Bullies Are Not Strong

Chas Danner caught something Donald Trump said over the weekend that got lost in all the pearl-clutching about baskets full of deplorables and Hillary Clinton’s health.

Speaking at a campaign rally in Pensacola, Florida, on Friday night, Donald Trump indicated that, as president, he would attack Iran if their sailors made improper gestures toward the U.S. Navy. After promising to build more ships for the Navy, which has a base in Pensacola, Trump tossed in an aside referencing the recent run-ins that U.S. warships have had with Iranian attack boats in the Persian Gulf… Said Trump, to the delight of the crowd, “When [the Iranians] circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats, and they make gestures at our people that they shouldn’t be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water.”

In other words, Trump is tossing out the idea that he’d start a war with Iran if they made rude gestures that he doesn’t like. Since he claims to have tremendous skill in reading body language, one can also see him threatening war with a country if he doesn’t like the way their leader looked at him…or the tone of their voice.

The fact that this kind of talk doesn’t scare the shit out of every voter in this country is mind-boggling. But part of the reason it doesn’t is that this is how an awful lot of people define “strong leadership.” It really comes down to nothing more than bullying. That is what Paul Waldman wrote about today in an article titled, “Donald Trump’s Weak Version of Strength.” When talking about Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin, he says this:

But it wasn’t Putin’s hairless, doughy chest that won him Donald Trump’s heart. It was his iron fist—crushing the press, having his political opponents arrested or murdered, and extending his rule indefinitely, all in a country that claims to be a democracy. That’s the strength Trump admires, the willingness to achieve your own ends no matter how much harm you might do to others.

Actually, that doesn’t strike me as being about strength. It sounds more like authoritarianism and dominance. Much as we see with bullies, it is rooted in fear and can only be sustained via violence.

It would be easier to challenge Trump’s definition of strength if it weren’t so prevalent everywhere in our culture. To take another example related to Putin, I would remind you of the time Steve Kroft insisted to President Obama that the Russian president was challenging his leadership (i.e., making him look weak) with his incursion into Crimea and military involvement in Syria. Obama has consistently responded to that by flipping the script and saying that Putin is taking these actions out of weakness.

Rather than concede the ground that people like Putin and Trump define strength, we need to join Obama in flipping that script. That is what Clinton did in this interview by calling it “phony strength.”

In taking on the threat posed by ISIS, it actually weakens our position to buy into this phony idea of strength because it undermines one of our most important assets…that we are, in fact, stronger together. Real strength is demonstrated by leaders who know that.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.