Arguably the greatest weapon in a bully’s armoury is inconsistency. A truly effective bully is mean, for sure, but if that isn’t peppered with the occasional positive interaction the victim is more likely to lose interest, disengage or move away. The effective abuser selects a victim who keeps coming back for more. That’s why bosses who bully are so toxic: the promise of something positive (recognition, promotion) can be dangled in front of the employee on condition of complying and accepting the persecution. Many bullies, ironically, give a kind of hope of inclusion and acceptance to those they oppress. The most effective bullies are Machiavellian enough to know you need to keep your victims hanging on… Victims are the source of a bully’s power.
Now, I’m not intending this blog to be a “how-to guide” for wannabe bullies. I should say that I think it is hard to see consistency alone as a bad thing, although being inflexible and closed-minded is rarely a good thing either. Rather, this blog builds on last week’s one about the moral equivalence of action and inaction (omission). Because, on Friday, I woke up in a world I never imagined I would see and one that was almost impossible to imagine a year ago. But President Trump is reality now.
There should be no doubt that Trump is a bully. It’s probably why a significant chunk of people voted for him! They believe, naïvely I expect, that he’s a “doer”. On that I am sure, he will get things done all right. Just, mostly, the wrong things. The “I can do things” approach is most certainly a characteristic of the bully because, when it comes down to it, bullying is really all about lust for power. Brush up your Foucault!
There is no doubt Trump is inconsistent too. And while some of you might be feeling just a little bit grateful for that I would urge you to think again. It’s a triumph of faith over experience that an inconsistent, narcissistic, wrong minded bully will eventually deliver a good set of outcomes. No, the inconsistency that gives some a grain of hope is really just the narcissist’s belief in their own infallibility and omniscience and a technique for furthering self-interest: why bother about consistency when you’re always right anyway? We will see decades of good, careful, hard work to set up international structures for trade demolished and an ethos of tolerance, justice and expertise flattened to pursue a misguided and deeply unpleasant personal agenda.
Perhaps my greatest concern here is not the changes that will be sudden but those that will be slow and insidious. It has taken many years to create a society where it is no longer acceptable or normal to insult and degrade women, racial minorities and people with disability. Beliefs, attitudes and biases to others who are different from ourselves inevitably lie under the surface of our everyday interactions; but we were close to creating a world where what lay beneath the iceberg remained submerged and more importantly the iceberg itself was melting. Now Trump even denies climate change, so the iceberg will grow again. (This is a metaphor, right, so all the real icebergs will continue to melt…)
When changes in leadership happen the immediate impacts are the easiest to observe. The more lasting changes to culture, people, and society are deep and hence sometimes folk forget to notice that they are occurring. But they last, and they can do more damage. If the commander-in-chief can mock the disabled or talk about women in such appalling terms then others will begin to feel it is permissible for them to do so to. The politics of hate becomes the new normal. Many people will have seen this for themselves, either their work team or department. Now imagine it writ large.
Come back in a year and look around. Do you remember how it once was? Was there a different language, feel, sense of hope and sense of future? Did you like people more or less, have your attitudes and values remained constant? Leadership changes cultures, sometimes for the better sometimes for the worse. Leadership is important because it sets an implicit moral tone and not just a sense in which tasks are managed strategically and competently.
Bullying, in the end, is all about power and the narcissistic bully is focused solely on retaining and legitimising their own power. They create a new normal that at best is anarchic and at worst malevolent. And often we don’t notice it happening until it’s too late. By which time everything’s gone down the drain… So make sure you notice. And resist the new normal. Or, even better, fight for a new normal you want and not just one you’ve resigned yourself to.