The ‘bully’ pulpit

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I am going to violate one of my own self-imposed rules. I almost never take public issue with a sitting President of the United States. However, I am going to take issue with a former president and with the current president because they have both demonstrated poor leadership in one common way — they have both abused and bullied people from their “bully pulpit.”

First, Donald Trump. Of the seventeen candidates seeking the Republican nomination in 2016, Trump was choice #17 for me. I am not an “anti-Trumper” and, indeed, read the book he wrote a number of years ago. Still, he was my last choice.

During the campaign for the nomination, Candidate Trump insulted, mocked, denigrated, and bullied nearly every candidate for the nomination. While a large number of people rejoiced at this tactic, I found it distasteful and unseemly. He insulted, among others, a disabled man, a female news anchor, and a former prisoner of war and U.S. Senator. It was repugnant. He continued on this path during the presidential campaign.

When he was elected, he continued to debase and bully, it seemed, anyone and everyone who disagreed with him. His Twitter tweets became infamous and, I believe, his continual diatribes against opponents finally wore many voters down and cost him the re-election.

Last week in Atlanta, sitting President Joe Biden was Trump 2.0 in the way he argued for his proposed election reform bill. Without going into the merits or demerits of the bill, Biden ranted, lambasted, insulted, and bullied anyone and everyone, non-compliant Democrats included, who disagreed with him on whether the bill should be passed and whether or not the Senate filibuster should be jettisoned.

In Atlanta, arguably the civil rights capital of the nation, Biden said that if you oppose him, you are on the wrong side of history. He outlined those on the right side of history by naming John Lewis, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Those who oppose Biden on these issues are, according to his worldview, on the wrong side of history. Those cited as examples on the wrong side of history were Bull Conner, an Alabama segregationist politician, George Wallace, an Alabama governor who was also a segregationist, and Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America.

So, if you disagree with the proposed bill or wish to retain the Senate filibuster, you are a white segregationist and a neo-Confederate. By this definition, fellow Democrats, including Black people who have problems with the bill or wish to retain the historic filibuster, are also “white, segregationist, neo-Confederates.”

Most Southerners are not proud of the racism, segregation, and bigotry that was so prevalent in its history. But to come to modern Georgia and rub their noses in it was — well, let us just say not helpful.

Neither of the two presidents exercised good judgment, in my opinion, in dealing with those whose opinions differ from their own. Leaders, especially leaders who do not have financial power over their subordinates, have two legitimate tools to work with: influence and persuasion. If one is an employer, one has financial power. If one holds a measure of rank in the military, one has power. If one is a police officer, he or she has power. And on it goes. We do not live in a totalitarian state. Leaders do not automatically get their way. Nor should they.

Politicians, pastors and priests, athletic coaches, teachers in classrooms, leaders of volunteer organizations, and most others, all have limited power. Some have none, save the power of influence and persuasion. Properly understood and utilized, the power of influence and persuasion can help people meet goals and even achieve greatness.

However, all too often, the Trumps and Bidens of the world find that their influence is limited and then resort to name-calling and bullying. And that tactic works on some people.

Others, however, refuse to be bullied, dig their heels in, stand their ground, and ignore or even challenge the bully. I believe that if President Trump had simply reined in his bellicosity and treated people with respect, he would have never been impeached and would have been re-elected.

(Note: One is impeached by the House of Representatives and, if the vote to impeach passes, the person is, only then, considered “impeached.” The matter is then referred to the Senate which either convicts or acquits. Three U. S. Presidents have been successfully impeached: Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. No president has ever been convicted and removed from office.)

It is too early to tell what the long-term effect of Biden’s speech will have, but he clearly has crossed an invisible line and I believe that people will not soon forget it. Already, prominent Democrats are speculating who would be a suitable candidate for the Democratic nomination for 2024 and they are not talking about Joe Biden. Already, with only a year under his belt, people are floating the name of Hillary Clinton again.

When people are bullied, they normally have at least four choices. (1) They can give in to the bully time after time and lose respect for themselves. (2) They can, if the bully lacks true power, simply ignore the bully, and do whatever they believe is the best course of action. (3) They can leave the bully and/or the organization he or she leads. (4) It is also possible that the bully can be removed from leadership, which happened in one club with which I was associated.

I share all this as a former bullied person. At the age of fourteen, I stopped bowing to and becoming a punching bag for bullies, whoever they might be. I have no difficulty in recognizing a bully and one can find them in all professions and levels of society. Leaders in society who are influential or persuasive, if they have the right issue and if they are positive thinkers and encouraging to their people, do not have to shout, name-call, or bully people into coming over to their side or way of thinking.

Many years ago, a Peanuts comic strip featured Charlie Brown and Lucy walking home together after school. Lucy said, “I convinced a kid at school that my religion is better than his religion.”

“How did you do that?” asked Charlie Brown.

Lucy replied, “I hit him with my lunch box.”

Lunchbox evangelism does not work, of course. Lucy only beat the kid into silence, not compliance. In the real world, the kid will get his own lunchbox and then Lucy is in for some real trouble.

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the pandemic, the church is open at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays but is also live streaming at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life) He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]

5 COMMENTS

  1. It never occurred to me that President Biden was “bullying” anyone. I felt he was appealing–perhaps even challenging–
    us to be honest. Honest with ourselves, in the glaring light of history; because of course, we are making history these days.

    As we commemorated the life and work of Dr. MLK Jr. on his birthday last Monday, it seemed timely and appropriate for the president to suggest some soul searching.

    I’ve seen the photographs of civil unrest during the 1960s. I ask myself which side I would have been on. I hope I would have stood with the followers of Dr. King–surely the right side of history.

    Or would I have defended the officers, setting vicious dogs on the peaceful protesters and wielding bloody batons? Undeniably the wrong side of history.

    Or the third option–would I have given myself a pass and claimed that although I was “not a racist”, I would not let myself be bullied by politics into taking a stand? Personally, this would be the most dishonest and saddest choice; still on the wrong side of history, but unable to admit it.

    President Biden was urging us to BE the great men and women we admire–“John Lewis, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr.”.

    There was no offense in that.

  2. Uh, no. This is a Mt. Everest size false equivalence. Running around for years saying and doing insanely inflammatory things (ranging all the way from very fine torch-carrying racists to openly talking about forcefully grabbing women’s genitals) isn’t the same as a political pitch about voting rights.

    • I agree that there is nowhere near an equivalence in the years of constant bullying by the 45th president and the confrontational attempt by Biden to shame Republicans for cowing to Trump’s “Big Lie.” However, Rev. Epps is the first columnist in the Citizen even to question Donald Trump on his viciousness and bullying. It is 5 years late, but it is better late than never.

      Congratulations Rev. Epps. Apparently you aren’t afraid to confront a bully (even if your choir won’t approve). Thank you!

      • You are giving Fr Epps too much credit. He’s not confronting a bully. He’s saying 5 years too late what all people of good faith should have been saying about Pres Trump from 2016-2021. What good does it do to call him out now? The time to do that would have been before he was elected and during his reign of chaos, if you actually didn’t approve of him.

        The only reason Fr Epps does so now, to my mind, is that he badly WANTS to make the case that Biden is a bully, but he badly DOESN’T want anyone to think he is doing so because of white supremacy or partisan reasons, so he rationalizes, “If I condemn Trump first, then no one can say I’m not being fair when I condemn Biden.” What a joke.

        It’s much more honest just to come out and say, “I don’t want people of color to have voting rights, and so Pres Biden’s invitation to soul-searching makes me mad.”

        As if everyone can’t see right through it. The people on “the right side of history” don’t whinge and say, “What a bully!” when a decent, grown-up president asks them to do the right thing.