By Tom Ehrich
We had a bully at my elementary school. His dad was thought to be a bully, too. We suspected that being beaten at home made our classmate cruel at school. Hard to say, no one wanted to get close enough to him to find out.
I hope Joey got his life together, escaping his father and whatever abuse drove him to cruelty. It is painful to watch bullies remain bullies well into adulthood. They become more deft at hurting people but never move beyond the lonely, ego-crushing experiences of childhood. They find meaning and safety in crushing the egos of whomever they meet, even their families and colleagues.
Many wonder what sickness drives Donald Trump. Some see strong indicators of narcissism, perhaps leading to psychopathic behavior. That is a tragic diagnosis, if true, because narcissism is a personality disorder from which one doesn’t recover. The narcissist can learn to function, but should never be put in charge of anything.
Some see him as a playground bully who just never grew up. Some see him as an entitled rich kid who was taught to believe in getting his way at all costs. Some see him as a pathological liar and cheat.
The diagnoses go on and on, many little more than armchair psychologizing, but some put forward by serious psychologists who have studied the man with professional skill. But in them all is a widely held belief, even in his own party, that something isn’t normal and right about Trump.
It isn’t his political opinions – those are run-of-mine positions dating back to Reconstruction, the advent of Jim Crow and the Klan, the America First movement, and a centuries-old history of seeing Islam as an enemy of civilization. Even in his fascination with fascism, Trump’s voice is a voice we have heard before. And his ignorance of history, the Constitution, foreign policy and what makes a society tick can be matched by many politicians whom we simply vote down, but don’t question their sanity.
In his relentless need to belittle people, however, Trump suggests a deeper toxicity. When he mocks whatever he finds vulnerable in a person, when he fires off angry messages whenever his thin skin is pricked, when he casually calls for violence against opponents and says he would like to “hit them hard,” when he shows lack of self-control under pressure and a stubborn, childlike refusal to admit error, many see deep pathology.
It is important to separate the GOP’s current positions from the sickness of its leading candidate. The people in their common sense can defeat Trump at the polls. He can go down in flames and resume a failed business career with even greater name recognition. The positions he espouses, however, will remain a living legacy that we must take seriously. The racism in Trump’s taunting is a racism deeply felt in America. After all this time, it hasn’t gone away. The fear of immigrants isn’t going away. Neither is growing alarm over the violence possible, indeed likely, in a heavily armed populace.
The gap between rich and poor is widening. The predatory behavior of financial institutions is worsening. The determination of politicians to take money from the poor and middle class and channel it to the already-wealthy is accelerating. Collapse of basic institutions through under-funding and over-bureaucratizing isn’t going away.
Reasonable people can disagree about these matters. It is tragic that a sick candidate has turned the normal push-pull of democratic politics into a messianic cult. Many who follow him will wonder what to do next when his candidacy fails. They have legitimate concerns. Who will hear them? Or do they need to look for another proto-fascist strongman?
It won’t be enough for Democrats to defeat Trump. They will also need to prepare for healing a broken society. The bully’s mob will need to be brought back into the mainstream. The bad actors who are plundering the nation will need to be held accountable. Eight years of right-wing obstructionism will need to end, preferably through a renewed willingness to do the hard work of governing.