Donald Trump and the Psychology of Bullying
By Mark Feinberg
Trump. Ailes. Cosby. Three old men who, according to their multiple accusers, have been sexual predators for decades. According to dozens of accusers, these three used their immense power to gain access to women, prey upon them and hide any consequences. And they were successful, for decades, in avoiding exposure.
The most shocking revelation has been the hot-mic video of Trump and Billy Bush. The “locker room banter” of sexual predators was publicly revealed.
Trump was right: What we see on the tape is locker room banter. But this is not the usual kind of macho male banter. The usual kind of macho bragging does not cross over into admission of sexual assault. The kind of banter we witness on the Trump-Bush bus is critical for the long-term “success” of sexual predators. This is what builds and seals alliances between predators and their enablers and protectors.
There are parallels here to the peer dynamics involved in bullying among kids. Researchers observe that there are more than just bullies and victims in schoolyard bullying situations. The bully often has lieutenants and supporters, and the presence of these kids creates enough fear to help silence and control the largest group of kids: the silent bystanders. One component of anti-bullying programs is sending the message to bystanders that silence enables more bullying, that they share in the responsibility if they don’t at least tell an adult.
But how do bullies and their lieutenants form their loyal mutual-aggression pacts with each other? How do they know they can trust each other? After all, they surely don’t say, “If I go trip Bethany, will you guys to stand there and scare her friends into silence?” Researchers have discovered that one important bonding mechanism is “deviant talk.” Although a terrible label, deviant talk refers to the usually jovial and spirited discussions among kids that center on antisocial, anti-authority or aggressive themes. For the kids who engage in it, deviant talk is downright enjoyable—it usually involves a lot of laughter and fun. And this shared laughter and encouragement reinforces kids’ existing tendencies toward oppositional, delinquent or violent behavior. Research shows that deviant talk among friends or siblings predicts increased levels of antisocial and aggressive behavior from year to year.
Deviant talk signals to bullies and their lieutenants that they can trust each other. We’ve now seen the adult version of deviant talk in Trump’s predatory version of locker room banter. Watch the video again and notice how much laughing and enjoyment there is between Bush and Trump as Trump explains he can’t control his assaultive impulses.
Like children’s deviant talk, this banter has consequences—immediate consequences, in the case of the Trump video. When the bus stops, Bush successfully urges the beautiful woman who greets them to give Trump a welcome hug—and gets one himself. While these hugs don’t constitute sexual assault, they flow seamlessly from the banter on the bus. They are the first act of a newly formed predator-lieutenant alliance.
For powerful sexual predators, lieutenants and supporters are available everywhere. The only thing that stopped Trump’s alleged attack on one female journalist was his butler’s timely announcement that Melania was coming back downstairs to rejoin them. And recall that Trump’s minions coached his beauty contestants to respond to his sexually and racially abrasive behavior, excusing and smoothing over his abusive shenanigans (like purposefully walking in on contestants, including teenagers, while they were naked). Enablers were also key to the alleged predations of Ailes (other male Fox executives) and Cosby (his buddy who prescribed the date rape pills, despite knowing Cosby wasn’t taking them himself).
Trump’s predatory behavior is part of his overall disrespect for women (which extends, at times, even to his daughter; he condoned Howard Stern’s public rating of Ivanka a “piece of ass”). This is a theme through the primary and general campaigns: The tweet comparing a picture of his trophy wife with an unflattering shot of Ted Cruz’s wife. The takedown of Carly Fiorina—and many other women, including some of his accusers—on the basis of appearance. The unsupported slander that Hillary was somehow a powerful, malevolent enabler of Bill’s sexual liberties.
Trump’s sexist and aggressive comments and tweets are a very public version of the bus banter. This explains why the ongoing shock among liberals about Trump’s newest low blow doesn’t matter. His only goal is to create strong alliances with his supporters, to pull them closer and closer into his bullying and predatory alliance. Notice that many of his takedown comments are witty, edging on humorous. And notice too that the audience gets to share in the spoils when he directs them to express their Orwellian two minutes of hate at journalists.
When Trump called Clinton “a nasty woman” in the final debate, the underlying message was simple: Clinton is “a bitch” because when women dare to fight back, they become nasty bitches. Trump and his supporters, in hints, tweets and t-shirts, indicate where this line of reasoning ends up. This Trumpian locker room banter even became a rallying cry at the Republican National Convention (“Lock her up!”).
The paradox is why, given decades of growing inequality in our country, the core group of Trump supporters—largely less-educated whites—cheer on the son of a wealthy, scamming slumlord supported by former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke. Why do these Republicans want to be led by a 70-year-old billionaire bent on undermining our national security interests? Why are they stirred by a man with a history of phony charity, no prior evidence of public service and a considerable record of exploiting and cheating workers, contractors and consumers like them?
Legitimate economic and social grievances are the basis for much anger and resentment, but it is not the whole explanation for the sudden, shocking breakdown of civil public discourse. Standing on the shoulders of Tea Party and white supremacists before him, Trump has nurtured and then sealed the loyalty of his supporters, the enablers of his bullying and predatory behavior, through public banter and deviant talk. In return, Trump lends them a feeling of power they may not feel often in daily life.
As with schoolchildren, one way to alter this national crisis is to appeal to the silent bystanders: Republican elected officials, like Paul Ryan, have little enthusiasm for Trump—but they also dare not publicly oppose the bully. We need to remind these bystanders—and quickly—that their silence will not excuse them from responsibility. They will indeed share responsibility for the certain disaster that will follow if the lifelong bully-predator, with his nonchalant attitude toward nuclear weapons, becomes the leader of the free world.
Mark Feinberg, Ph.D, is a clinical psychologist and professor at Pennsylvania State University.