Every time I see another story calling Trump a bully, I duck. I’m always afraid somebody will call me. So this is my declaration. I am not an expert on bullying.
I wrote a true-crime book 15 years ago about a bunch of horrible Florida mall rats who killed one of their own best friends because he was a bully. That book became a small independent movie called Bully. Ten years later at a time of national interest in school bullying, some actual experts put together a documentary film also called Bully.
For a while I got calls from people around the country who clearly had me and my movie confused with the experts and their movie. They wanted me to come speak at their bullying conferences. Eventually I learned just to say no and pretty much hang up, but at first I tried to explain.
In my book the bully, while horrible, was actually less worthless than the witless stoners who killed him (and welcome to the edifying universe of true-crime, by the way). Not too far into the call the caller usually stopped me: “Excuse me, Mr. Shults. Are you defending the bully?”
And maybe I said no, yes, kinda-sorta, not really, everything is relative, maybe being a bully is less bad sometimes than being a witless stoner, depending, of course, on which kind of bully you are.
That speech, I realized after a while, had exactly the same effect as my just telling them no and hanging up. Either way they were off the line pretty quickly and I never heard from them again. I imagine a piece of paper tacked to the corkboard of many an activist’s headquarters with a big red grease-pencil X over my name.
I am not a defender or champion of bullies. After the movie based on my book came out, however, I did learn some things. The kid who was the bully in my book was the son of assimilated, upwardly mobile, Middle Eastern immigrants. He was going to public high school in a relatively affluent, majority-white, middle-class suburb in South Florida.
An awful lot of kids contacted me to talk about it. I was quite moved. Some of them were sons and daughters of upwardly mobile assimilated immigrants. They told me they “got” the bully, even if they didn’t admire or like him, because of his second-generation status.
Several kids told me their own immigrant parents were terrified they would become like the kids their parents thought they saw walking out of the high school every afternoon. Unable to see subtle but important distinctions between the white kids, all of whom looked like apprentice prostitutes and pimps to the immigrant parents, the parents feared their own children would become lazy stoners like the American kids — drop-outs, pregnant or serially impregnating, who would live in their parents' converted garages until the welcome release of Doomsday.
“Immigrant kids can become bullies to the stoners,” one young woman told me, “because their parents want them to look down on the stoners instead of thinking they are cool.”
I’m working my way back to Trump. Promise.
In the case I wrote about, the bully was the only kid in his little gang of friends who worked, who took school seriously, who maybe had a future. The stoners lured the bully out to the swamps with sex, slit his throat, disemboweled him, smashed in his skull with a baseball bat and dumped him into the Everglades still alive in the hope that alligators would eat him.
If just before this murder was consummated the Chinese had taken over the country, put a gun to my head and told me I had to choose one of these kids to live in my garage for the rest of my life, I definitely would have chosen the bully just so I could have closed at least one eye when I went to bed at night.
Now, wait. I am not saying – I did not say – that there are circumstances under which being a bully is a good thing. But I do think sometimes the experts reach too far and maybe too deep to come up with explanations. After all, there are perfectly understandable reasons closer to the surface why a kid might become one.
My wife and I are the parents of a sole child, a male who is now a wonderful person. Because we owned a boy, we had boys around, sometimes in disturbingly large numbers.
One day we heard a great ruckus outside our house, looked out front and saw this sawed-off version of a motorcycle-gang riot, only these were all little white kids in T-shirts and shorts riding those stubby dirt bikes, trick bikes, whatever they called them.
One boy, very handsome, substantially more mature physically than the others, a big kid, was about to close on a much skinnier boy. The boy being closed on was beet-red, wind-milling with his fists to defend his honor, clearly about to get chopped up like raw carrots in a Cuisinart and perfectly prepared to die rather than wimp out, a study in desperation and courage. It was the ultimate masculinity pageant, performed by children.
Adults rushed out of houses shouting oaths and curses. The puffed up chest of the attacker collapsed like a popped balloon. It was over.
What I remember most clearly, however, as if still before my eyes, was that moment just before it was over, just before the shouting adults appeared, when it was full-on. Most of the boys looking on from their bikes on the street loved it. They loved their bully. He was the god of that moment. Their hero.
If you are the parent of a boy and you ever glimpse that moment somehow — on the street, at a sporting event, in school, socially — I don’t think you can come away without an awful burden. The burden is the realization that children, especially boys as they mature into adolescence, carry a certain element in their DNA of the great apes.
It doesn’t really take a lot of encouragement — in fact simple neglect will do the job — if you want to bring out either one of two things in your boy, the great-ape bully himself or one of his jibber-jabbing ape worshippers.
In fact, come on, we all know it doesn’t stop in childhood. You know the adult who can walk into a room and use some kind of incredible radar to locate the socially most vulnerable person in the room, then smash that person with a verbal club. And we have all seen the other people in the room who laugh.
That’s a replay of the trick bike riot in front of my house 20 years ago. The bully is saying, “I am strong. He is puny. I can smash him.” And the crowd, like a Greek chorus, chants back to him: “Yes, you are strong, and you can smash him. We revere you.”
If anything, we might almost assume human nature would carry us to this same exciting scene always, time and time again, if it were not for the one great intervening factor, the spoil-sports, those darned grownups.
The intervening factor is the voice and the arm of civilization. Those oaths and curses coming from the grownups may be a little difficult to parse at first, but I think we all know what they mean. They mean no. No, you’re not going to be like this.
We have figured this out, and we don’t want to live that way. We want to be able to close both eyes when we go to bed at night. You can have all the contests you want about who can jump his bike the highest or who’s the smartest kid in school or the best dancer, but if you try to smash that skinny kid again just because you can, we’re going to stop you. We despise that behavior. Please. Don’t make yourself a despised person. (The bully that day is now a really great young man.)
In other words, I think what I’m saying is that there is absolutely nothing mysterious or unnatural or even broken about being a bully. It’s all too natural — so natural and reflexive that I have my doubts about the efficacy of bullying conferences or even anti-bully programs in school. I’m not against them. I just think the only good anti-bully program is one that starts really early, at home and in the neighborhood. The only anti-bully program I would trust, really, is civilization itself.
Trump, you say? Were we talking about Trump? Oh, yes. I was talking about the stories right after the first debate calling him a bully, all of which I agreed with wholeheartedly. When he beat on Clinton with a club, called her failed, implied she was stupid, maybe even when he made all those little-boy bad faces, he clearly expected the gang of boys in the street to cheer him. As the evening wore on and he earned only groans and silence, Trump seemed to come unglued.
Frankly, Trump is such a classic little-boy bully, the kid who never got it taken out of him, that I don’t see anything mysterious, surprising or even all that interesting in him. His act doesn’t vary an iota. Even when he’s doing his dunce-cap reading routine with the teleprompter, you can see him waggling his eyebrows at the other boys, letting them know that as soon as the teacher steps out of the room somebody is going to get his or her ass kicked.
What I do find interesting is his base. The crowds at almost every Republican primary debate loved him with the same unfeigned raw passion I saw in those little boys on my street that day. He pounded his rivals into the pavement — Low-Energy Jeb, Little Marco, Ugly Carly, Lyin’ Ted. The base roared its delight.
No grown-ups rushed into the street to put a stop to it. That’s the part that keeps me up at night. Even if we had failed to get that big kid under control on our street that day 20 years ago, he could only have done a certain amount of damage. But if we had lost control both of him and his mob, the street might not even be there now. Even little people make scary mobs when nobody stops them.