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Standing up to political bullies

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Standing up to political bullies

Stephen H. Provost

Vote for me. Or else.

I'm sure this is not what Theodore Roosevelt had in mind when he coined the term “bully pulpit” in reference to the presidency.

These days, presidential candidates seem hell bent on trying to bully one another – and the voters – into submission with all the gusto of an MMA athlete (minus the peak conditioning and the sense of honorable combat). They talk over one another relentlessly on the debate stage, conduct push polls, call one another names and make implicit threats.

Republican candidate Marco Rubio questions Donald Trump’s penis size, and Trump responds by labeling him “Little Marco.” Others are dismissed as stupid, weak, pathetic or wacko. Trump speaks in sweeping generalizations, declaring that Islam “hates” America and referring to Mexican immigrants as rapists. This isn’t just bigotry, it’s bullying. And Trump - whose most famous quote is, "You're fired!" - isn’t shy about doing it.

He refused to disavow an endorsement by a former leader of the KKK, a racist group that virtually epitomizes violent bullying, eventually blaming his response on a bad earpiece. A campaign rally in Chicago turned violent when fistfights broke out between his supporters and protesters. Trump’s response? Pin the blame on the protesters, whom he labeled as “thugs.”

He also asked supporters at a rally to raise their right hands and repeat a pledge to vote for him on Election Day “no matter what,” then warned them that “bad things happen if you don’t live up to what you just did.”

Intimidation and manipulation

Intimidation is the bully’s stock-in-trade. Candidates often use it in the context of a political protection racket, playing on the public’s fears by warning of a perceived threat, then casting themselves in the role as guardian or savior. Trump did precisely this when he denigrated immigrants and vowed to build a wall to “protect” us from them. But his implicit threat about “bad things” happening to supporters who don’t live up to their pledge takes intimidation to a whole new level.

Vote for me. Or else.

Trump may be the worst, but he’s far from the only bully on the block. His main rival for the GOP nomination, Ted Cruz, sent out an official-looking mailer to Iowa voters labeled VOTING VIOLATION. “Your individual voting history as well as your neighbors’ are public record,” it warned, adding that “a follow-up notice may be issued following Monday’s caucuses.”

So much for the secret ballot. Big Brother Ted is watching you.

And if you think Republican bullies are the only ones in the schoolyard, think again. A piece by Nolan Dalla describes how a caller sought to bully him into voting for Clinton by using a so-called push poll. Such phone calls seek to “push” citizens into voting for one candidate by asking questions that contain negative (and sometimes false) information about his or her opponent.

In this case, the caller labeled Clinton’s rival, Bernie Sanders, “divisive” and declared that he had “blocked” gun-control and immigration-reform legislation (ignoring the fact that no single representative in Congress can “block” anything by himself).

I haven’t been push polled, but I have encountered Clinton supporters who don’t hesitate in attempting to bully others. Some have gone so far as to accuse those who don’t support her of misogyny. (My standard response: Did you support Sarah Palin for vice president in 2008? If not, does that make you a misogynist?)

Clinton herself even tried to bully Sanders on the debate stage by interrupting him – and he had the temerity to stand up to her by saying, “Excuse me, I’m talking,” her campaign responded with an email criticizing his “tone.”

Remember: She interrupted him.

That’s another typical tactic of a bully: accusing the victim. Interrupting someone is universally considered rude, yet the Clinton campaign tried to depict Sanders as the villain because he stood up to her.

Personal experience

Why does any of this matter to me? Because it hits close to home. I was bullied relentlessly in junior high school, and I learned how to recognize it. It’s ugly.

Even when candidates aren’t acting like bullies themselves, they often subject themselves to lobbyists and their sponsors, who practice another form of bullying: offering financial support to those they feel will support their causes. Or they count on their most passionate supporters to act as unacknowledged surrogates who’ll attempt to prod, harass or shame people into voting for them.

Do you want me to support one bully because the other one is worse? That’s not on even on my radar screen anymore. Been there, done that. The idea of being a pawn on a power struggle between two bullies doesn’t appeal to me. I value myself enough not to put myself in that position again, and I suspect plenty of other voters do, too, which is why many of them so often decide to stay home on Election Day or vote for third-party candidates.

I refuse to settle for a nation where bullying is the status quo, where the “art of the deal” is more important than public service, where push polling and influence peddling are par for the course, where I’m pressured to support one candidate out of fear the other option will be worse.

You can’t stop bullies until you stand up and declare, “I will no longer accept this.”

The ends don’t justify the means, and the lesser of two evils isn't good enough. It never was.       

• • •

Incidentally, Theodore Roosevelt, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this article, ran the most successful third-party campaign in the modern U.S. history, winning more than 4 million votes to finish second, ahead of the Republican candidate.

His attitude toward bullying indicates he wouldn't have thought much of today's candidates. "Ridicule is one of the favorite weapons of wickednes," he once said and, on another occasion, "Politeness (is) a sign of dignity, not subservience."

About that phrase he coined: “bully pulpit” … for the record, he used “bully” the way it’s used the in the expression “bully for you” – as a synonym for fantastic, wonderful or jolly good.

None of which, I hasten to add, applies to the state of political discourse in these United States, circa 2016.