In his Sept. 19 speech before the U.N., Donald Trump mockingly referred to the President of North Korea as “Rocket Man.”
During and after the presidential campaign, Trump bestowed offensive nicknames on several of his opponents. There was, famously, “Crooked Hillary”, but there was also “Little Marco”, “Crazy Bernie” and “Lyin Ted” for Marco Rubio, Bernie Sanders, and Ted Cruz, respectively. Trump also repeatedly referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas,” a jibe at her assertion of Native American heritage. More recently, Trump has given Sen. Chuck Schumer a series of nicknames, including “Head Clown,” “Fake Tears” and “Cryin’ Chuck.”
Why does any of this matter? As a psychiatrist, I believe Trump’s habit of bestowing offensive nicknames opens a window into the psychology of bullying — and bullying is a serious problem in our society.
But What About “W”?
Donald Trump is not the first U.S. president to have a penchant for nicknames. Some years ago, I wrote about then President George W. Bush’s habit of conferring nicknames upon some of his subordinates. Thus, Bush jocularly christened his advisor, Karl Rove, “Boy Genius” and “Turd Blossom.” Vladamir Putin became “Pootie-Poot.” Richard Keil, the 6-foot, 6-inch reporter then at Bloomberg News, was dubbed “Stretch.” Not all of Bush’s nicknames were affectionate — he christened columnist Maureen Dowd “The Cobra” — but most were. Bush’s nicknames were reminiscent of the good-natured, if puerile, ribbing that often occurs in a frat house or men’s locker room.
Not so with Mr. Trump. As Catherine Lucey has put it, with Trump, “… a good enemy deserves a good nickname.” Indeed, nearly all the nicknames Trump bestows on his enemies have a pejorative or humiliating edge to them. Critics — both liberal and conservative — have generally viewed this presidential habit as part of a pattern of bullying. Thus Jonah Goldberg, senior editor at the conservative National Review, described Trump as a “schoolyard bully.” Similarly, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote, “I used to think Trump was an 11-year-old, an undeveloped schoolyard bully. I was off by about 10 years.”
The Psychology of Bullying
But what exactly is bullying, and what drives this obnoxious behavior? The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry defines bullying as “… the repeated exposure of one person to physical and/or relational aggression where the victim is hurt with teasing, name calling, mockery, threats, harassment, taunting, social exclusion or rumors.” And, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, “… inherent in any conception of bullying is the demonstration… of power by the offender over the target.”
Similarly, Naomi Drew, author of No Kidding About Bullying, argues that “People bully to gain power over others.”
There is a kind of “pop psychology” of bullying that has been challenged in recent years. As a UCLA report observed, “Everyone knows that school bullies torment their peers to compensate for low self-esteem, and that they are scorned as much as they are feared. But ‘everyone’ got it wrong.” Research by Jaana Juvonen, a professor of developmental psychology at UCLA, has found that “Most bullies have almost ridiculously high levels of self-esteem… What’s more, they are viewed by their fellow students and even by teachers not as pariahs but as popular — in fact, as some of the coolest kids at school.” Based on a study of more than 2,000 sixth graders from ethnically diverse public middle schools in the Los Angeles area, Juvonen concluded that “… bullies are, by far, the coolest kids, and the victims, in turn, are very uncool.” Curiously, the “bully-coolness connection” was virtually non-existent in elementary school and suddenly appeared in the first year of middle school. Juvonen hypothesizes that the “turbulence of transition” to middle school may bring out “a primal tendency to rely on dominance behaviors” in the bigger, stronger kids.
The motivation of bullies to gain power, dominance, and prestige over others suggests that narcissism is a contributing factor. Narcissism denotes “… a sense of entitlement of privileged status over others, the belief that one is unique and more important than others, and an excessive need for approval and admiration from others to feed the grandiose — but ultimately vulnerable — self.” 1
The element of vulnerability is important in understanding — but not excusing — bullies. Bullying is associated with a history of having been abused as a child and with having been bullied oneself. 2 So — notwithstanding Prof. Juvonen’s findings — the outward bravado and apparently high self-esteem of bullies may sometimes conceal a deeper sense of vulnerability and inadequacy.
We have a president who seems to use derogatory nicknames as a cudgel against his perceived enemies — arguably, a form of bullying. As a society that aspires to civility and mutual respect, we ought to find this very troubling. Bullying tears at the fabric of civil society. It can be an important contributing factor in the victim’s eventual suicide. And when the most powerful man in the world provides an example of bullying by repeatedly deploying offensive nicknames, this ought to concern us all.
- Reijntjes, A., Vermande, M., Thomaes, S., Goossens, F., Olthof, T., Aleva, L., & Van der Meulen, M. (2016). Narcissism, Bullying, and Social Dominance in Youth: A Longitudinal Analysis. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 44, 63–74. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-015-9974-1
- Holt, M., Finkelhor, D., & Kaufman Kantor, K. (2007). Hidden victimization in bullying assessment. School Psychology Review, 36, 345-360.