Like many kids, I was bullied at a young age. The first instance was by a bigger kid who lived up the street who forced me, among other things, to play sports that I wasn’t particularly good at, often in the freezing cold. Later, in junior high school (what we now call middle school) I was bullied by kids who I now recognize were dysfunctional (one of them attacked a teacher and eventually ended up in prison). Those incidents involved taunting and physical threats. But I was a relatively slight, sunny white kid, popular among my peers and overall my experience with being bullied was relatively short. I never had to endure racial taunting, slurs or sustained mockery about my physical appearance. Bullying impacted me only insofar as I grew up with a distaste for playing organized sports and an unusual sensitivity—reflexive rage, really– when I see others being bullied, especially my own kids.
But in the age of Donald Trump, a person who has elevated the practice of bullying to pathological levels and has been permitted to act out those tendencies on a national scale, I’m finding that I’m still attuned to the impact of bullying. Trump’s entire approach to his life—carried through in his behavior in office–has been to bully others. He really doesn’t “make deals”– he bullies, and whenever he doesn’t get his way—as demonstrated in the current debacle over shutting down the government– he basically loses his shit and can’t cope.
From the time Trump began his presidential campaign there have been many, many news stories about impressionable school kids acting out in Trump-like fashion, casually hurling racial and religious-based slurs towards their peers after finding they’ve been granted a license to bully and harass people who look different than themselves by the most prominent American they see on their television sets. This phenomenon has manifested itself at all age levels, with slurs against Latinos, Hispanics, Muslims, and LGBTQ young people leading the way (as the bullies become older and enter college they also seem to be learning to hate Jews as well).
In York County, Pa., two students marched through their high school hallways holding a Trump sign while a third shouted, “White power!” A teacher in Kansas reported students taunting classmates with the refrain, “Trump won, you’re going back to Mexico.” At several schools, white school sports fans chanted, “Trump! Trump!” at opposing teams with more players of color.
Bullying, “teasing” and harassment towards vulnerable minorities in our schools has shown a marked, unmistakable surge since Trump appeared on the scene, dovetailing with an explosion of racial, religious and homophobic-based harassment and hate crimes all across the country. The testimonials from school-age children involved in a Human Rights Campaign survey of 50,000 children, aged 13-18, are typical:
“People on my school’s bus were talking badly about the LGBT community and Black people, as well as a specific male-identifying friend of mine who wore heels, calling him a ‘tranny’ and ‘f-ggot’ and ‘n-word.’ They also related it to the election, stating that Trump is going to help so that ‘the f-ggots in the locker rooms can’t be there to be pedophiles and stare at us.’”
In addition to creating a miserable environment of intolerance and fear for many young people, the emotional impact of bullying is well-documented. It directly affects the way children see themselves, their capacity for self-esteem and respect for others, their ability to perform in school, and the attitudes and behaviors they carry into adulthood. Bias-based bullying and mocking (the type that Trump has encouraged) is particularly harmful, leading to increased psychological problems and substance abuse among those who are bullied.
So the increase in school bullying since Trump was elected is not news. But until now there has never before been a peer-reviewed study that confirms it, and directly suggests the specific reasons for it. As reported by Michelle Goldberg in the New York Times, a study of student behavior in Virginia schools has now revealed a direct correlation between increased harassment and bullying and the election of Donald Trump, specifically in those regions of the country that voted for Donald Trump as opposed to those regions that did not.
Every other year, tens of thousands of the state’s public school students complete online surveys about their schools’ social environment. They’re asked a number of questions about bullying, including teasing over race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and other sexual issues. Because surveys of middle schoolers are done in odd years, researchers had data for seventh and eighth graders from both 2015, right before the election, and 2017, right after it. Over 400 middle schools participated.
The survey data showed that in Trump-voting regions, since the election, the rate of bullying and harassment incidents had spiked nearly twenty percent, while such incidents in those regions that had voted for Hillary Clinton actually decreased. This was a marked difference from the 2015 (pre-election) data which had shown virtually no disparity in bullying by region.
Basically, the data show that kids growing up in areas that voted for Trump are turning into bullies. Conversely, more and more kids in those regions are being bullied. And it isn’t some statistical fluke either—even among the Trump-voting regions, there was variance as those areas with the strongest level of support for Trump showed the highest rates of bullying.
The Trump areas saw particular increases in teasing about race and, to a lesser degree, sexual orientation. The greater the margin of Trump support in the community, “the higher the prevalence rates” of bullying, Huang told me, even after adjusting for factors like socioeconomic status and parental education.
The study is meticulously detailed, modeled, and adjusted for numerous variables, which accounts for its peer-reviewed status. Its authors don’t claim to have established a direct causal link, but the correlation is remarkable, and you don’t have to be a sociologist to figure out the reason. These kids, like all kids, are emulating what they are taught by parents and adults in their lives. That can be what passes for conversation around the dinner table, or what their parents choose to watch on television. They carry those impressions and values right back into the schools, and then they act on them. In areas where mom and dad are glued to the hate speech of Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, and Fox News, racism and gender bias are becoming commonly understood, acceptable behaviors. In many cases, those “values “ are being internalized as these kids’ belief systems for life.
Goldberg points out that middle school, in particular, is really just a microcosm of unchecked and unfiltered parental and community attitudes projected–and then modeled by– their kids. She quotes Dewey Cornell, one of the study’s authors: “If there’s any place where a cultural change that encourages disrespect for other people is going to be manifest,” he said, it would be among middle schoolers. “They’re kind of a mirror of what we’re seeing in our communities.” And because Republican moms and dads have made a very conscious choice in supporting someone like Trump who displays these bullying and racist traits, their kids will see those traits as acceptable—even desirable.
Kids get this, though it shows up in different ways. Some of our children are growing up knowing that the president of the United States is also one of the country’s very worst people, which surely affects their conception of government. Some are growing up scared of him. I’ve tried to explain to my own young kids that even though the administration has taken other children from their parents, they are safe and protected. More vulnerable families have to have far more difficult conversations. But some kids, it seems, could be growing up with permission and even encouragement to act like the president.
The poison of this administration will be with us long after Donald Trump is laid into the ground. It will linger on in the attitudes and behavior of all those adult Americans whose value systems were corrupted by him and his presence at such an early age, and in the memories of those who were victimized as a result.