The Bully Next Door
Chris Christie never had a chance and he never saw it coming.
The soon to be former Governor of New Jersey came to national prominence during his first term primarily because he stood up to hecklers, or anyone who dared challenge him, during town hall meetings across the state. He did this by shouting voters down, ordering them to shut up, and playing the part of a tough guy in a setting in which he had the microphone, control of the sound system, was surrounded by his own street gang of political aides, and state troopers with guns. A thug in a tie.
The You Tube videos created by these town hall moments made Christie a news media favorite, because a politician rudely losing his cool in public fits one of the basic definitions of news: Man Bites Dog! But for the most part these moments were taken out of context by the news media. They weren’t spontaneous at all. Christie was practicing one of the basic rules of politics: Only Lose Your Cool on Purpose.
Unfortunately, our political system depends in part on celebrity. Potential candidates for public office are often labeled as attractive, or as rising stars, based first on some combination of their general appearance, stage presence and communication skills. You can get pretty far down the path toward elective office just by looking the part and showing up. Policies are a secondary concern. It’s just the way it is.
So as a national audience got to know Christie through his town hall rants the national political press began to mention him as a potential candidate for the presidency. Christie and his team welcomed the speculation and began planning, but they made a basic miscalculation. America was not looking for a bully in chief. The public saw Christie as an entertaining figure, not as a leader. Long before Christie’s approval ratings began to crash in the aftermath of the Bridgegate scandal, his act — and that’s all it was — was getting old. The audience of New Jersey voters had begun to see Christie for what he is; a loud month, thin skinned politician with an inflated sense of himself.
Being a bully can work in the short term, but it is not a strategy that sustains. If you care what people think of you, if you care about how your obituary will read, or how you will be remembered by history, being a jerk is not a leadership model.
The New York Times began the past week with a whither Chris Christie profile in which Christie admitted things have not turned out as planned. America was never convinced of his greatness. America never even considered the possibility. By the end of the week another great bully of American public affairs had fallen. Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly was forced to resign after his victims broke their silence and revealed the fraud behind the public persona — a persona created and protected by Roger Ailes, who was felled by his own similar behavior last year.
These three cases should serve as a warning to our current bully in chief, the president of the United States, because Donald Trump has been friendly with all three men. Like Christie, there is a reason Trump’s approval ratings have plunged toward the 30’s. It doesn’t take long for voters to realize there is a difference between looking tough on the campaign trail and an over reliance on threats and brute force once you have the responsibility to lead. Governing is collaborative and collaboration can not begin with demands backed only by threat of force. Your ideas need merit greater than the perceived strength of the office you hold.
It is reported that President Trump spends late nights at the White House calling his friends from the business world asking for their advice. Despite the public bravado and meritless claims of the most productive first 100 days of any administration in history, Trump knows his first three months in office have been a rolling disaster. His biggest victory, the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was only accomplished with the help of a Republican Senate majority willing to change the rules to avoid what could have been an embarrassing defeat.
If any of Trump’s friends or family are advising him against the continued use of the strategy of force, it is not clear he is smart enough to take the advice. When you find success as a bully it is hard to drop the bat that brought you to power, but eventually it is taken away. Bullies may find their way to the top temporarily, but they never win the long game. Ask a bully you know, Mr. President. Ask Chris Christie.