A sad series of tweets and counter-tweets this week have led to cries of bullying in our nation’s capitol.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, was quoted on television as calling for a law to prevent President Donald Trump from firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who has impaneled a grand jury and may be expanding his initial investigation into Russian interference in the election. This prompted Trump to accuse Blumenthal of being “a phony Vietnam con artist.”
Blumenthal is a man of integrity with a record of distinguished public service… but he isn’t perfect. Some years ago, in the heat of politics, Blumenthal exaggerated his military experience. Blumenthal let voters in Connecticut believe that he had served in Vietnam. He was forced to call a press conference in 2010 and admit that while he served as a member of the Marines Corps Reserves from 1970-1976 he had never served overseas. Blumenthal was emotional at the press conference and reportedly cried.
Trump, who got five draft deferments and never served in the military, has astutely observed that the Vietnam War flap is an acute embarrassment to Blumenthal. So Trump brings it up every time Blumenthal has the temerity to criticize Trump’s administration. On Monday, he tweeted: “I think Senator Blumenthal should take a nice long vacation in Vietnam, where he lied about his service, so he can at least say he was there.”
A few months ago, Blumenthal objected to Trump’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey and Trump tweeted that Blumenthal had “cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness” at the 2010 press conference. The reference to “baby” appeared to be an attempt to demean Blumenthal’s manhood. In a gross overstatement, Trump also accused “‘Richie” of devising “one of the greatest military frauds in U.S. history.”
Blumenthal has vowed that Trump’s bullying won’t intimidate him ( though one worries it may deter some of Blumenthal’s less courageous and equally imperfect colleagues). And if anyone can stand up to Trump’s tweets, Blumenthal is up for the task. “It’s not about me… Our national security and rule of law is at risk. And that’s where our focus should be. It is not about me,” he told The Hill.
Is Trump bullying Blumenthal? Not in the traditional sense of the word. Bullying is associated with a power differential. A bully has more power than his or her victim and uses that power to repeatedly harm the victim. Blumenthal is not a 99-pound weakling. Blumenthal is a powerful Democrat whose intent is clear – he knows the Special Prosecutor could severely damage Trump’s presidency. And Trump poses no threat to Blumenthal, who was elected to a second term in the Senate by Connecticut voters last year with the largest vote margin in the history of statewide elections in the state.
It is not like Trump was humiliating the doorman at Trump tower.
It also is fair to consider the context of Trump’s alleged bullying. Trump’ is using a mode of self-defense intended to foil an actual threat. His presidency could be derailed by the Democratic opposition. Instead of using argument, reason and logic- – which we are accustomed to – Trump is responding to the threat by packing 140 characters of ridicule and taunts into a tweet.
Lastly, Trump’s behavior should not be viewed in isolation. In other words, he is on the receiving end of bullying behavior by others.
It is not a false equivalence to observe that pseudo-bullying is rife on both sides of the political aisle.
Democratic leaders and elites in the media focus relentlessly on Trump’s hair and personal demeanor and the oddballs and political outsiders who now populate the White House. They question Trump’s psychological fitness for office and consistently view his achievements through a dark lens. At times, the attacks on Trump are intermingled with thinly-veiled elitism and contempt for the overlooked Americans who elected Trump; people who don’t buy The New York Review of Books, possess Ivy League diplomas or vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. These are the people who were called the “mob” by The New York Times, a “basket of deplorables” by Trump’s Democratic rival, Hilary Clinton and whom former Democratic President Barack Obama dismissed as clinging to guns and religion.
Meanwhile, television comedians have discovered that making fun of Trump leads to ratings success. The characterization of Presidential Chief Adviser Stephen Banning on Saturday Night Life as Darth Vader was funny. So were the spoofs of Sean Spicer (which he called “hurtful” at times and may have propelled him into unemployment). However, SNL’s treatment of Obama was strikingly different. Obama was portrayed as a good-natured, smart guy surrounded by people trying not to appear racist. Even SNL’s treatment of former GOP President George W. Bush pales when compared to the virulent strain of “satire” accorded Trump and his family. An SNL staffer was placed on leave for mocking Trump’s 10-year-old young son.
It’s not clear that Trump is a bully but if he is it is clear that he’s not the only one in Washington today.