How Political Bullying and Intimidation Work — A Practical Guide (The Way We Live Now, Part Two)
Source: Michael Valdon; Pixbay.com/photo; Alex Jones: Sean P. Anderson (Dallas, TX)
Author’s Note: this is the second installment in a series on the current public climate of fear and intimidation that since the kick-off of the last presidential campaign in 2015 has dominated national life in the United States to a degree not seen in a long while. In Part One, “The Emotional Toll of Public Bullying and Political Intimidation,” the focus was on the experience of the sheer power and psychological effects of bullying in general and public bullying and political intimidation in particular. Below in Part Two, I now look at how public bullying works as a concrete method and set of political tools: I examine specific devices and tactics that will provide readers something of a practical guide through this potent minefield and a way to anticipate future acts of aggression. As we approach the midterm elections, the hope is to provide readers with some protective mental armor against the daily barrage of assaults.
18 Months and Counting
The unexpected victory of a misogynist, far-right White nationalist candidate in November 2016 convulsed the body politic and demoralized the Democratic Party. Donald Trump’s successful candidacy represents the mainstreaming of forms of political violence that preceded his election and most likely will persist once he has left office. A year and a half after the inauguration, and two years since the launch of the presidential primaries when Donald Trump and Republican leaders unleashed waves of extreme political intimidation and fear-mongering, pundits and politicians as well as ordinary citizens and residents are still grappling with how public bullying and political intimidation work. Fear and dread proliferate and paralyze; at their most powerful they even shape people’s political responses, provoking blind panic and, in some cases, violence. So, to help guide readers through this treacherous political environment, I’ve distilled the essential features of the dynamics of right-wing political intimidation and the dangers they present to those seeking to oppose the destructive policies of the current administration. Many of them will be familiar to readers but to date there has been no published detailed overview of how they work in synergy with each other.
Preemptive Strike: Creating Emotional Facts
In today’s media-saturated politics, the element of surprise is primordial. It bespeaks power. Creating a sensation or buzz is everything. It may involve aggressive timing (for example, as President-elect before assuming office or in the middle of the night at 3 AM, in the midst of the State of the Union Address, during an official state visit to our closest ally, just as a category four hurricane is making landfall, etc.) or unexpected locations (the annual Boy Scouts of America Scout Jamboree, an important meeting with NATO leaders, etc.).
Above all, it involves extreme content, saying or doing the unthinkable. From the not too distant past, examples include:
· broadcasting racist attack ads (George H. W. Bush campaign’s Willie Horton ads in 1988)
· taking out newspaper ads calling for the execution of African-American youths accused of murder before the case goes to trial (Trump, Central Park Jogger case, June 1989)
· vilifying newly arrived First Ladies Hillary Rodham and Michelle Obama
· paralyzing and shutting down the federal government and then declaring it dysfunctional (led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995)
· converting a spurious investigation of a sitting president’s finances into an inquest into his sexual life in search of impeachment charges (Kenneth Starr, 1998)
· sending political operatives to intimidate Florida poll workers during the Presidential election recount in 2000
· mocking a triple amputee’s military honor (targeting Senator Max Cleland in 2002)
· driving the country to invade a foreign country through false fears of a nuclear threat (Bush administration in 2003)
· using the endless War on Terror to silence opponents and dissent
· or putting in danger the life of the confidential military whistleblower of Abu Ghraib abuses by publicizing his name (Donald Rumsfeld, May 2006).
Or more recently:
· calling for armed insurrection to oppose a newly elected president (Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs, January 2009)
· questioning a sitting president’s nationality
· bringing weapons to anti-Obamacare rallies near White House-sponsored Town Halls where Obama was present (Tea Party, fall 2010)
· breaking longstanding congressional protocols and procedures in refusing to consider an Obama Supreme Court nominee and later rushing hearings of Trump’s own far-rightwing federal court nominees
· unprovoked shooting of young Black men by local police
· calling on the Russian government to provide a political opponent’s missing email messages
· threatening a rival presidential candidate with incarceration and assassination
· smearing a federal district judge overseeing a personal lawsuit in terms of his ethnicity in the hope he will overreact and thereby be forced to recuse himself from the case
· encouraging law enforcement officers to physically abuse arrestees
· using one’s office of sheriff to terrorize entire local communities (Joe Arpaio)
· using a trigger camera from the podium to single out transgender members of the audience for harassment (Breibart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Dec. 2016)
· in the name of free expression, having university administrators violate their own campus principles of community in authorizing events of known hate speech provocateurs sponsored by small student groups to intimidate individuals and groups and degrade the campus climate; and when the events fail, then sue the university for violation of free speech (Berkeley, 2017)
· putting up wanted posters on campus with images of students and faculty accusing them of supporting terrorism (David Horowitz Freedom Center)
· abandoning whole generations to the mercy of global warming’s destructive power
· accusing Jews and Blacks of fomenting violence and threatening them with retaliation (Dana Loesch, National Rifle Association video, June 2017)
· marching armed through a college campus chanting anti-Semitic slogans
· separating children from their undocumented immigrant parents, and upon reuniting them threatening the families indefinite detention
· publicly claiming that a close international ally is “captive of Russia” (Trump on Germany at NATO summit, July 2018)
The element of surprise also entails speed, volume, and reach of delivery: mobilization of print, cable, broadcast, and social media, endless repetition, spreading talking points, launching Internet bots and armies of trolls, etc. to overwhelm adversaries. They are fundamental to the tactic of “gaslighting,” the proliferation of lies, allegations, and contradictory statements that can lead those who are targeted and bystanders alike to question the veracity of their own perceptions and thoughts. In all this, Trump’s Twitter account plays a crucial role. It is not some quirky personality feature of an eccentric CEO; in his hands it has been transformed into a fundamental tool of power and political communication that skips over mainstream media outlets to address his supporters directly. Today Trump and his Republican allies don’t mete out measured doses of political intimidation and bullying only occasionally; it is extreme, 24/7, and all the time. It is no longer restricted to rough-and-tumble election campaigns; it has become a form of daily governing.
Above all, intimidation of this kind is preemptive: it seizes the initiative, occupies the news cycle, and by virtue of its speed and power overpowers our capacity for reflective thought, and causes the hormonal response to well up, “fight or flight?” It also jolts the nervous system and creates emotional facts on the ground (the victim’s responses, but also ours and the media’s) that put the target on the defensive and the rest of us on notice. This is the personal, psychological dimension of political bullying that Trump has expertly intensified to the highest degree through his outsized persona and his constant tweeting.
Finally, compounding preemptive attacks’ effectiveness is the related method of impugning an individual’s or group’s character or motive. You may ask, Why focus on someone’s or group’s character or motive? Because if allegations about motive or character are hard to prove, they are even harder to disprove and very difficult to dismiss in a public environment characterized by cheap cynicism and speculative hearsay. They bypass the accountability of factual discourse. Which is often why the more outlandish the allegations, the more preemptive and therefore effective they are in putting the victim on the defensive and in a position of weakness. They are the preferred form of accusation in a post-truth world. Here, the veracity of the allegations is far less important than their preemptive violence and excess that intimidate rivals and awe audiences.
To succeed, attacks on character don’t always need to destroy an opponent, but simply to dishonor or paralyze her or him by introducing a doubt in the minds of the audience. In this they are abetted by media frenzies that in a harsh political environment have their own rhythms as they pursue the bottom line that rarely favor robust political debate. Like bona fide political bullies, ever on the lookout for false equivalences, a newsworthy misstatement, ambiguous motive, or personal flaw, sensationalizing reporting will empty any issue of its substance. In the end, political smears of this kind can be understood to be acts of power that take the politics out of politics (consideration of issues, policies, stances, ambitions, political record, etc.) and obscure not only the issues but even questions of power in favor of endless speculation about a candidate’s or group’s character.
Political bullying behind closed doors presents certain advantages, such as the absence of witnesses and accountability, but in the current public arena of U.S. national politics with its violent gladiatorial theater of dominance the opposite is true. In public bullying the presence of an audience or witnesses, rather than putting a check on the aggressor party, actually enables it to malign and smear the opponent’s reputation and character in terms of her, his, or a group’s stigmatized identity or nonconformity to social norms. Trump, the Republican leadership, and their right-wing allies practice a negative identity politics of degraded subjecthood that relentlessly seeks to dishonor and defame all comers. These norms are related to gendered behavior, social, ideological, and political affiliations, strength of character, personality type, physical appearance and self-presentation, mental soundness, etc. In Trump’s case, his public bullying relies on deploying norms against others, even as he freely breaks or rewrites them through his own actions as circumstance and opportunity warrant. Such is his apparent power and freedom as an aggressive politician, media celebrity, and defiant White man.
What commentators and journalists have been slow to understand is that to many of his supporters Trump’s violent and openly corrupt behavior communicates freedom and authenticity. It is the very token of his liberty and trustworthiness; in this regard it is not incidental to his politics but their very substance. With the current administration and radical Republicans and their alt.right allies, intimidation and fearmongering are no longer a useful tactic but have become an entire political program. Organized and extreme verbal and non-verbal violence of this kind is what distinguishes them from their opponents. This is the dark political information that Democrats, establishment liberals, and many progressives have yet to integrate into their thinking.
In public, extremely legible appearances are the rule, and any ambiguity or complexity leaves one open to invidious interpretation and attack in the form of mocking, taking remarks out of context, ostracization, guilt by association, shunning, scapegoating, etc. Sometimes the violence takes the form of recruitment, otherwise known as hazing, of a submissive target into a group of sovereign subjects (for example, the fraternity of power-brokers), but in political campaigns exclusion and defeat of the adversary are the immediate goal. The manipulation of appearances by the assailant is one of his or her most powerful tools. The target suffers not only an isolating and humiliating attack but — second humiliation — boxed in by the overwhelmingly public (witnessed and recorded) nature of the act, has no choice but to respond.
In this scenario the victim’s reputation, body, and speech are all purposely violated. And this multiple violation is already read as the forced public revelation of a weakness in the victim previously unknown to the public (and perhaps even to the target); or more accurately, as a sign of potential, if not actual, weakness, one that may not manifest itself now but could at any time. The target finds him or herself subject to a level of unwonted scrutiny (body language, verbal utterances) in the form of public speculation that casts a cloud over any future actions. You remain forever tainted. Moreover, if you reply or protest, it dignifies the accusation and simply confirms the adversary’s power and dominance by thrusting you into a reactive position, and you risk remaining prisoner of his or her smear or misrepresentation (a danger often cited by reluctant Democratic politicians).
It is especially effective against political rivals like the Democrats, who seem to invest as much in their identity as in political action (for more on the Democrats, Republicans, and political violence, see Part 3, “Political Thuggery and Party Identities”). An attacker like Trump seeks to besmirch that self-image. He knows full well that for the victim to respond is risky business. Moreover, in the cheap cynical script that dominates U.S. public life, both the target and the attacker are held equally to blame, an attitude that almost always favors the assailant, who often couldn’t care less about his or her reputation, so long as he or she emerges as the more powerful party. Power is its own positive PR. Finally, it is not simply a single act of aggression, but rather one that is repeatable, but unpredictably so. When successful, the act of intimidation instills a new timeline of perpetual threat through injecting fear of a dreaded fate and ungraspable future into the present.
But that is not all: if you so much as name the smear, the perpetrator can turn the tables on you, accuse you of being the aggressor, and then claim victimhood for him or herself. This is especially the case when attacks take the passive-aggressive form of rumor mongering or repeating hearsay (marked by qualifiers such as “Or so I am told” or “Some say so, but I don’t know”) or of a “joke” that disavows any responsibility for the slander, leaving it up to the victim to name it as such. Bullied, one loses the right of response; the slightest reaction elicits another assault: “Are you being hostile?” — an accusation that can disqualify you, especially if you are female or of color. Here, the aggressor enjoys all control and escapes any accountability. On the other hand, in keeping publicly silent you risk either appearing complicit with the charge or confirming your own vulnerability and making yourself dependent on the sympathy and goodwill of bystanders and voters to protect you. This has been Democrats’ strategy of choice for years.
But, of course, the public is fickle, especially in the absence of what linguist George Lakoff calls counter-frames or narratives by the political opposition that is being targeted (the Democrats), and the violence of the assault deepens the impression of one’s own vulnerability. And in the public theater of dominance vulnerability denotes weakness, a flaw fatal to most candidates. In the current U.S. political environment moral shaming of violent perpetrators rarely works, but public dishonoring and disrespecting of their victims often still do. There appears to be no supreme witness or arbiter to which you can appeal for justice. That god is dead. So, you are on your own — or least made to feel that way. Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, Barack Obama, and even the more combative Hillary Clinton learned this to their sorrow. Political animal that he is, Bill Clinton was a better fighter, but only when Newt Gingrich put him on the ropes; only then did he develop a rapid response team that countered outlandish Republican allegations within the same news cycle with some success.
The Politics of Destruction
Preemptive attacks are a game of pure power; they are all the more terrifying in that they appear unmotivated by virtue of being so unexpected. In the current Republican onslaught, it is crucial to remember that such attacks are without any apparent meaning other than conserving their power and advantage, destabilizing and defeating opponents, and destroying the social protections of the New Deal and the Great Society. At times Republican leaders and Trump seem to do what they do merely because they can. Here, power is its own justification. At their most extreme, in the hands of the Republicans in Washington and statehouses these assaults are profoundly nihilistic — heedless of any social, ethical, or psychological boundaries. Such aggressors stand beyond any appeal and are unreachable except perhaps through fear and their sense of self-preservation. This is politics at its most raw.
In national life today, the endless dynamics of bullying that seem to invade all aspects of politics have come to match the limitless nature of unregulated capitalism itself that will monetize anything, exchange anything, buy anything, exploit anything. In Trump’s new political world, as in unfettered markets, everything is fair game. This is what both the resistance and the Democratic Party must understand and anticipate.
So, the question is What can we do?
I gave a partial answer at the end of Part One: restoring dignity to public life and taking back our stolen future by following the recent examples of the very public spectacles of the 2017 Women’s March, the #TakeAKnee movement of professional black football players against police violence, the actions of Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo campaign against sexual aggressors, and the March for Our Lives movement of K-12 students opposing gun violence. They’ve begun to create the all-important counternarratives and perspectives that reframe public debate, which the Democratic Party leadership with its unparalleled resources has failed to develop and popularize. As the fall elections approach, these include issues that many voters care about (a living wage, affordable healthcare, a secure retirement, tuition-free higher education, accessible public services, humane immigration policies) and will continue to care about after the current regime is gone. It also involves forms of concrete civic engagement and activism promoted by local chapters of groups like Indivisble.org and its 6,000 chapters nationwide, Sister District Project, Swing Left, Democratic Socialists of America, etc. that stand somewhere between social movements and traditional political organizations.
But pragmatically speaking, a complete answer to the question requires taking political violence seriously and grasping how forms of it work concretely, as I’ve outlined above. Unfortunately, this is something Democratic leaders and liberal groups have been disinclined to do. Here, activist organizations have a real role to play, as in mitigating the isolating effects of the political intimidation and public bullying that affect both targets and those who witness the violence. For example, by virtue of their collective nature, they can create larger protective networks that have members’ backs when public bullying happens and provide much-needed reality checks against the disorienting experience of gaslighting. In this they adopt the role that once strong unions, an effective Democratic Party, and robust social movements used to play in the past that not only aggressively protected their own but, as Keeanga Yahmatta-Taylor has reminded us, rendered certain kinds of political intimidation and hate speech simply out of order in national public life by the 1970s. With their decline came the resurgence of right-wing verbal and non-verbal political violence.
Crucial to both successful public demonstrations and nuts and bolts political activism is forging strategies and powers of anticipation — learning to duck and to stand tall, as it were, in the face of forms of political skullduggery. This entails not only mapping the minefields of intimidation (to which I hope this essay has contributed) but also coming to terms with our own vulnerabilities to different kinds of political violence, so as not to be caught by surprise again and again. This is something akin to earthquake preparedness, if you like. It provides the basis for concrete action and rapid responses. Just as important, it also buys time to pace ourselves and develop effective strategies tailored to specific situations. We need to give ourselves more space to think and reflect rather than simply to react. Just when to take up the gauntlet — or not — and respond to political bullying is something that has to be decided each time.
This has already happened with some of the groups cited above, such as their flooding of airports customs in response to the Muslim ban, the Women’s March in Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration, the outpouring of angry citizens at Republican congressional town halls that gave GOP representatives pause and slowed down the march to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and the K-12 students’ March for Our Lives. For once, our side, breaking free of the endless intimidation, has taken the initiative and enjoyed the intimidating element of surprise. And so in doing we created our own emotional “facts on the ground.”
Developing rapid responses and effective strategies may also mean pursuing modest goals in connection to the larger, national ones; this has had the advantage of achieving quick wins that moreover build trust and solidarity within organizations and networks. Here, I am following the example of the group Indivisible San Francisco to which I belong. In many ways it pursues traditional political activism that focuses on both governing and electoral issues by pressuring politicians to preserve Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and civil rights, and institute a living wage and so forth. You’d think there’s not much to do in liberal California. But in many respects most California politicians have never faced a level of political intimidation and public bullying in Washington quite like this before, and they are prone to default back to hopeful bipartisanship even from a position of weakness. To counter this, the San Francisco chapter has developed a nimble politics of anticipation: meeting every weekly for two hours, we plan the next week’s phone calls to politicians and the bi-weekly meetings with state directors of politicians’ staff. It is fast and detailed. This is just a particularly intense way one local chapter operates. Other chapters follow other models tailored to local situations and members. As Indivisible’s various chapters mature, more and more of our activities are coordinated with other chapters in California and in states containing flippable districts. We also meet regularly with state senators, assemblywomen and men, and San Francisco supervisors. And we participate in public demonstrations.
In the way of anticipatory, agile politics there is also the example of Black Lives Matter that is closer to a social movement and more street-oriented. When in June 2017 the National Rifle Association released a video featuring Dana Loesch accusing in thinly-veiled language Blacks and Jews of fomenting violence and threatening them with retaliation in kind, in a matter of days — within the news cycle — they responded with a counter video aggressively challenging the allegations and threats. They understood that speed is of the essence to dispel in the mind of the public outlandish charges of this nature.
Anticipation also means seeing beyond the pressing needs of the present moment into the future and long-term strategies. It creates the basis for pulling ourselves out of purely reactive stance that otherwise leaves the terms of the debate and the framing of the issues of the moment in the aggressors’ hands.
Retaking the initiative is crucial, and this is where the pursuit of a positive social agenda comes in: it allows us to go on the offensive and rewrite the political script from which political candidates, their parties, and the media all read. However, shifting to a more aggressive posture will be a challenge for the national Democratic Party that has wrapped itself in its identity as the party of “civility.” Without defining what it means and following it up with clarifying actions, when party leaders have gone the attack, they have let themselves be boxed in by the cynical charge of hypocrisy.
Just why turning the Democratic Party around to repulse the right-wing onslaught in time for the midterm elections is so difficult will be the subject of Part Three, “Political Thuggery and Party Identities,” which focuses on the two major parties.
Post Scriptum: Readers seeking to know more about the 30-year history that led to the current state of affairs in U.S. national life may want to consult my recent book, Confronting Political intimidation and Public Bullying: A Citizen’s Handbook for the Trump Era and Beyond (2017). It includes informative accounts of the legacy of the War on Terror and the revolution in the limits of acceptable public behavior and speech in the workplace and media in the 1980s and 1990s, and how they contributed to the rise of our extreme public culture of intimidation and bullying in politics.
Roddey Reid is Professor Emeritus, UC San Diego (firstname.lastname@example.org) and hosts “UnSafe Thoughts,” a blog on bullying and the fluidity of politics in dangerous times. He is a member of Indivisible San Francisco.