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A Nation of Bullies

Bob Herbert

The United States, which is supposed to be a nation of laws, is becoming a nation of bullies. We saw it in the boorish behavior throughout the Trump campaign for president, and we see it today in thuggish groups like the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, which the New York Times described as “part fight club and part Western-pride fraternity.”

We saw it on the eve of a special election in Montana, when Greg Gianforte won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives despite being accused of body-slamming a reporter for asking a question Gianforte did not like.

Bullying online has become so pervasive that most of us take it for granted. And it has reached epidemic levels in our schools—sometimes with devastating consequences. We’ve all read heart-breaking accounts of children and teenagers who have taken their own lives after soul-shaking periods of protracted cruelty.

We are not paying close enough attention to this poisonous phenomenon, which is upending longstanding norms and changing the very nature of our society. There is not a great deal of distance between this widespread bullying—with its lack of empathy, its demonizing of the other, its delight in suffering—and the brutal hate crimes that are occurring in the United States with such horrifying frequency.

Two men were murdered and a third was nearly killed on a train in Portland, Oregon, as they tried to aid two teenaged girls who had been accosted—bullied—by a man screaming anti-Muslim slurs. The attacker, enraged at being confronted, pulled a knife and stabbed all three of the men who had tried to intervene.

That attack occurred on May 26. On March 4, a Sikh man was shot and seriously wounded outside his home in Kent, Washington, by a man who shouted, “Go back to your own country!”  

A month earlier, two men from India were shot—one fatally—in a bar in Kansas. The gunman, who apparently thought the victims were Iranian, had shouted at them: “Get out of my country!”

These kinds of attacks do not occur in a vacuum. We have created an environment in America that not only tolerates but often applauds hateful and dehumanizing rhetoric, violent confrontations, the wanton use of physical and even deadly force by officers of the law, and expressions of brutal contempt for those with whom we disagree politically or philosophically.

There is an audio recording of Greg Gianforte’s encounter with reporter Ben Jacobs of The Guardian. After Jacobs asks a perfectly reasonable question, we can hear Gianforte shouting: “I’m sick and tired of you guys! The last guy that came in here, you did the same thing! Get the hell out of here!”

“Jesus!” says Jacobs, as he is slammed to the floor and pummeled.

A reporter for The Atlantic noted that there was something “frightening in the fact that the audio—shocking as it is—is so ordinary these days. I don’t just mean alleged assaults in recent weeks against journalists like Jacobs in Montana; or Dan Heyman, the reporter arrested for shouting a question at the Health and Human Services secretary, Tom Price… or John M. Donnelly, the reporter who says he was pinned to the wall at the Federal Communications Commission after he tried to ask the commissioner, Michael P. O’Rielly, a question.

“The ubiquity of recording and broadcasting technology has given Americans an unprecedented view of how frequently and grievously people in positions of power will intimidate, assault, and even kill ordinary citizens in the United States.”

There was a time in American politics, not too long ago, when the kind of behavior that Gianforte was accused of would have been unthinkable. No more. Donald Trump won the White House with a campaign that embraced bullying with a fervor usually reserved for the return of a long lost love.

Trump didn’t just rant about “lyin’ Ted” and “Pocahontas” and “crooked Hillary.” He would often launch into his own personal fondness for violence—at times almost welcoming it, or even inciting it, at his rallies. Reveling in the thousands who showed up in person and the millions watching on national television, Trump would cry out with great enthusiasm:

“Knock the crap out of him!” “Get him out. Try not to hurt him. If you do, I’ll defend you in court.” “I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell you.” “You know what they used to do with guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.” “Maybe he should have been roughed up…” And so on.

Further poisoning the political and social environment is the president’s almost obsessive admiration for tyrannical leaders in other countries—not just Vladimir Putin, but the execrable Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, and the Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Duterte is an accused mass murderer who seems to revel in the accusation. Death squads that he is alleged to have authorized have killed thousands. One of Duterte’s responses to the allegations included a grotesque understatement of the tragic toll of the Holocaust: “Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now there is three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”

An article about Duterte in The New Yorker last fall said: “In a speech announcing his candidacy, he rambled on for more than an hour, offering an account of personally killing kidnappers and setting their car on fire, pledging to kill ‘up to a hundred thousand criminals’ when elected, and boasting of his womanizing.”  

None of this has put off our president. Trump had what was described by administration officials as a very friendly phone conversation with Duterte and invited him to visit the White House. During the call, according to a spokesman for the White House, Trump expressed “his understanding and appreciation of the challenges facing the Philippine president, especially” with regard to his crackdown on drugs.

Sisi seized power in Egypt in 2013. Under his rule, hundreds of civilian protesters have been killed in the streets, tens of thousands of political prisoners remain behind bars, and important cornerstones of democracy—an independent judiciary, a free press—have been pounded into rubble.

Sisi had been banned from the White House by the Obama administration. Trump took a different approach. Not only was Sisi the first Arab leader to speak with Trump after the inauguration, he was welcomed at the White House by Trump, who showered him with praise. “You have a great friend and ally in the United States and me,” said Trump.

We are on very dangerous terrain here.

When a democratic nation like the United States enthusiastically welcomes murderous tyrants; when that nation’s paramount leader describes its free press as an enemy of the people; when mosques and synagogues are vandalized daily and congregants can be slaughtered in a house of worship; when racial and ethnic and religious minorities cower in the face of belligerent and often heavily-armed bigots; when mass killings are part of daily life; when children are driven to suicide by their peers; when a population collectively is so fearful it must build an armament of hundreds of millions of private weapons—all this together is profoundly dangerous. It is the kindling wood of fascism.

We need to look in a mirror. What are we allowing ourselves to become?

Fascism is all about the exaltation of a particular race or ethnic group. It is about the dismantling of social norms and long-standing governmental and societal institutions. It is hostile to rigorous thought, and brutally contemptuous of so-called intellectual elites. It thrives on chaos and propaganda, and on the manipulation of language until it is rendered meaningless. Ignorance is its stock in trade, and violence its most cherished tool.

America was once the most advanced nation on the planet. We need to keep looking in the mirror until we figure out what the hell happened.