A Bully in the Presidential Bully Pulpit

In her book, The Bully Pulpit, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin examines Theodore Roosevelt’s leadership during his time as president. In successfully working to enact progressive reforms, Goodwin argues that Roosevelt created “a new kind of presidency and a new vision of the relationship between the government and the people.” Central to that leadership was Roosevelt’s mastery of the “bully pulpit.” Defined today as a public office or position of authority that provides its occupant with an outstanding opportunity to speak out on any issue, the term itself was coined by Roosevelt, Goodwin explains, “to describe the national platform the presidency provides to shape public sentiment and mobilize action.”

Bully Pulpit
President Roosevelt coined the term “bully pulpit” to emphasize the platform leaders have to speak up on issues. Howard Lake/Flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0

In American vernacular of the day, bully (as an adjective) meant “very good; first-rate.” Combined with pulpit, or a speaking platform, Roosevelt used the term to refer to the power that the presidency gave him to speak and be heard on vital issues facing the nation, from labor rights to political corruption to consumer food and drug safety. From Roosevelt onward, American presidents employed the presidential bully pulpit to advocate and promote their political agendas. But under the presidency of Donald J. Trump, that advocacy-oriented bully pulpit as originally conceived by Roosevelt has morphed into a crude platform to engage in bullying behavior.

Bully (as a noun) refers to someone who uses their strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker. The power imbalance between a bully and their prey is a key element of bullying behavior. As defined by StopBullying.gov, an educational website run by the US Department of Health & Human Services, “Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” Oftentimes, the behavior moves into the realm of cyberbullying, or the use of electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature.

The government’s own definition is telling when applied to the commander-in-chief. Unwanted, aggressive behavior. Check. Involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Check. Repeated over time. Check. Trump’s tweets could be textbook case studies of bullying even if he is a 71-year-old man and not a school aged child. Just before he took office, I wrote about Trump’s formulaic Twitter insults, drawing from the New York Times’ compilation of “The People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted.” At that time, the list included 289 people, places, and things. Now, as of the last update on July 18, that list has unsurprisingly grown to 342 people, places, and things—and counting.

Reserving much of his vitriol for journalists, it is bad enough that Trump has tweeted that the media is “the enemy of the American people” and frequently takes to Twitter to brand unfavorable press coverage as “Fake Media” or “Fake News.” But many of his Twitter tirades exhibit ad hominem attacks that cross well into the territory of bullying behavior against journalists, politicians, and citizens alike—from Alicia Machado to Serge Kovaleski to Megan Kelly to Mika Brzezinski and on and on. In fact, his bullying personal attacks have continued unabated despite the hope expressed by many that the presidency would change the man for the better, making him more “presidential.”

Ironically enough, against the backdrop of Trump’s cyberbullying, Melania Trump made a pre-inauguration announcement that she would take up the issue of cyberbullying as First Lady—a project that unfortunately has not yet come to fruition. If there was any hope that the First Lady could do some good in combating cyberbullying, let alone stage an intervention into her own husband’s bullying ways, that hope faded after Trump took to Twitter to go after the co-hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe show. He started by referring to Joe Scarborough as “Psycho Joe” and Mika Brzezinski as “low I.Q. Crazy Mika.” Then, reminiscent of Trump’s misogynistic comments about Megan Kelly, he continued to insult Brzezinski in a follow-up tweet. In response, the First Lady’s communications director released a statement that defended her husband’s tweets about Brzezinski. In addition, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders further justified the President’s tweets by claiming it was an appropriate way for him to fight back against critics.

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.
But let’s be perfectly clear. There is a definite distinction between a president who fights back against critics with bona fide political arguments and a person who merely uses the presidential bully pulpit to engage in aggressive personal attacks that seek to harm or intimidate. The former is presidential behavior that engages with the issues; the latter is bullying behavior that shifts attention from the issues because the person either lacks an adequate intellectual response or does not care to craft one.

Part of the problem is that Trump’s tweets are too often accepted by his supporters as sufficient arguments rather than the degrading ad hominem attacks they typically are (recall Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ defense of Trump). Rather than critiquing the message (news coverage) in a way that might raise genuine concerns supported by thoughtful reasons and evidence, Trump’s tweets merely insult the messengers (journalists) in an attempt to shift focus from the message.

So how should we respond to this hijacking of the presidential bully pulpit? What roles can citizens, journalists, and politicians play to stop the bullying by a man who holds the power of the presidency?

According to StopBullying.gov, “Bullying can be prevented, especially when the power of a community is brought together. Community-wide strategies can help identify and support [those] who are bullied, redirect the behavior of [those] who bully, and change the attitudes of [those] who tolerate bullying behaviors.” To stop bullying, the website advises: Don’t ignore it. Intervene immediately. Model respectful behavior when you intervene. I would emphasize that a community-wide effort in response to Trump’s bullying must involve people and politicians closely allied with him.

Although several Republican lawmakers took to Twitter to respond to Trump’s attack on Brzezinski, including Senators Susan Collins, Ben Sasse, Lisa Murkowski, Lindsey Graham, Orin Hatch, and Representative Lynn Jenkins, many others continue to remain silent or provide tepid statements that fail to “send the message that it is not acceptable.” Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, for example, called the tweets “a mosquito bite” that should be ignored. But the more this behavior is simply ignored by Trump’s most ardent supporters and political allies (even if they silently cringe), the more likely the behavior will continue—much to the detriment of everyone, Republicans included.

Republican leaders should ask themselves, how would President Teddy Roosevelt want them to use their platforms to speak out on this abuse of the presidential bully pulpit?

Adam Hodges is a linguistic anthropologist specializing in political discourse. His books include The ‘War on Terror’ Narrative: Discourse and Intertextuality in the Construction and Contestation of Sociopolitical Reality (2011), and his articles have appeared in Discourse & Society, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Language & Communication, and Language in Society.

Cite as: Hodges, Adam. 2017. “A Bully in the Presidential Bully Pulpit.” Anthropology News website, August 10, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.569

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