’s appearance, Drew said, Trump was “behaving like the high school bully who’s threatened by a girl who’s smarter than he is,” and by mocking candidates for not polling as well as he is, Trump is “acting like [a] high school football player swaggering into the cafeteria and overturning the lunch tray of a weaker kid.”
Bullies, like most people running for political office, have an unhealthy need for power. That need can be caused, according to Drew, by a number of things: revenge after being bullied themselves, general self-esteem and insecurity issues, or just a total lack of human compassion.
“They see people who are different from them as ‘less than’ and may dehumanize them in the process, which is what Trump does when it comes to illegal immigrants,” Drew said. “He’s positioning immigrants as ‘the other’ and feeding into the hatred and narrowness that seem to be growing. People who bully see their victims as ‘the other,’ as less than human. This allows them to justify cruel behavior. This is what happened in Nazi Germany, with the lynching of blacks, with the marginalization of minorities, gays, and women. Bullying results when this dynamic is present.”
Wiseman told me that usually, with the eighth-grade girls, there is a moment of reckoning that gets them to reform their behavior. But Trump, due to his wealth (“very rich,” he says) and privilege, has never had such a moment, because there have rarely been consequences for the things he says and does.
“For Trump, all of this is working too well,” Wiseman said. “He’s being rewarded in exactly the way he wants to be… Usually people mature. They see what they’re doing, they see their part in it—but he’s like an eighth-grade girl that never sees his part in it. Never, ever sees it.”
Trump is, as Wiseman puts it, “like the kid where no teachers are gonna stop him and no principal is gonna stop him. It’s the kid who knows, who’s figured out, that no one is going to stop him and no one knows how to stop him.”
So the question now, for the rest of the Republican primary field and in a larger sense for the country as a whole, is how do you put the brakes on that kid? How do you stand up to the bully? How do you stand up to the bully on Wednesday night, when he will again take center stage at a debate that seems divinely designed to showcase his mean girl act?
Drew has some advice for the candidates, at least. “Reacting to the bully only increases his power,” she told me. So that means Bush, Fiorina, Jindal, and Graham did themselves a disservice in the long run, even if their tussles with the tinsel-haired tycoon brought them some much-needed publicity in the moment. The way to beat him for good, Drew said, is to counter Trump’s insults “with substantive talk over trash talk.”
So maybe in another democracy.