Opinion

Renée Graham

Trump’s bullying is getting more desperate

Globe Staff Illustration

His name was Joseph, but we called him “Beanie.” That was the only name he responded to as some poor kid, his eyes pooling with tears, pleaded with Beanie not to shove him inside a locker.

Beanie was a junior high school bully. He was a spitball sniper, a demon with a rubber band and wadded paper. He spewed the most gutting insults and committed the high sin of speaking utter filth about someone’s else mother. Even a rumor of a Beanie sighting was enough to empty the playground.

For years, I thought Beanie was the worst bully. Then Donald Trump became president.

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It isn’t enough that Trump got his Igor, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to fire Andrew McCabe, days before the former deputy FBI director would have been eligible for his full federal pension. This, of course, only happened because McCabe defended his former FBI boss, James Comey, a charter member of Trump presidential enemies list.

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Like the Bully in Chief that he is, Trump has been gloating about McCabe’s firing in ways both unseemly and predictable for a man with the emotional maturity of a toddler on a sugar high.

Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI — A great day for Democracy,” Trump tweeted hours after McCabe’s firing. “Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!”

Trump had been taking potshots at McCabe for months. Once he was dismissed, McCabe finally swung back.

“I am being singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took, and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey,” McCabe said in a statement. Trump’s attacks, he said, are “part of a larger effort not just to slander me personally, but to taint the FBI, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals more generally.”

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McCabe, of course, is right. Unable to stop special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, sparked by Trump’s own misguided firing of Comey last year, the president is doing what bullies do — lashing out, including at Mueller. Some would use charm or humor to conceal darker intentions, but Trump is neither that careful nor clever.

Insults and bullying, he thinks, are the most effective tools for making his point, whether he’s railing about “fake news,” NFL players kneeling to protest racial inequality, or his own Cabinet members. The New York Times keeps a running list of the “People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter.” There are already more than 400 entries, and the list hasn’t been updated since January.

Bullying is a time-tested White House tactic, never used more effectively than by President Lyndon Johnson. He’d mastered it when he was Senate majority leader, and it even had a name: “The Johnson Treatment.” He would make his case by getting right into someone’s face, so close they would have to lean back, almost defensively, as the physically imposing Johnson loomed over. Fellow Senator Hubert Humphrey once compared it to a “tidal wave.”

Of course, Johnson actually used his powers to achieve progressive landmark legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Fed by his growing desperation, Trump’s bullying is meant to undermine Mueller’s still-burgeoning investigation, which has reached Trump’s business interests.

I look at Trump and I see Beanie, a perpetually angry boy bruised by inadequacies visible to all, and mocked by many. With his administration on tumble dry, he will increasingly resort to threats and intimidation, hoping to instill fear. Yet no one is more terrified than Trump who, even when he smiles, looks more like he’s baring his teeth.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.