Developmental psychologists and experts on middle-school bullies reveal the secret to beating Trump at his own game
President Donald Trump is the most famous bully in the world, and some experts on middle-school bullies offered some advice to the Democratic candidates who might face him in next year’s election.
Bullying peaks for most people between the ages of 12 and 14, when children become more self-conscious, and middle schoolers tend to compensate for their insecurity by siding with classmates with a higher social status, reported The New Yorker.
“Unfortunately, for young adolescents, one of the most concrete ways to show your power is to put other kids down,” said Jaana Juvonen, a developmental psychologist at UCLA. “To be mean, laugh at others. Typical Trump behaviors, I’m sorry to say.”
“What we’re seeing with Trump would happen in the very worst schools — the ones where things are totally out of control,” she added.
Barbara Coloroso — author of “The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander” — urged Democrats not to “get in the mud” with Trump by calling him names, like Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio tried to do in 2016, with disastrous results.
“That’s a huge mistake,” Coloroso said. “You can’t do that with a bully. He will be better at name-calling. Trump tries to draw people into his bullying so he can identify it as a conflict.”
That’s why Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) should resist her instincts to confront Trump like a prosecutor, Coloroso said, but there are also risks for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s brainier approach.
“It’s less about content and more about power,” Juvonen said. “We can’t worry about the intellectual arguments here, which is really sad. First and foremost, you have to shift the power dynamics.”
She suggested a self-deprecating approach, which defuses the bully’s insults and helps nerdier kids seem a little bit subversive.
“Bullies have very vulnerable egos,” Juvonen said. “What gets them angry the most is when someone makes fun of them.”
Coloroso recommended that candidates call out Trump’s behavior, but not him personally, when he lobs some of his trademark cruel nicknames.
“You say, ‘That comment was bigoted, sexist’ — whatever,” she said. “Identify the behavior. Then say, ‘Those comments are beneath the office of the presidency.’”
Phyllis Fagell — a school counselor, therapist and author — agreed that publicly calling out bad behavior can turn the tables on a bully.
“Let’s say there’s a group of kids on the playground, and one kid says something mean,” Fagell said. “I might tell the child who was targeted to calmly say, ‘That was mean’ or ‘That was rude.’ Then you turn around and walk away. The person who made the comment is left standing there, with everyone looking at them. It exerts a very subtle form of social pressure.”
Fagell also recommended adopting a powerful pose when facing off against Trump in a debate.
“Make sure that your feet are planted firmly on the ground,” she said. “That you are taking up space, making eye contact. Staying calm and unflappable. If you show weakness, you’re more likely to get targeted.”
Coloroso said Pete Buttigieg seems to have the best instincts for taking on a bully, like when he called out Vice President Mike Pence’s anti-LGBT bigotry.
“He doesn’t diminish the other person, but he calls him on the behavior,” she said.