Bully Tactics

Examining the traditional, foundational American spirit of supremacy through the lens of abusive narcissists' DARVO bully tactics.

Bully Tactics
Harvard President Claudine Gay testifies before Congress

This is a public service announcement from the National Bullshit Warning Service. There will now follow a brief and by no means comprehensive list of conservatives comparing themselves to Civil Rights Activist Rosa Parks.

In 2010, Glenn Beck compared himself and his listeners to Parks. At the time, he was facing an ad boycott for saying that Barack Obama was a racist, among other things. Among many other things.

In 2016, Iowa Representative and neo-Nazi Steve King compared county clerk Kim Davis to Parks, for refusing to grant marriage licenses to gay people. Family Research Council president Tony Perkins made a similar comparison, as did others. Many others.

In 2021, Temecula CA City Council member Jessica Alexander, who was refusing to comply with a mask mandate during a deadly global pandemic, compared her unwillingness to comply with basic health safety protocols to Rosa Parks.

And just this last week, disgraced Republican Representative and aspiring Batman villain George Santos compared himself to Parks, for … honestly, like most things with Santos, it’s not clear what it was all for.

This sort of thing happens a lot. Hell, disgusting-soul-patch host body and occasional musician Ted Nugent—the Nuge!—even got in on the action once, in defense of his right to own massacre weapons in abundance. Martin Luther King Jr. gets this treatment from various conservatives (and also, occasionally, lefties) as well, as does Gandhi, and so on. If it’s not comparing themselves favorably to people who are celebrated as great moral heroes who stood against oppressive power, it’s comparing today’s activists to them in order to draw an unfavorable contrast, in order to justify ignoring or opposing today’s demands for justice.

Up and down, here and there, conservatives want you to understand something everywhere: the legacy of past heroes of civil rights and liberation, who stood up against conservatives and often died doing so, belongs to conservatives.

So here’s something I guess it’s worth saying about Rosa Parks: she was bravely standing up, at personal risk and personal cost, against entrenched abusive supremacist power, asserting her humanity in the face of a political order that refused to see that humanity, on behalf of an organized movement that sought liberation from oppression for themselves and all oppressed people—people struggling against Jim Crow, against antisemitism, against poverty, and so on.

And the thing about conservatives comparing themselves to Rosa Parks is that they all without fail represent entrenched power seeking to deny the humanity of some group of people or another without paying any cost whatsoever—seeking, in fact, to be seen as moral heroes for defending and maintaining a supremacist oppression that benefits only themselves. By the report of their own words and deeds, they are the Rosa Parks of people who would have arrested Rosa Parks.

And I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people who believe they alone possess our shared society, and who have in so doing abdicated all their moral authority, would seek to steal the hard-won moral authority of an actual hero, because they instinctively believe that anything a Black woman has should be theirs to take and use.

Anyway, to change the subject just a skitch, these days Republicans are all of a sudden very much against antisemitism. This comes as something of a surprise, but I can see how it might be a very welcome development for people of good heart who oppose antisemitism wherever it is found—not least Jewish people, who are the targets of the violent threat of antisemitism, and who are dealing with terrifying and rising levels of antisemitism in this country and globally. If I were Jewish, I might be inclined to seek allies wherever I might find them.

It might be a welcome development, that is, if we fail to notice that Republicans have spent years, even decades, seeking political advantage by activating and energizing every bigotry—including antisemitism. It might be a welcome development, if Republicans didn’t seem to be trying to control the definition of antisemitism in much the same way as they want to control the definition of the Civil Rights Movement.

For example, House Republicans this week called various university presidents onto the mat to work them over in a bit of political showmanship, and Rep. Elise Stefanik scored some direct hits when she asked the presidents if they would discipline hypothetical students calling for the genocide of Jewish people, and the presidents gave the sort of halting equivocal answers that are not exactly what one wants to hear when the topic is “calling for genocide.”

I’ll tell you what I want the answer to be, when the topic is “should we tolerate calls for genocide” of Jewish people (or any other people for that matter) on college campuses (or anywhere else, for that matter), and that is, “no we should not.” I’ve been very consistent on this point, as have a great number of people in the ongoing debate over what is “free speech” on college campuses and elsewhere, who believe that hate speech is failed speech that no longer has any place in our so-called marketplace of ideas, and should be rejected out of hand, and never given a platform, and shouted down and drummed out of polite society, with those who promote such ideas receiving the social consequences of being understood as the sorts of people who promote such ideas.

Do you know who isn’t being consistent in this debate? House Republicans, and Republicans in general, that’s who. In fact, in case you just rose after many years of slumber, until the very last week Republicans were spending the majority of their time not fighting against antisemitism, or any other hate speech, or taking any other action to protect any marginalized group from hate speech. Instead, they were fighting for the inclusion of marginalizing speech as an absolutely necessary and vital aspect of what must be allowed in an open marketplace of ideas, in the name of defending free speech. It has been the daily persistent conservative drumbeat that the real problem facing our nation today is not hate, but what they call “wokeness,” and that in order to combat “wokeness,” they intend to subsidize and promote the most hateful and marginalizing speech you can imagine, as much as possible, as proudly as possible, to give hate a chance to run free of any fetters that might have been holding it down—fetters like basic human decency, and public outrage, and yes, even student protest. And not only that, but they have been focusing this broadside most intensely exactly upon the educational system, and most specifically universities.

That’s right: Republicans spent a solid decade insisting that university presidents make their campuses bastions of free speech by allowing marginalizing and othering hate speech most specifically, and then called university presidents onto the carpet and made enormous amounts of political hay over the fact that university weren’t opposing hate speech sufficiently or vociferously enough. Republicans created an incentive system whereby university presidents would be a group uniquely reluctant to unequivocally oppose hate speech, would in fact be people most likely to draft lawyerly equivocating answers and policies to the exact question “would you accept genocidal talk on your campus?” Having established this reality, Republicans used the very tolerance for hate speech they had manufactured to frame themselves as being in opposition to the hate speech they have spent decades defending.

Ain’t that some shit?

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It must be said, it seems to me quite obvious that Republicans aren’t actually interested in free speech, or in opposing hate speech, or in opposing antisemitism, at all. It seems to me that the consistent factors here are:

  1. Seizing a claim to define the moral high ground as their exclusive property while unambiguously pursuing the moral low ground.
  2. Attempting to destabilize, defund, and discredit the project of higher education in this country, as part of a larger subset of trying to destabilize, defend, and discredit every aspect of public life and public commons in this country.
  3. Attempting to establish a disempowered group (in this case, college students—a favorite Republican target) as a hypothetical empowered threat to enact hypothetical future violence, in order to establish themselves as protectors, and obscure the fact that they are the cause and initiators of many actual present threats of actual present violence.

I, too, would like these university presidents to give better answers to questions of hypothetical hate speech. I also notice who has been insisting they give worse ones, and who has been insisting that hate speech stop being quite so hypothetical, and have been demanding that no university professor or administrator should be disciplined for expressing any speech marginalizing others, and that no student should be permitted to protest it. I’ve noticed who has been banning curriculums in universities that catalogue and describe and criticize hate speech, and promote inclusivity and diversity.

So yeah, I’m skeptical.

Nor is my skepticism assuaged by the fact that these hearings and resolutions come from a party led by an open antisemite, whose presidency featured regular promotion of antisemitic conspiracies, memes, and policy proposals; whose presidency saw an explosion in antisemitic threats and language; who was praised by our domestic Nazis and who defended them; and who leads a party that has, let’s remember, spent the last couple of decade seeking political advantage by energizing every bigotry imaginable, including antisemitism.

However, at a certain point it should be unsurprising to observe that a supremacist party would try to capture the moral high ground and enact the moral low ground simultaneously. I could go on for thousands of words pointing out examples of this happening, and occasionally I have. If you want some examples, hit my archives and read around. Or read pretty much anything else that doesn’t come from the far-right propaganda machine. Or just look around at almost anything. It’s basically just a list of things Republicans are doing.

At a certain point there’s really not much use in cataloguing and countering instances of Republican hypocrisy. It’s a movement led by a fascist supremacist narcissistic bully, attended by lieutenants who are fascist supremacist narcissistic bullies, followed by a cult of supremacist narcissistic bullies. The hypocrisy should be expected. They are the Rosa Parkses of oppressors, after all. For supremacists, hypocrisy is the point. For fascists, whose intent is acceleration of every bigotry in order to achieve the maximal violence of genocide, hypocrisy is how those ends are achieved.

But what do I mean by supremacist and fascist?

It strikes me that what I’m doing with The Reframe—the reframing project, you could say—is examining the spirit of supremacy, which is the traditional, foundational lens through which life in the United States is projected and mediated. Generally I try to deal with the ways supremacy intersects with some issue or another: naming it so we understand it for what it is and oppose it as unacceptable, and then suggesting a new lens through which we might encounter the same issue.

In particular, I’m considering how to deal with our traditional popular lens of supremacy in this present moment, which is the swift rise of fascism both within my country and globally.

And I suppose I ought to define my terms, because often when you talk about supremacists and fascists you’re accused of simply tarring people with slurs because they happen to disagree with you. This is untrue; I disagree with a great many people about a great many things both important and trivial without considering them fascists, while supremacy is like the water we swim in; accusing someone of acting from supremacy is sort of like standing in a crowd in the rain and accusing your neighbor of being wet. I can implicate you, but I should recognize that I’m drenched. The thing to do is to try to get an umbrella over both of us.

Also, as an aside: supremacist and fascist? Not slurs. Slurs are how abusive entrenched power names those it intends to abuse, to help make the case for abusing them. No, these words—supremacist and fascist—name specific expressions of abusive entrenched power. Calling them slurs is a standard supremacist framing tactic.

By supremacy I mean the spiritual alignment that some people matter, and others do not matter; that those who matter have earned life already, while those who do not matter must earn it by being used by those who do; that if those who do not matter cannot earn life, then they should be discarded for their crime of existing; that the existence of people who matter should be decided upon and permitted by those who do matter; that the personal individual moral comfort of matter who matter is paramount over the lives and survival of the lives of those who do not. And supremacy is, as I’ve mentioned, the foundational lens of American thinking—so pervasive that it can be found anywhere, certainly within the Republican Party, which is the primary political entity dedicated to supremacy’s promotion and defense, but also within the Democratic Party, and within the rest of us to the extent that we are favored by supremacy, everywhere, once you know how to perceive it. Supremacy’s pervasiveness is why I refer to it as a “spiritual alignment,” because it seems to go deeper than belief, into our assumptions, into our understanding not only of the way things are but the way things ought to be.

And by fascism I mean a particular expression of supremacy: a popular political movement organized around an authoritarian cult of personality and privatization of the public good, mediated through an open and explicit reverence for violence as a redeeming force, and energized by a supremacist nationalist myth of purification. Like I said, it’s on the rise globally, and my country, the U.S., is no exception. It’s bad. Trust me on this.

Last year I delivered several structured multi-part essay series, but this year has been a more desultory matter; one topic has really bled into another. A series about our national current of supremacy melded into a series about persuasion in a time of rising fascism oozed into a series about bullying and fascism, which I suppose is a study of how fascists and other supremacists utilize and operationalize and popularize violence in order to establish and enforce their supremacy, which I’m attempting to describe by observing the bullying tactics of abusive narcissists.

I find it useful to discuss violence when I talk about supremacy, because supremacy is inherently violent—violences of neglect, of brutality, emotional and psychic and spiritual violence, all kinds. Violence is how supremacy is established; it’s how it is maintained and defended; and it is even how it justifies itself.

And I find it useful to talk about bully tactics of narcissistic abusers when I discuss supremacy, both because it takes what is a sort of atmospheric belief system and makes it particular and human, and also because just as supremacy is inherently violent, so narcissistic abusers are inherently supremacist, committed to establishing themselves as people who matter and all others as people who do not, committed to establishing their right to abuse and their right to control the definition of the abuse they cause as something that has nothing to do with them. In fact, so perfectly does one map to the other, I’m tempted to conclude that supremacy is no more than what happens when narcissistic abuse starts to happen at the societal scale—when an entire society becomes narcissistic.

Narcissist bullies have their tactics. There’s even a handy acronym to describe it: DARVO.

DARVO, as most of you are aware, stands for Deny, Accuse, Reverse Victim and Offender. It’s classic bully behavior.

I’ve talked already about how bullies always seek to expand the boundaries of permission.

I’ve talked about how bullies have a finely tuned sense of where the margins are, and of how to push them outward.

I’ve talked about how the appropriate response to this violence is an observant, restorative, expectant anger.

And I’ve talked about how this anger is inappropriately channeled by empowered bullies, into a misdirected, unproductive and unimaginative, punitive rage.

Now I’d like to do three more essays, covering the bully tactics of DARVO, which should carry us into the new year, which is 2024, which feels like a made up year.¹

I intend to name three bully tactics of supremacy:

  1. Supremacy will always deny its true intentions by stealing away the language its victims use—language used to name their abusers and the abuses, language used to petition for liberation from both abuser and abuse—in order to steal the moral authority of that language for violent supremacist ends.
  2. Supremacy will always accuse its victims of the violence its practitioners intend to enact themselves, seeking to make its victims and violence inseparable things.
  3. Supremacy will always frame its victims as threats to enact violence—making the case with whatever violence is at hand, even potential hypothetical violence—to justify its right to enact present persistent escalating empowered and popularized violence.

I would observe that there is an obvious reason that supremacists engage in bully tactics.

They do it because it works.

Bully tactics allow supremacists to frame the demand for justice as violence itself. It allows them to frame the violence they are enacting as safety itself. And it allows them to utilize all violence, no matter the source, to establish their supremacy, defend it, maintain it, and justify it, which means the more violence, the better.

So that will be what I’m doing for the next month or so.

And, because I don’t want this to be a place of despair, I’ll try to suggest a few ideas and methods that might help us find our way out of this grim place. At the least, I’ll perhaps help myself understand the sort of hopeful person I want to be in world that sometimes seems to have so little hope to offer, and if it is helpful to me to do so, I dare hope it will be helpful to you.

I’ll start here with a few general rules that I find helpful.

Remember that—even though there are people who have been captured by supremacist hate, and they must be opposed—what we are primarily fighting are hateful ideas. The spirit is the thing.

Remember that everyone’s life is deserved already, and everyone has the right to exist. Even the people who participate in hateful spirits deserve what is just: food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, shelter and clothing, education, freedom from violence, freedom from oppression. We should strive to create a kind and decent world, even if it is a world that some have chosen to hate and fear.

Remember that those in power are the ones who are in power, which includes the power to decide when to stop cycles of abuse, so identifying who holds power in a given situation is a crucial matter to any moral analysis of abuse.

And at the same time, remember that there exists no abuse that frees us of the moral obligation to stand in solidarity with any who justly petition their oppressors for liberation from the threat of oppressive hate.

Maybe, if these are relevant points, there will be items in the recent news that I can use to illustrate them. You never know.

I’ll see you in a bit.

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A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places, and is co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media which goes in your ears. He gives you tea and oranges that come all the way from China.

¹Hat tip to my somewhat-doppelganger Nate Bargatze.