Sunday night’s debate was, by most measures, the most contentious we’ve seen in a modern-day presidential election—maybe ever. It was also unexpectedly creepy. Normally I don’t watch debates with an sense of impending doom, but the way Donald Trump paced around the stage like a caged gorilla and hovered over Hillary Clinton while she spoke left me feeling uneasy.
Me, and countless other viewers. When asked about Trump’s weird behavior after the debate, Clinton told reporters “he was very present.” Which is a nice way of saying, “dude creeped me out.” Trump’s lurking didn’t go over well on social media, either.
For anyone who’s ever been bullied, however, Donald Trump’s behavior wasn’t just unsettling for its strangeness—it was unsettling for its familiarity. According to psychologists, the Republican nominee displayed textbook bullying behavior. Bullies, experts explain, often use their physical size to intimidate victims. They denigrate and criticize others, make unreasonable threats, and interrupt boldly. They blame others for their problems, deny any wrongdoing, and boast about their own greatness. Sound familiar?
For decades, professionals have worked to combat bullying in this country, and now, the man who is a vote away from the being the leader of the free world is modeling the abusive behavior on an international stage. As Todd Mangini, a licensed psychotherapist and conflict specialist in California, told me over email, “What was seen in the second presidential debate was … a classic salvo of quintessential bully behavior.”
In fact, Trump’s bullying behavior may already be influencing young people. In April of this year the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit, non-partisan organization, put out a report called “The Trump Effect,” which explained how Trump’s divisive and xenophobic rhetoric has increased the amount of bullying teachers see in school. Not only have his actions created an environment in which bullies feel empowered, the report explained, but they’ve also created an atmosphere of anxiety and fear felt among minority students. Clinton even referenced this effect during the debate Sunday night.
All of this helps to explain why, for viewers who empathize with Clinton, the debate was so uncomfortable to watch. By putting ourselves in the Democratic nominee’s shoes, we got a taste—albeit a remote one—of what it’s like to feel bullied. I spoke with experts about some of the specific psychological tactics Trump used.
Hovering and lurking
Bullying is all about creating a power imbalance between the bully and the target, says Maureen Costello, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project. One way bullies do this is through physical intimidation. “That power imbalance can be physical size,” Costello told me. “When someone is much larger and getting really close to a person, that can count [as intimidation].”
On the debate stage, Trump was seeking dominance—which may help explain why he followed Clinton around like a deranged hyena from The Lion King.
“At some parts of watching, I was really getting nervous,” Janine Driver, a former investigator with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and a body language expert, told Raw Story. “Because she was in his space. He’s like a dog who’s starting to get anxious, he’s being backed in a corner. So I had a little anxiety during these moments.” So did we all, Janine.
Trump’s rhetoric at the debate was equally disturbing. For starters, he threatened to use his hypothetical presidential powers to jail Clinton, which is not only illegal but a challenge to our democracy. He also used threatening language when responding to a question about rising Islamophobia in this country, calling for all Muslims to report other Muslims as a means to prevent terrorism—which, let’s face it, is not only reminiscent of Hitler’s Germany but the exact type of language that leads to more bullying behavior.
“The problem [with that statement] is there are only two types of Muslims then: Terrorists or the people who should be watching for the terrorists,” Costello told me. “You’re either a good one or a bad one. It’s very isolating.”
Trump specifically targets women and minorities in his rhetoric because he sees them as weaker than himself—a privileged white male—says Todd Mangini, the psychotherapist. “He preys on women because he has judged that they are not as strong as him physically. He preys on disabled people, minorities and immigrants for the same reason. Anyone that he sees as weaker, poorer, and marginalized in our culture is a host for his parasitic bullying.”
Trump’s attack got personal, a tactic used by many bullies. Prior to the debate, Trump held a press conference with three women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault, and then invited them to the debate itself, in what appeared to be an intimidation tactic.
“No doubt that there is a psychological game going on here,” said Costello, explaining that these types of personal attacks are often used to make the target nervous or off his or her game. But, she added, “I hesitate to even compare it to bullying. Bullying is rarely as calculated.”
Indeed, Trump is slowly graduating from schoolyard bully to a more manipulative version right before our eyes—like some horrible Pokemon evolution gone really wrong.
Which explains why watching him Sunday night left a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. I think, possibly, in the exact spot where my humanity lives.