I despise bullies. This doesn’t stem from my playground years but rather from a career in my 20s performing with a professional symphony orchestra. Orchestra conductors are notorious tyrants, cruel and demanding, with near-total control over the artistic lives of the players. To consolidate power, they turn players against one another, prey on weakness, destroy confidence. As we used to note, many conductors are evil geniuses, but all are evil.
Over the decades since that time, my position on conductors has softened (a little), but my position on bullies has not. And I believe a big majority of the population shares this antipathy. Witness the box-office success of movies like “Horrible Bosses” and “Revenge of the Nerds,” in which bullies get their comeuppance. Consider also the frequent anti-bullying public service efforts, the latest of which is the first lady Melania Trump’s “Be Best” campaign.
So it is mystifying that the ultimate market-based phenomenon in a democracy — political discourse — is currently dominated by this despised character trait. From television to social media to everyday politics at the highest level, we see the powerful belittling, maligning and mocking those with lower status.
If we hate bullies, why are they rewarded in the public sphere with fame, attention and even electoral success? Why aren’t they repudiated?
There are three explanations. First, people tend to be selective ethicists. The other side’s bully is a horrible person; your side’s bully is a “truth teller.” Indeed, we sometimes even flip the script and say our bully is actually a victim who is simply fighting back against even bigger bullies.
Second, people are, paradoxically, attracted to bullies. In her book “The Allure of Toxic Leaders,” the social scientist Jean Lipman-Blumen shows that people complain about political dictators and tyrannical executives yet nearly always remain loyal out of a primordial admiration for power and need for security in an uncertain world.
In the orchestra world, there is a joke about a viola player who for years is singled out for abuse and torment by the conductor. One day, he comes home from rehearsal to find his house burned to the ground. The police on the scene tell him that it’s arson and that there is evidence that the culprit is none other than the conductor. Asked if he has any questions, the violist thinks for a moment and asks, softly, “The maestro came to my house?”
The third explanation is simple acquiescence. In