What is bullying?
Immediately after Donald Trump’s election, alarming stories appeared of school bullies who seemed to be inspired by the new president. In York County, Pennsylvania, two students marched through their high school hallways holding a Trump sign while a third shouted, “White power!” A teacher in Kansas reported students taunting classmates with the refrain, “Trump won, you’re going back to Mexico.” At several schools, white sports fans chanted, “Trump! Trump!” at opposing teams with more players of color.
As these stories proliferated, no one knew for sure whether they were just scattered anecdotes or signs of more serious social change. Then researchers involved with a statewide survey of bullying in Virginia schools realized they had a way to find out.
Every other year, tens of thousands of the state’s public school students complete online surveys about their schools’ social environment. They’re asked a number of questions about bullying, including teasing over race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and other sexual issues. Because surveys of middle schoolers are done in odd years, researchers had data for seventh and eighth graders from both 2015, right before the election, and 2017, right after it. Over 400 middle schools participated. “It was an opportunity to see whether in fact there was this increase in bullying,” said Dewey Cornell, a professor of education at the University of Virginia who led the team that developed the survey.
It turned out that there was indeed an increase, but not everywhere. Cornell and a member of his team, Francis L. Huang, an associate professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia, who specializes in quantitative research methods, found that in 2015, there’d been little difference in bullying rates between areas of the state that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and those that would support Trump. But in 2017, students reported 18 percent more bullying in Trump locales than the Clinton ones. In the Clinton regions, bullying actually declined slightly from 2015; in the Trump zones, it increased.
The Trump areas saw particular increases in teasing about race and, to a lesser degree, sexual orientation. The greater the margin of Trump support in the community, “the higher the prevalence rates” of bullying, Huang told me, even after adjusting for factors like socioeconomic status and parental education.
Cornell and Huang’s peer-reviewed paper, “School Teasing and Bullying After the Presidential Election,” was published Wednesday. They don’t claim to have discovered that a region’s backing for Trump causes an uptick in reports of bullying, only that the two are correlated. Still, it’s not hard to imagine that kids who spend their time around Trump enthusiasts might be getting the message that picking on racial minorities, and those who deviate from traditional gender norms, is OK.
“The adults that voted for Trump are much more likely to emulate Trump and be supportive of attitudes that we saw turned into bullying and teasing in middle school,” Cornell said. “I suspect it’s an indirect effect of the social environment that kids are in. It may be their parents, it may be other adults, it may be the adults in schools.”
In the 1990s, when Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky forced discussions of oral sex onto the evening news, many conservatives lamented the effect on impressionable youth. “Leaders affect the lives of families far beyond their own ‘private life,’” wrote a Republican candidate for Congress named Mike Pence. (He added, “In a day when reckless extramarital sexual activity is manifesting itself in our staggering rates of illegitimacy and divorce, now more than ever, America needs to be able to look to her first family as role models of all that we have been and can be again.”)
Such concerns have since fallen from fashion on the right. Last week, when Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed decrying the president’s terrible character, many conservatives were incensed. “Romney would like you to believe you can have your cake and eat it, too — that you can be against Trump’s character but for his policies,” Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, complained in The Washington Post. In fact, Olsen wrote, “Railing about character hurts the president, and Republicans know that.” The very idea of good character has become a partisan attribute.
Kids get this, though it shows up in different ways. Some of our children are growing up knowing that the president of the United States is also one of the country’s very worst people, which surely affects their conception of government. Some are growing up scared of him. I’ve tried to explain to my own young kids that even though the administration has taken other children from their parents, they are safe and protected. More vulnerable families have to have far more difficult conversations.
But some kids, it seems, could be growing up with permission and even encouragement to act like the president. Middle school students, said Cornell, are acutely status-conscious and particularly prone to tormenting one another. (The older kids in “Lord of the Flies” were middle-school age.) “If there’s any place where a cultural change that encourages disrespect for other people is going to be manifest,” he said, it would be among middle schoolers. “They’re kind of a mirror of what we’re seeing in our communities.” What they’re reflecting isn’t pretty.