Bully for Who?

Megyn Kelly’s interview of Donald Trump made it clear once again: The definition of “bullying” has expanded almost to the point of meaninglessness.

Donald Trump and Megyn Kelly, enjoying the calm before the strife (Fox)

The debut of the show Megyn Kelly Presents on Tuesday featured, as its primary draw, an interview that had been months in the making: the newscaster’s conversation with Donald Trump. But the pair, despite the fact that one of them is running for president, didn’t use the occasion to talk about politics or policy. Instead, they talked—almost exclusively, in the aired version of the conversation—about bullying. “Most kids between the ages of 6 and 16 have been bullied at some point in their lives,” Kelly told Trump. She paused. “Were you ever bullied?”

“No, I wasn’t,” Trump replied. “But I have seen bullying. And bullying doesn’t just have to be as a child. I mean, I know people who were bullied when they’re 55.”

“It can happen when you’re 45!” Kelly replied.

Trump ignored Kelly’s insinuation: that she, at 45—by way of the insulting tweets and demeaning commentary of one Donald J. Trump—had been a victim of that bullying. Instead, Trump continued, simply: “It happens. But you gotta get over it. Fight back, do whatever you have to do.”

It was a strange moment in a strange interview—one that, though it may have been 1990s-Waltersian in tone, was distinctly 2016 in vintage. The irony may have been lost on Trump, but it wasn’t on Kelly: For her, the interview itself was a form of fighting back. Fox’s marketing efforts for the climactic Kelly/Trump meet-up had presented the chat as a long-in-the-making moment of performative reconciliation: Trump, the bully, facing the woman who had been on the receiving end of his insults. Kelly, introducing the pre-taped interview at the start of the show, mentioned the many people Trump had mocked and/or undermined on his path to the presumptive GOP nomination: Mexicans, Muslims, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Heidi Cruz, Carly Fiorina. She pointed out that the list included “yours truly.”

And yet! What made the interview so supremely strange was the fact that it wasn’t just Megyn Kelly who was using it to claim her own victimhood. It was also … Donald J. Trump.

Kelly: Let me ask you about that, because most American parents try to raise their kids to not bully, to not name-call, to not tease, not taunt. How can they effectively bring that message when the front-runner for the Republican nomination does all of those things?

Trump: Well I do it, really—you know, I’ve been saying during this whole campaign, that I’m a counter-puncher. You understand that. I’m responding. Now, I then respond times, maybe, 10. I don’t know. I respond pretty strongly. But in just about all cases, I’ve been responding to what they did to me. So it’s not a one-way street.

So. Here was Megyn Kelly—who is, culturally speaking, one of the most powerful people in the country—claiming to confront her bully. And here, too, was Donald Trump—who enjoys the same status—rejecting the premise. Here he was, instead, explaining his own bullying behavior by claiming that he is, in his own way, a victim. I’ve been responding to what they did to me.

There the two were, engaged in an implied competition that would be paradoxical were it not so perfectly calibrated to the cultural moment: Who is more aggrieved? There they were, expanding the definition of bullying beyond the schoolyard and into the televised echelons of American culture.

It’s fitting, in one sense, that “bullying” would prove to be semantically supple. The term, perhaps derived from the Middle Dutch boele, or “lover,” first appeared in English texts in the middle of the 16th century—as a synonym for “sweetheart” and “darling.” (It was initially applied to either sex, but soon took on a distinctly masculine air—occupying, the OED notes, “a place comparable to that of today’s ubiquitous dude.”) Shakespeare, in particular, was a fan of the word: “I love the lovely bully,” Pistol declares, of his king, in Henry V.

It’s this sense of the word that Teddy Roosevelt was invoking in his notion of the “bully pulpit”—a term that got its name not from, as Trump’s behavior would suggest, the presidency’s capacity to let its occupant act as a bully, but rather from the Shakespearian sense of the word. Roosevelt’s rosy coinage—the awesome pulpit, as we might put it today—suggested the presidency’s ability to serve as a platform for influence: power by way of charm, rather than of its opposite.

But the secondary sense of “bully”—of the (relatively) powerful, inflicting harm on the “(relatively) powerless—is the one that has endured most readily. It likely derives from the word’s evolution into a synonym for “swashbuckler,” or “blustering browbeater.” A “bully” came to mean, in the 17th century, a “hired ruffian,” or more specifically a “protector of prostitutes.” It acquired, essentially, the meaning that has defined most contemporary interpretations of “bully”: as someone who operates based on discrepancies of power.

What Monday’s Kelly/Trump exchange suggested, though, was a newer appropriation of the concept of “bullying”: one that concerns itself not with objective power disparities so much as perceived ones. One that derives in part from the capabilities of social media—which give us new ways to interact with celebrities, and which flattens those interactions by way of easy @mentions. “In 2009,” Heather Havrilesky noted in The New York Times Magazine, “the blogger Heather Armstrong tweeted that no one should buy a Maytag washer because of what she called the company’s inadequate response to her broken appliance, and onlookers on Twitter accused her of bullying Whirlpool, the company’s $19 billion parent corporation.” More recently, Kylie Jenner, rich and famous, has claimed to be the victim of cyberbullying. So has the designer Rachel Roy.

And so, now, in their way, have Megyn Kelly and Donald Trump. Here was the concept of “bullying,” expanded perhaps to the point of meaninglessness. Here was yet more evidence that, as Jezebel’s Jia Tolentino put it recently, “If everything is bullying, nothing is.”

The bully nihilism operates under the assumption that we have realized those early dreams held by cyberutopians of a fully democratized internet. It assumes that any act of aggression that takes place on that platform—even if it’s directed against powerful actors like Maytag or Megyn Kelly—can fairly be referred to as “bullying.” It assumes this because it also assumes that the internet has a way of making everyone equal.

This is of course not the case—on the internet or anywhere else. Megyn Kelly, at least, is aware of that, which is why she pressed her interviewee: “You know what I’m saying. When Donald Trump targets somebody and says, ‘This person is bad,’ ‘That person is bad,’ it creates a firestorm in those people’s lives. And many of those people are so-called civilians who haven’t put themselves forward as public figures.”

Trump replied: “But it’s in response to something that they did.”

“But you are so powerful,” Kelly said. “You are so powerful now.”

To this, Trump responded: “I don’t view myself as that. I mean, I view myself as a person that, like everybody else, is fighting for survival. That’s all I view myself as.”