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The Debate Showed the Truth: Trumpism Is Bullyism
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The Debate Showed the Truth: Trumpism Is Bullyism

And the virus is spreading through the Republican grassroots.

One of the most mystifying and disturbing cultural aspects of the Trump presidency is the way in which a generation of Republican men, urged on by populist GOP pundits, have pushed him forward as an avatar of strength and masculinity. It’s always been a strange fit: A New York playboy who luxuriated in inherited wealth and dodged military service with a fleeting bone spur diagnosis doesn’t match the normal profile of true conservative manliness.

But you still see it all the time. Especially here in the South, the good ole boys sure do love Trump. They hear words like Dan Bongino’s below—that Trump is the “apex predator” or the “lion king” or the “shark in the ocean”—and believe they capture the essence of the man and his appeal:

But was Trump the “lion king” or was he just trying to bully Biden? There’s a profound difference, and the difference goes back to the very definition of toughness itself.

To help us understand, I’d like to refer you to the best point about the debate I’ve read so far. It’s by my friend David Bahnsen, and it’s in National Review. Bahnsen had his problems with Biden’s debate performance and with Chris Wallace’s moderation, but David says, “[Y]ou are blinded by your red hat if you don’t believe the general chaos of the evening was the handiwork of POTUS.”

Why? Here’s where it gets important:

What I do not mean by that is that President Trump was too feisty or too tough. This is actually where my biggest criticism would lie—he had multiple opportunities to be substantively tough, and neglected to do so. (Emphasis in original.)

In other words, there is a zone of toughness that has nothing to do with chaos, interruptions, or insults. It’s a zone of toughness that involves discipline, preparation, and persistence. There’s a zone of toughness that requires knowledge, reason, and—yes—even manners.

From a conservative perspective especially, Joe Biden’s past and policies are a target-rich environment. One can legitimately hold his feet to the fire on taxpayer support for abortion, for the stunning concessions in the Iran deal, and for the Obama administration’s failures in Iraq and Syria—failures that led not just to the rise of ISIS but also to the reinsertion of American ground troops and the expansion of Middle East wars. A skilled and prepared debater should attempt to force an answer from Biden on court-packing and the filibuster.

Yes, I’m fully aware that even in the recent, pre-Trump past debates are remembered more for “moments” than for substance. More folks, for example, remember the “Bush nod” to Gore during the 2000 debates than the substance of the “Dingell-Norwood” bill they were discussing, but the style points were scored in the context of an actual substantive disagreement. And note in retrospect how thoroughly minor and small Gore’s breach of decorum seems to be:

Trump charts a different path—one that relegates substance to the dark corners of the stage and puts style at the very center. And that style is the chaotic, performative, and swaggering toughness of the bully, and it “works” not by refuting a man through logic, reason, or even wit but rather by creating exasperation that can turn into confusion or fear that sometimes leads to weakness.

Trump is obviously a problem. But here’s another problem—admiration and imitation of his style is spreading through the GOP. As it spreads, bullying is recast as masculinity and tantrums are recast as toughness. GOP politicians (and their staffs) who predate the 2016 election are time and again blindsided by the sheer ferocity and personal animus they experience when they resist Trump—an animus that is often accompanied by relentless claims of “cowardice” and direct attacks on their manhood.

In other words, what you saw onstage last night is replicating itself across the American political landscape. We watched live and on stage exactly the kind of aggression we see on our social media feeds, witness in Congress, and sometimes experience live and in-person at churches, political gatherings, and even kitchen tables.

The Trump style is seductive—especially for some GOP men—on two main grounds. First, it’s simply easier than substantive toughness. It doesn’t require discipline. It doesn’t require knowledge. And it actively shuns the manners and decency that are often indispensable to the project of persuasion. Combine a dose of animosity with a dash of shamelessness, and you’re ready to fight.

Second—to put it bluntly—it works (at least so far). Trump won, and his temperamental and moral opposite, Mitt Romney, lost. Never mind the countless differences in quality of opponent and underlying political context (I simply can’t imagine Donald Trump beating Barack Obama in 2012). The central, salient fact of Trump’s victory has convinced millions of Americans that the bully’s path is also the winning path.

A bullying, overbearing approach that rejects nuance and compromise and thrives in conflict and division is incompatible with competent governance. The fruits of Trump’s administration—increasing social division, a mishandled pandemic that has resulted in mass death and economic catastrophe, and a plummeting sense of national well-being—demonstrate the manifest failures of his leadership.

But the bullies don’t just corrupt the government. They corrupt a party, and they corrupt the culture. Indeed, Trump now stands on the shoulders of his “mini-me” clones in the conservative-entertainment complex and in large sections of the Republican grassroots.

Beat the bully and you not only end his malign influence on our government, you can start the process of cultural repair. But if he wins? Expect the chaos to spread. Expect the cruelties to multiply. And the only way that he wins is if tens of millions of Americans who watched last night’s debate respond and say with their votes, “More please.”

One of the more interesting recent books that I’ve read is called Without You There Is No Us. It’s a book by a woman who taught the sons of North Korea’s elite, and it takes its name from a praise song the young boys sing to North Korea’s leader. It signals the way in which the children of North Korea are taught to see Kim Jong-un as a life and soul-sustaining force.

Here in the U.S., however, the electoral process flips the script. Our leaders don’t make and sustain us. We ultimately make and sustain them. To each leader we say, “Without us, there is no you.”

Thus, Trump is ultimately a symptom more than a cause. He cannot bully you in the ballot box. He has no power that we don’t give him freely. And when millions of Republican Americans watched last night in deep frustration—as they watched the chaos president act as a chaos candidate—many of them should have been sobered by a sudden, sad realization: America is suffering in the world they helped make.

One more thing …

With my book release, I’ve been almost absurdly busy podcasting and writing, and I was honored to contribute an essay in the weekend Wall Street Journal that attempted to describe why, exactly, the Supreme Court wars have become so very toxic. It begins:

If you want to know the roots of the country’s present polarization over the Supreme Court, we have to go back. No, not to the contentious hearings for Brett Kavanaugh two years ago, nor to Sen. McConnell’s decision to deny a hearing or confirmation vote to Merrick Garland, who was President Obama’s 2016 pick to replace Justice Scalia. We must go even farther back than the drama of the Clarence Thomas hearing in 1991 or the attacks on Robert Bork’s character in 1987.

The real point of origin is one of the first judicial controversies in the history of the American republic, decided in the landmark 1803 Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison. If you think judicial politics is polarizing and opportunistic now, consider what John Adams and his partisan allies did in the closing days of his one and only presidential term.

Read the whole thing and tell me your thoughts. And if you haven’t yet purchased my book, please check it out. One of my favorite comments comes from an Amazon reviewer: “This is one of the few books that I would feel comfortable recommending to friends of any political stripe, any religious affiliation, any predisposition.” I tried to write it so that everyone could see a bit of themselves and understand their opponents—all while waking up to the true dangers of American polarization. You can tell me if I succeeded.

One last thing …

A fascinating subplot of the new college football season is Mike Leach’s attempt to bring the “air raid” offense to the toughest conference in all of college football. How is it working out so far? We’ll let SEC Shorts tell the tale:

Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.