The Presidential Campaign and Its Lessons on Bullying

What politics—and my daughter—are teaching me about schoolyard harassment

Jim Young / Reuters

A few weeks ago, my first-grader told me another girl in her class called her the b-word during lunch. Not that b-word, although in my daughter's six-year-old universe, this b-word probably stung even more. The girl had called my daughter a “butt-head.” I asked why someone she insisted just a few months ago was her BFF, or one among several, would call her that. “She doesn’t like me, I guess,” she said. “She always looks at me in a mean way.”

The mama bear inside me felt the instinctive urge to fight back. I can top “butt-head” as an insult a million lowbrow ways over—trust me. But I didn’t, at least not out loud, because as a parent that sort of behavior goes against everything I’m trying to instill in my daughter: to treat others with kindness and respect, to have manners, to be decent and to act responsibly. She’s watching everything we grown-ups do.

I want her to fight her own battles, to stand up for herself by using well-chosen words and not her fists, and to bite her tongue for the sake of civility. It means no name-calling, taunting, or belittling—or, essentially, none of the ad hominem attacks that have become the story of the current race to the White House.

Before this election, I thought I had this whole schoolyard taunting-and-teasing thing figured out. I thought that taking the high road was sound advice. After all, that’s what the experts on bullying recommend. The race for the presidency is one of the last places I ever thought I’d learn a lesson about bullying.

My daughter gives me a simple definition of what bullying is: “Being mean to someone or everyone all of the time.” It’s one of those beyond-academics safety lessons she’s learned at school, like knowing what to do in a lockdown drill and telling me what foods I have to avoid sending to school because of other children’s food allergies. This is the new normal for kids.

In her book The Bully, The Bullied and The Bystander, the parenting and bullying expert Barbara Coloroso writes that bullying is “a conscious, willful, and deliberate hostile activity” intended to make the bully feel powerful when engaging the target. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines bullying as unwanted aggressive behavior in youth between the ages of 5 and 18.

Coloroso says that Donald J. Trump, 69, is absolutely a bully.

There’s a meanness and smugness to the way Trump denigrates his opponents—or any person, place, or thing he doesn’t like, Coloroso argues. He calls them stupid, losers, and rapists, belittles them with names like “Little Marco,” and says he wishes he could punch them in the face. That he seems to take pleasure in his name-calling “should be scary to all of us,” Coloroso says. “That’s a lack of compassion.”

Trump is an uncomfortable reminder that bullying isn’t something people leave behind after high school. Bullying behavior is found in bosses, in trolls snipping at each other in comments sections online, and in “friends” with a bone to pick on Facebook.

There are now anti-bullying laws in all 50 states—but they’re all for dealing with youth. So how do you stop a grown-up who has no intention of changing their bullying ways?

My daughter recently checked out a picture book at the public library called Lives of the Presidents: Fame, Shame (and What the Neighbors Thought). In addition to having bad teeth, George Washington, as it turns out, was worried about manners and once copied by hand 110 rules about “Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.”

All the media coverage of the presidential election has made my 6-year-old curious about the presidency, elections, and voting. She asks us questions all the time now, and every time there’s a debate or voting returns on TV, she wants to know if she can stay up late to watch.

This is a teachable moment that only comes around once every four years. But at this point, letting her binge-watch the latest season of House of Cards with me might be a safer bet. American politics has turned a dark, warped corner when the ruthless but always genteel fictional Underwoods start looking more civilized than real life presidential candidates.

In the days before and after Super Tuesday, I watched with my jaw unhinged as the Republican presidential campaign devolved into a spectacle: a cockfight with two roosters clawing at each other and one literally defending his penis size to a national audience.

Don’t fight back—that’s what bullying experts advocate. But that’s exactly what Senator Marco Rubio did. He turned his wrath on Trump and began to gleefully imitate Trump’s below-the-belt style of personal attack. His jabs threw Trump off-kilter, if only momentarily.

The back-and-forth was unpresidential. It’s more than just a retaliation against political correctness. There’s a pathology to Trump-style insults. They’re a cancer. I don’t want my children to think any of it is okay.

I’ve heard this sentiment recently from other parents at the school pick-up line, in off-handed remarks from television commentators, on Twitter and Facebook, and even from the former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

But I wonder, what does all this bad behavior say about taking the high road?

The school nurse phoned me one day shortly after lunch to tell me my daughter was complaining about a stomachache. I asked to speak to her, and I could sense in her voice something was off. She sounded upset. She never misses school and is hardly ever sick, so my husband went to pick her up.

My husband talked to her initially, and eventually she told him about the insult. “It was the worst day in my entire life,” she confessed.

First-grade drama can be rough because it’s so new and kids are still developing socially and emotionally and trying to figure out where they land in the pecking order. They’ve started to use what they have and don’t have—FurReal Friends, Minecraft, braces, and casts—as social currency.

My daughter is generally a happy kid, always skipping, drawing pictures for friends and teachers and giving them tight squeezes at the end of every school day. I don’t want her steamrolled, but I don’t want her to change, either. Standing up for herself isn’t a lesson I can teach her in one afternoon. It’s a moving target. Later, we talked, and I reminded her, “Not everyone is like you. But that doesn’t mean you should stop being you.” By that I meant, “keep being the good guy.”

Like a lot of Americans, I have this idea lodged deep in my psyche that the good guy always wins. Good triumphs over evil. The hero puts the villain in his or her place, eventually. I’ll take a villain only if that villain shows us a shred of humanity, like the terrible but lovable Gru from Despicable Me.

I want to believe that if people do things with integrity, if they place the greater good ahead of individual ego, there will be a reward at the end of it all. “You’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency,” Jeb Bush told Trump during a debate in December.

But as it turns out, that’s exactly what Trump is doing.

I asked Coloroso whether it’s ever okay to fight back.

“I don’t advocate it,” she said. “Aggression begets aggression. Passivity invites it, but assertion will dissipate it.”

I actually felt emotionally hungover after watching the Super Tuesday coverage, so I was glad when my daughter insisted we watch A Year in Space the next evening, a documentary about astronaut Scott Kelly’s 12-month mission on the International Space Station.

I have Trump fatigue. I need an antidote. Hillary Clinton’s simple anti-Trump message of “love and kindness” is good, but I’m not counting on another politician to be America’s savior. Those of us who are fed up have to save ourselves.

There are no innocent bystanders, Coloroso says. There are henchmen, active and passive supporters, disengaged onlookers, potential defenders, and the brave-hearted—those who denounce the bully.

Both regular folks and leaders are starting to speak out against the pernicious attacks. The outcry calling for a return to civility is growing.

As I sat in my living room with my family, eating popcorn and watching the most gorgeous images of our planet—beautiful Blue Marble shots, close-ups of gauzey swirls in the ocean, the neon Aurora Borealis dancing in the night sky, and no drawn-in lines to separate us from each other—I felt a sense of calm within myself again.

The beauty in this world is that it is more powerful than the intolerance of one individual.

Voting is a powerful way to give this bully the comeuppance he deserves. And the best part is casting a ballot can be done without ever having to stoop to Donald Trump’s level.