From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
What A Bully Understands
by Samuel G. Freedman
I’m committed to action because the only thing a bully understands is a punch in the mouth.
Throughout the Trump campaign and presidency, I’ve found my thoughts returning to the autumn of 1970 and the day a kid named D. transferred into the public high school in my New Jersey hometown. In less than three semesters, D. had already burned through four years’ worth of demerits in the local Catholic school, which had the right to expel even a fifteen-year-old.
Before I even laid eyes on D., I heard about how he had spent day one at Highland Park High. He sized up a classmate of mine named S., a varsity wrestler with a sharp wit and an amiable disposition off the mats. D. beat him bloody, just to make a point.
So as the weeks and months proceeded, I tried to keep my distance from D. For the most part, it wasn’t too hard. Though our high school had only nine hundred students, classes were tracked, so while I was ensconced in college-prep courses in the English wing, D. was keeping company with the greasers in auto shop, which had its own separate cinder-block garage.
Only in gym class did I get thrust into D.’s firing range. At the end of one class, the teacher had us all do a set of push-ups. D. ignored the order, swaggered toward the locker room, and paused just long enough to kick my right arm out from under me. I smashed facedown into floor and felt my elbow quivering like a dowser’s rod, wondering if D. had knocked it out of joint. But I knew enough to say nothing and do nothing, lest I give D. the excuse for another attack.
Some time the next fall, another kid, H., transferred into our grade. We were playing volleyball in gym class on one of his first days, and D. took the opportunity to welcome H. by rifling a ball at his head from about three feet away.
H. had a kind of goofy affect to him — he was on his way to getting the nickname Birdbrain, even from kids who basically liked him — but at six feet he was taller than D. and relatively fit. So be grabbed the ball and fired it right back at D. All these years later, I can still hear the collective gasp from my fellow nerds in gym class, realizing that H. had lit the fuse on a sociopath.
In the locker room, as we all changed into street clothes, H. was bent over, tying his shoes, when D. materialized next to him. Back in the 1910s, the radical magazine The Masses published a cartoon titled “At Last, Perfect Soldier.” It showed a thickly muscled body — feet set apart, back arched, meaty arms crossed — with no head. I knew that cartoon from a book my left-wing father had at home. I recalled it the second I saw D. looming over H.
“Hey, super-pro,” D. said, smacking H. on the side of his head. H. just kept working on his laces, hoping D. would go away. Instead, more smacks and more taunts, echoing off the tile floor and the metal lockers. Then D. ordered H. to kneel down and tie D.’s shoes. Fingers fumbling with humiliation and terror, H. capitulated.
We had gym class every weekday, and every one of those days this ritual of brutality and domination repeated itself. No one came to H.’s aid. No one told the gym teacher or the head of the phys-ed department, whose office adjoined the locker room and who surely heard at least some of the mayhem. Then again, the athletic director doubled as head football coach, and D. was one of his starting linebackers.
I cannot recall how long the daily beatdowns went on, and how long our paralysis went on with it. In my memory, it feels like months. And then there came a day when a kid named R. had enough of it. With rimless glasses and stringy hair down to his shoulders, R. was one of the freaks — the slang term in our school for the hippies, the potheads. He played bass in a garage band and worked lights for the school plays. R. was handsome-homely-haggard in a Tom Petty sort of way, and certainly no physical match for D.
Yet something broke in R. that day. Maybe he had some deep sense of justice. Maybe he was just sick of every gym class being ruined by D. Whatever the reason, as D. was demanding to have H. tie his shoes, R. went over and walloped D. in his face.
I was trying to avert my eyes when it happened, as always wary of igniting D. with anything I did, but decades later I don’t recall that R. drew blood or left any noticeable bruises. The impact of his blow derived from the mere fact that he had delivered it. In R.’s refusal to be cowed like the rest of us, D.’s aura of domination was shattered.
D. did not strike back at R. He also stopped harassing H. D. remained a fearsome creature, mind you — he was still fearsome when I saw him with a buzz cut, beer gut, and sleeve of tattoos at our graduating class’s fortieth reunion — but he had been tamed in the only way he understood.
And the rest of us learned a vital life lesson: every bully is part coward.
I don’t know how D. voted in 2016, or whether he voted at all, but he seems to me the prototype of the Trump base, a seething mass of resentment and aggression and incipient violence, just like the president himself. I read plenty of articles these days suggesting how progressives have to be more understanding of Trump’s voters, to try to compassionately fathom their discontents, to win back some of their votes with the power of reason.
To which I’ve always thought: you can compromise with political difference, but you can’t compromise with hate. You can only defeat it. At sixty-two, I have lived through many presidents whose views I opposed and even abhorred, and not a single day under any of them felt like every day does under Trump.
Only a punch in the face, in the form of landslide rebuke at the polls, will get the point across: racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, treasonous collusion, and a complete disregard for truth must be slain, not tempered and accommodated. Only when the bully is put in his place will we have the luxury of arguing issues across a partisan divide once again, the way a modern democracy ought to.
Take action today:
My wife has a plan: for the midterm elections, every progressive voter rounds up a half dozen or so similarly minded folks to go to the polls together. We know from hard experience — the midterm wipeouts of Democrats in 1994, 2010, and 2014 — that the Republicans’ hard-right base turns out in far higher percentages than liberals do. Given that midterms only draw about 20 to 40 percent of all registered voters, a motivated and mobilized fringe can and will capture those elections. So our side needs to use positive peer-group pressure to get out and vote in massive numbers. One great resource for putting together a group of your own is Vote with Friends. The vaunted “blue wave” won’t happen by itself.
Samuel G. Freedman is an award-winning author, columnist, and professor at Columbia University. He is at work on his ninth book, about Hubert Humphrey, civil rights, and the 1948 Democratic convention.