If playing well and fairly depends upon trust, truthfulness, curiosity, spontaneity, good humor, and respect for the rules, and if play cannot proceed without mutual understanding and individual strength of character during competition, the Trump campaign gave us instead a steady stream of contrived suspicion and scapegoating, as well as a torrent of lies, willful ignorance, rashness, fear, indecency, insecurity, and bullying.
The spoilsport throws out the rules, undermines the game itself, and petulantly takes his ball and goes home. Civic values—the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness—suffer when the bully perverts play.
In fact, the process of play is most easily and fruitfully understood as a succession of positive emotional experiences—anticipation, surprise, pleasure, understanding, strength, and poise—that promise mental and physical dividends. Play points toward resilience and balance and away from fragility and instability. (Even rough-and-tumble play operates by rules as players routinely comfort the injured and soothe those whose feelings are hurt. If they didn’t, play would come to an end.)
Look at the chart below and apply any of your past play experiences—a game of golf, a vacation, or a joke you shared. Play begins in the keen feeling for what happens next—those built-in surprises that follow and the pleasure we take in them, as well as the pleasures we take of other players and the mastery we strive for. We learn stamina at play too. We engage our drive. Play readies us to play some more. When we’re luckiest, we find greater ease, grace, and fulfillment. You can read the inner state in the contented inviting expression you see on players’ faces.
We can often tell the difference between someone who wants to play and someone who lies in wait. His facial expression tells us what is on his mind and in his heart.
The bully just does not “get” play. A bully does not greet us with the open, inviting expression that a player will. He does not show the “play face” that evolution has given us as a universal invitation. We know what is on the bully’s mind by reading his intentions in his feral grin, the pinched lips, and the accusing glare. The bully’s sneer provides the age-old cue: glee tinged with cruelty is not play. Likely, the bully is a survivor of abuse and has been made to feel powerless in damaging ways. Or the bully is lonely and pathologically self-involved.
This is not to discount or excuse the perverse pleasure and social advantage that the bully derives from tormenting his peers or his juniors but this does serve to mark the way his bullying evidences pain-seeking rather than pleasure-seeking. And so, in this campaign, Donald Trump ridiculed people with physical handicaps, threatened his critics with bodily injury or jail, demeaned women and bragged of lunging at them against their will, questioned the patriotism of bereaved military families, stigmatized racial and religious minorities, and joked at the expense of Native Americans, scowling and smirking all the while.
Younger children and young adults may soon ask you troubled, and troubling, questions about the odd spectacle we’ve witnessed and endured. They will want to know how all this could have happened. They need to know that you value and expect fairness—that truthfulness remains the prime directive and that respect for others’ opinions and right to free expression remains the premise for our democracy. They also need to know that you have their backs.
Bullying is neither purposeless nor joyful. Bullying is not play for its own sake. Neither can bullying tend toward empathy or composure, because its sources arise invariably in aggression and pain rather than anticipation and joy. The lesson applies equally to play and politics, civil and playful exchange, and the enduring civic virtues. Bullying does not contain the basic, nourishing elements of play.