Election 2016

Trump's Childish Name-Calling Is a Time-Honored Strategy of Bullying

Trump's insults may seem immature, but there's a longstanding tradition of elevating bullies to power.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Gage Skidmore

Donald Trump is a bully without exception. One component of his bullying style is the way he devises nicknames for his political foes. So, in an epic effort to understand the Republican frontrunner, Stephen Colbert brought on Trump’s “Chief Nickname Strategist,” Timmy Jenkins, to explain how the Republican nominee constructs these monikers.

“Timmy, tell me, how do you come up with these nicknames?” Colbert asked.

“Well, I’ve had over five years of playground experience making nerds cry," Jenkins explained, "and that’s really fun.” 

The bit highlighted the absurdity of Trump’s juvenile strategy, but as Colbert accurately pointed out, “these nicknames have destroyed all of Trump’s opponents.”

Lyin’ Ted Cruz, Little Marco Rubio and Low-Energy Jeb Bush: all victims of Trump’s expert bullying tactics that are more reminiscent of schoolyards and cafeteria halls than upstanding presidential campaigns. As the Republican frontrunner rolls out nicknames for his latest crop of enemies (Crazy Bernie Sanders, Goofy Elizabeth Warren, Crooked Hillary Clinton), we’re left wondering why his bullying is so effective.

“People bully to gain power over others," Naomi Drew, author of No Kidding About Bullyingtold the Daily Beast. "Trump’s behavior is the epitome of this."

By common (Google) definition, bullying occurs when someone uses “superior strength or influence to intimidate someone, typically to force him or her to do what one wants.” It often 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.”

Lightweight, loser, moron, dummy, overrated, stupid, thug: these are the insults Trump repeatedly hurls at his rivals. According to Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes (the book that inspired the hit movie Mean Girls), his bullying tactics are “like an eighth-grade girl.”

“He’s absolutely operating as an intelligent, manipulative bully who truly does not care about the consequences of his actions,” Wiseman told the Daily Beast. “He delights in his own ability to manipulate and to show that nobody can stop him.”

For years, bullying was considered the dysfunctional reaction to a broken home or some other form of childhood trauma. Experts assumed bullies bullied to compensate for some fundamental sadness in their life. But a 2011 study by UC Davis found the opposite to be true. Researchers interviewed public school kids in grades 6, 7 and 8, mapping the pathways of aggression through the schoolyard. They found “bullies had the lowest levels of depression, highest self-esteem, and highest social status, with victims faring the second worst and bystanders faring second best.”

While bullies tend to be popular, the ones at the center of the social circle are actually less aggressive than kids just outside the center. Bullying is still a power grab, and those fighting for peak status hurl the most insults. That might explain, in part, why Trump is slinging so much mud. There’s nothing like being called president of the United States to cement your status as the top dog. 

“You’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency,” Jeb Bush lectured Trump during one of the debates. But that’s not exactly true. In fact, presidential campaigns have been rife with insults since the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans first battled over executive power. In an antifederalist newspaper, a Thomas Jefferson surrogate accused President John Adams of possessing a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

Adam’s team, in response, flung the mud right back, calling Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

And then there’s the insult labor leader John L. Lewis hurled at Vice-President John Garner in 1939, calling him a "labor-baiting, poker-playing, whiskey-drinking evil old man.”

Trump is hardly the first to play on an opponent’s name for rhetorical gains. In an email dump of Hillary Clinton’s private server, it was revealed that in 2012, the Secretary of State called Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney by his schoolyard bully nickname: Mittens.

But Trump has certainly elevated the indecency to a level not witnessed in decades. And as his henchmen and active supporters continue to rally around the Republican frontrunner, there’s no such thing as a passive bystander. If we want the mudslinging and schoolyard bullying to stop, we have to stand up and fight.

“The majority of kids who witness [bullying] either give it tacit approval or outright encouragement,” Robert Faris, who co-authored the UC Davis study, said to Time. “Those are the ones who give these kids their status.”

“We need to change their minds.”

Elizabeth Preza is a staff writer for Raw Story. Follow her on Twitter @lizacisms.

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