In the couple of years since the election of 2016 there have been thousands of articles about the big cultural shift towards the empowered Heartland workers, the agrarian salt of the earth types, the good Christian, the coal miner. These visual essays as often as not are cinematically wrapped in sweeping panoramic vistas of golden waves of corn, purple mountains majesty, stallions rearing and bald eagles soaring.
As a counterpoint, you have the city dweller — coastal yuppies in designer couture, sipping their lattes as they plot the destruction of all of those god-fearing Americans. Most often they are hip, holding their iPhones and Google Glasses, weak brainy nerds who like like they’d be killed if someone threw a real football at them.
These stereotypes certainly enforce certain roles, make us vs. them thinking so much easier, the humble country mouse contending against his slick city cousin. And like many stereotypes, they exist because we’ve been taught that they exist, creating categories that obscure distinctions that are often both more subtle and more dangerous.
One such categorization I’ve seen, on that doesn’t get anywhere near as much press, is the notion of the bully. The word itself is a nod to male cattle — big, brawny, not necessarily smart but certainly canny enough to cause problems if they set out to do so. The bull has long been totemic; along with the wolf, the lion and the eagle, the bull is easily one of the most frequently depicted symbols of masculinity, yet unlike the other three, it is the only one that is not a predator. The bull is impressive because of its bulk and power, but it dominates primarily upon the base of its strength, not its speed, ferocity or keen sense.
The bully, similarly, is not a natural predator. Bullies thrive by using intimidation, backed with strong fists and no sense of compassion. Bullies understand one truth greater than any other; take away the intimidation factor, and most bullies have few real weapons. It is why they gravitate towards weapons that can project force while minimizing physical risk. Guns are attractive, clubs, big broadswords. Al Capone, almost the definition of the bullet, famously used a baseball bat to keep his underlings in line. A baseball bat is less lethal than a gun, but when wielded with someone with great strength it is an intimidating, brutal instrument that can maim, can send a message, without necessarily killing.
Indeed, most bullies are not killers. Killing is wasteful. The bully enjoys, perhaps even craves, the fear of others, and a dead body is no longer capable of fear. That doesn’t mean that the bully is above having someone killed — most bullies have little respect for human life — but they would far rather have others do that job for them.
One of the most striking characteristics of bullies is their gregariousness. They prize loyalty above all other traits even if they seldom show that trait themselves. They surround themselves with people they have defeated, betas to their alphas. The bully will promote others, but only if it also serves his own agenda, to the extent that the bully is a narcissist around whom the world revolves, and being overshadowed by others is intolerable to them.
It has been suggested that bullies are actually cowards inside. That assumption is a dangerous one, and likely far less true than may be believed. A bully is intimately aware that their social position, their prominence, is wholly dependent upon the illusion that they are superior to people around them, and so will do whatever they can to prop that illusion up.
Bullies are often successful financially, because they both lack the moral compunction to eschew theft and recognize that wealth is a tool that allows them to project power. They use that wealth to increase the dependency of others upon them, and occasionally to employ those people and talents that can’t be intimidated but can be bought. They are not greedy in their own right, but they know how to use greed as yet another cudgel.
Most bullies are male, though not all. Female bullies are less likely to wield the club, but are far more likely to wield social opprobrium against their victims. At the same time, the male bully is likely to be very possessive of the women around him, seeing women both as symbols of his personal success and as objects of his desire. He will allow them few freedoms, but he will react very negatively if his women are either threatened or, worse, if they actively betray him.
Bully Culture is a broad term that describes a set of cultural beliefs. It is the belief that might makes right — that it is the privilege of the more powerful to dominate those with less power. A typical member of this culture believes that they are physically, morally or culturally superior to all others, and that by extension, most other people are inferior to themselves. It is, ironically, not intrinsically racist; however, racism is frequently initiated because those who are physically different often have less in the way of power. You cannot maintain an aura of superiority without being surrounded by your inferiors.
If you look at the demographics of the dedicated Trump supporter (rather than simply the identity brand Republican) what emerges is a picture of people who both believe they have a right to their own intrinsic superiority and that as a consequence there are people who are inferior to them. Many will brandish the charge of Freedom, which is a way of asserting that they are free to act without consequence or limit (and indeed they despise those who either believe differently or worse believe that such writs of privilege are wrong).
Such culture is based upon hierarchies of power. Hierarchies are a natural part of all societies, because you need more power to manage larger number of peoples or resources, and delegation is one way to distribute that power while maintaining accountability. However, in bully culture, the privilege that is granted for the purpose of performing the responsibilities asked gets subverted, especially when there are no checks upon power from those higher in authority. When loyalty is rewarded above competence in fulfilling one’s responsibility, then corruption becomes endemic, and the ability of the organization to achieve its objectives break down.
You see this a great deal in feudal aristocracies, but the same characteristics can be seen in corporate fiefdoms, large bureaucracies, and mega-churches. The military can occasionally succumb to this as well, though peer review for advancement and specific delineation of scope goes a long way towards limiting the corrosive effects of fiefdoms there. It is a form of aristocracy without the knighthoods, a sort of plebeian aristocracy.
There are a significant number of people who feel very comfortable living within such a clearly structured and tiered society … at all levels of that society. In such a society, your responsibilities and privileges are clearly known and articulated. You know your place in society, you know what you can aspire to and what you can’t, you know your social superiors and (most importantly) your social inferiors.
America has a comparatively young culture. Unlike with Great Britain and northern Europe, it never really had a feudal stage. The Kings of England in the 18th century very deliberately did not appoint a governor general for the American colonies in great part because they feared the possibility of uprising if there was a strong centralized leader, and the colonial governors, while powerful, were also very limited in their powers in comparison to a Duke in England (the earliest Governors in Maryland were the Barons of Baltimore, a British domain, but most governors were not awarded Royal grants for their colonial dominions).
The Southeastern part of the United States was settled by landed gentry from the English midlands, and this region to this day still tends to have the most hierarchy oriented cultures. Much of the Midwest was also settled by their descendants as they migrated West, though the combination of available land and less centralized authority (plus the immigration of significant number of Germans and Scandinavians) tended to change the nature of Midwestern culture — it was more religiously hierarchical but less secular.
Yet that impulse towards bending the knee to authoritarian figures still exists, towards seeking a clearly defined role in society, and it is this impulse that a bully can readily exploit.
Power (and the perks that come with power) is a strong incentive, but such power is largely made available in order to facilitate a responsibility. If a person has to spend a great deal of time flying between meetings, then it makes sense that they should be able to fly in comfort and get work done while taking advantage of this. Flying this way compensated for a vacation, however, is a misuse of that privilege. Ordinarily if this happened very occasionally, it is unlikely that the person travelling would be censured for it, but if it happens often enough, then there will be someone else who should have the authority to either penalize them or strip them off this perk.
In a bully culture, however, all restraints are off. There are no checks or balances on actions. A person can act outrageously, perhaps even clearly commit murder or grand larceny, and be unprosecutable. On occasion, the luck of the die (perhaps with a bit of help here and there) has given a person the opportunity to be unconstrained, especially within the federal or state executive branches. Sometimes nothing comes of it, save that legislation passes that furthers a broader agenda. Sometimes, however, the person who takes that all powerful seat has no ethics constraining him or herself.
Trump won the electoral vote (though not the popular vote) by painting himself as a king. Americans have mostly forgotten what it was like to live under an absolute monarch, and many have romanticized the monarchy to the extent that if he chose to name himself King of America, they would likely support him in this. Kings rule through divine right. They are virile, often with several wives or mistresses. They sit on golden thrones, raised upon a dais. They have absolute power of life or death, can issue proclamations and edicts with impunity, and they will have the throne for life, and their children will then inherit that throne.
It is significant that there are very few countries in the world that have absolute monarchs. Most countries realized that you need checks and balances, need to separate the symbolic functions of leadership from the legislative ones. The ones that don’t are dictatorships, where there are no real personal freedoms and where deep-seated political strife is endemic. Yet it was precisely using this vision of power that Trump employed to become president.
One impact of this has been that Trump is now normalizing corruption, sexual misconduct, directly manipulating the markets and using his office for personal vendettas and gain. He is acting like a bully, and this is in turn making it acceptable for people who otherwise would have social checks and balances acting on them to emulate this behavior. Neo-nazis and white supremacists, who have kept in the shadows, are now actively running for office. Threats and violence against people of color have escalated, as have assaults, both physical and in social media, against anyone who has tried to call people on this behavior (as well as against women and minorities).
The tools that bullies use is the same as always — fear, intimidation, threats (and the actualization) of violence, character assassination and the use of the organs of government to further an extremist agenda. Additionally, there has been a continuous stream of misinformation and propaganda that is attempting to gaslight the American public, something already enabled by a willing media network that sees a chance to benefit even if Trump decides to become President for Life.
Could Trump make that happen? It’s possible (terrifyingly so), but not all that likely. There are several things working against him.
The first is that Trump has alienated most of his potential power allies, both in Congress and those that took positions in the White House and either left or were fired. The recent string of Democratic electoral victories suggests that he also does not have much of a patronage network developed, to the extent that in many districts politicians are walking a fine line between endorsing and avoiding Trump.
He lacks the support of the military or the national security apparatus, and because of his own scathing attacks on these branches has turned them into enemies. He failed to get control of the bureaucracy early on, and while that bureaucracy generally remains apolitical below the level of political appointees, that is no longer true.
He is losing support among the C-Suite crowd, especially those who are in ascendance such as Amazon, Google and Facebook. The President has historically been neutral with regard to the stock market, and Trump’s blatant manipulation is alarming even those who may have supported him before. This is especially true with his position on tariffs, which have the potential to broadly impact the economy negatively with very few upsides.
The economy, which is at the end of the second longest bull cycle in history (shorter only than Clinton’s from 1991 to 2000), is showing signs of slowing down and moving into a recession by the end of the year, making it harder to get support from people who would otherwise believe he’s making a difference there.
Finally, he is facing legal jeopardy on a number of fronts, from Robert Mueller’s investigations to the Stormy Daniels’ affair. While the office of the president has traditionally had a high bar of immunity for crimes committed in office, it is entirely possible that either Federal or state prosecutors may charge him with crimes committed prior to his getting elected, where he lacks that immunity.
This, at its core, is one of the main reasons why bully culture does eventually collapse on itself. At the highest level, maintaining power requires the very delicate balancing act of keeping power blocs balanced against one another, and not instead all concentrating on you. Trump came in believing that having a core of about 30% of the country truly behind him was sufficient to govern, and that he could rule with impunity from the edges. Instead, as most presidents have discovered over the years, the office itself is very tightly constrained in what it can do — and in what responsibilities it requires.
In short, being a bully only works so long as you can in fact back up the threat of violent retribution with action. Once enough people realize that you do not have that ability, then people who were otherwise cowed or were living on your dole will abandon you, or betray you. I believe, for Trump, it’s only a matter of time.
Kurt Cagle is a writer, futurist and software architect who lives in the Snowflake state of Washington.
Kurt is the founder and CEO of Semantical, LLC, a consulting company focusing on enterprise data hubs, metadata management, semantics, and NoSQL systems. He has developed large scale information and data governance strategies for Fortune 500 companies in the health care/insurance sector, media and entertainment, publishing, financial services and logistics arenas, as well as for government agencies in the defense and insurance sector (including the Affordable Care Act). Kurt holds a Bachelor of Science in Physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.