Posted: January 6, 2017
Donald Trump is a bully. He bullied his way through the primaries, using schoolyard taunts and boorish male primate displays to push aside “low energy” Jeb Bush, “little” Marco Rubio, and “lyin’” Ted Cruz. He bullied his way through the general election, trying to intimidate Gold Star parents out of exercising their First Amendment rights, insulting a former Miss Universe in a nasty, ad hominem twitter war, and bizarrely feuding with Rosie O’Donnell. The Hillary Clinton campaign ran an ad that justly compared Trump to infamous movie bullies like Biff from Back to the Future. Trump’s venom reached a fever pitch when he personally threatened to send Clinton to jail during a debate. Unfortunately, Clinton failed to respond.
The thing about bullies is that they tend to back off when people stand up to them. There is evidence that this strategy works with Trump. When the pastor of a Flint, Michigan church firmly refused to let Trump turn a visit into a political event, Trump meekly backed down. But Clinton’s failure to directly confront Trump proved costly.
While bullies may back down when confronted, they grow emboldened when their bullying goes unchallenged. After his election win, Trump has continued to push his critics around. He launched what one Republican strategist called a round of “cyberbullying” directed at union official Chuck Jones. He blasted an angry tweet at Vanity Fair after it gave one his restaurants a bad review. He gave media executives a tonguelashing in a meeting one described as a “firing squad”. Most ominously, he has shown a willingness to bully intelligence officials who have concluded Russia intervened in the election with the specific purpose of helping Trump win.
Bullies, by definition, push to get their own way at the expense of others. They refuse to recognize limits on their power. That makes a bully-in-chief as president dangerous for American constitutional democracy, which depends on checks and balances to prevent any one branch of government from amassing too much power. But Trump has made clear he does not think ordinary rules apply to him. In the infamous Access Hollywood tape, he bragged about having the right to grab women by the crotch without consequence. As a star, he explained, he could do what he wants. He has similarly declared that he and he alone will decide whether to order torture or put limits on business relationships with foreign powers as president.
The framers of the Constitution did not want a bully as head of the executive branch. They outlined a system designed to prevent the president from having too much power. After all, they had just launched a revolution against a king they saw as a tyrant. They certainly didn’t want to create an American monarch who could rule without regard to limits on his power. As a result. our constitutional system provides us with the tools to rein Trump in—but this depends on key actors stepping up to the plate. So far, members of Congress, some leading media outlets, and prominent Republicans who know Trump is dangerous, have signaled they are ready to let Trump have his way as president. Just two Republican senators have called for a nonpartisan investigation of Russian hacking in the election. Some of Trump’s fiercest Republican critics, including Mitt Romney and Carly Fiorina, have disgracefully lined up to kiss Trump’s ring in a scene better suited to a royal court than a constitutional democracy.
Omarosa Manigault, formerly of reality television notoriety and now a Trump advisor, predicted all this. In September, she vowed that Trump’s critics would have to “bow down” to him if he won the election. This sounds like the kind of cartoonish dialogue you’d expect from a fictional arch-villain—and, in fact, it is. In one of the Superman movies, General Zod called on his enemy, Superman, to “kneel before Zod”.
Somehow, we have found ourselves inhabiting a bizarre reality where our president-elect is a power hungry caricature. Of course, we can’t count on a superhero to bail us out of this crisis. But we can reasonably expect human leaders to stand up to Trump’s bullying. So far, conservative presidential candidate and former CIA operative Evan McMullin has emerged asTrump’s leading post-election critic. McMullin has used Trump’s own favored medium of communication—Twitter—to forthrightly describe the president-elect as a threat to democracyitself. Not surprisingly, McMullin has gotten under Trump’s skin: Trump has responded bymaking fun of McMullin’s last name. That’s the kind of stuff we’d expect from a middle school bully, not the president-elect. But, of course, with Trump, it’s depressingly familiar.
McMullin seems to understand who he’s dealing with. In response to Trump’s petty taunts, McMullin tweeted: “Come now, Donald. Every madman needs a nemesis.” That’s the kind of attitude we need—someone who won’t back down from a bully. McMullin should challenge Trump to a public debate on the topic of Russian efforts to help its preferred candidate win the presidential election. McMullin’s example could inspire members of Congress to stand up to Trump as well. Let’s see how long Trump can keep up his tough guy talk once he has to deal with real opposition.
Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs. His latest book, Power Without Constraint: The Post 9/11 Presidency and National Security, was published in May 2016 by the University of Wisconsin Press.