Nearly all of us, regardless of age, have had schoolyard experiences with bullies. Sometimes bullying behavior is subtle and sometimes it’s severe. It can be found in all cultures, all ages, and in both sexes. It is always destructive. As unpleasant as these experiences are, somehow we survive and go on with our lives. Unfortunately, once a person establishes bullying as an effective practice, the characteristic usually continues into adulthood.
All bullies share certain universal qualities. Their behaviors are intended to achieve power through fear, to keep others off- balance through intimidation, to create chaos or to game the system. Bullies pick on individuals that they perceive to be weaker. They isolate and attack, much like lions in the wild; but, unlike lions seeking an easy kill for food, bullies seek an ‘easy kill’ for many reasons. A lust for power and revenge are frequently, although not always, primary motivators; sometimes it’s a deep-seated hatred that springs from a disempowered childhood steeped in emotional abuse and isolation. Bullies will lie and cheat to acquire and maintain power because to them the only route to survival and/or success is power over others. Most bullies are also cowards and will often back down if they are challenged. The only effective way to disarm those who won’t back down is via a greater authority that removes them from the larger group. This is the rule of law in action.
When in positions of power, bullies exploit their position by threatening employees, classes, or castes of individuals that are considered inferior by the dominant group in society. The dominant group in American society has historically been white males, particularly those with money. A good example of this type of behavior came out recently during the January 6 investigative hearings when it was revealed that Donald Trump, unwilling to accept his defeat for a second term of office, targeted two election workers in the state of Georgia, Ruby Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss, bringing the full weight of his office (and his wrath) down on them.
Examples of bullying behavior can be found in every corner of society. It is especially prevalent in autocratic individuals. The greater the power a bully possesses, the greater the danger is to society as a whole because the consequences of their actions have larger and far reaching negative consequences. This is particularly true today as the existing traditional systems are no longer functioning effectively, and before new systems are established to restore balance. Most authoritarian leaders are bullies: Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping of China, Erdogan of Turkey, Bolsonaro of Brazil, and Donald Trump in the United States, and who, like Putin, is in my opinion, a quintessential bully.
Every bully is different and comes from different circumstances. Though each operates from the premise that their personal interests are paramount over all others, each is different in the degree to which they are willing to manipulate others, and others’ lives, to further their self-interest. This behavior is especially damaging when placed in the context of national interest. In my estimation Putin sees his status in Russian history as the preeminent czar, measured by the extension of the Russian Empire to its greatest capacity. The threat of nuclear war is his cudgel. Bolsonaro of Brazil, and Trump of the US, see ultimate enrichment for themselves and their self-appointed oligarchs. Bolsonaro has publicly stated that it’s nobody else’s business what he does in Brazil. He threatens to extract as many resources from the area as possible, including cutting down all the trees. Since the Amazon basin is the greatest source of oxygen conversion in the world, this is a critical threat to all life on the planet.
Bullying is as much a threat to democracy as any. It is just less obvious (at least it was until Donald Trump gave it full permission to be an acceptable mode of social behavior). The only effective way to deal with bullies is to confront them, which means that others have to go against their own fear. They have to be willing to sacrifice their own idea/perception of well-being to challenge a bully, like Volodymyr Zelensky did with Putin, or like Brad Raffensperger and Mike Pence did against Trump. Confronting fear includes bringing truth out into the spotlight. It generally requires courage that is born of dedication to a deeper conviction. In the schoolyard, many of us learn how to knuckle under, to ‘keep the peace’ or to ignore bullying behavior in hopes that it will go away or find other target. But knuckling under only breeds more of the same because there is no accountability. And that’s ultimately where the buck stops. Accountability is a moral imperative. It draws back the curtain of bully behavior and exposes it for all to see. It reveals the unprincipled conduct of one who does harm for gain at the expense of the group. This is an important recognition. Accountability is the primary restraint against the unscrupulous. In society that authority is the rule of law.
At the national and international level, there will always be consequences no matter what course of action is taken. NATO, the US Department of Justice and other lawful entities know that if they move in the direction of accountability, they’ll test the tensile strength of current threats against the fears of greater destruction. Yet it must be done because the consequences of not doing anything are far greater. Think of the Munich decision in 1938, where Great Britain tried to appease Hitler by giving him part of Czechoslovakia, and which subsequently led to a more powerful Germany and WWII a year later.
In Chapter 24 of my book, I talk at length about the issue of power. It is one of the thorniest issues in any relationship and in society.