The bullies in middle school who pick on the poor kids for having unfashionable hand-me-downs don’t go away. The ten-year-olds who mock the gender-non-conforming kids don’t suddenly become enlightened without intervention. The high schoolers who snub the Syrian refugee for not speaking English well enough or knowing all their cultural references will not magically lose their prejudices just by reaching the age of 18, 21 or even 50. The snooty Mean Girls who got away with bullying the weird kids because they earned straight A’s, sucked up to the teacher, and maintained their popularity with the “normal” kids continue to get away with it in the workplace. The 12-year-old who made fun of the disabled kids on the short bus isn’t going to abandon ableism, though he may “reform” and become a behaviour analyst. The kids flinging around racial slurs on the playground may grow up to join Atomwaffen Division or the Rise Above Movement. Grown-up bullies may have learned to stop beating up queer, poor, disabled, immigrant, Black, brown, or otherwise different kids on the playground, but they continue to attack them with their social media posts, votes, and policies.
Time alone will not heal bullies. If their xenophobia, racism, and other prejudices are allowed to fester, they will become abusive parents, vindictive bosses, radicalised crusaders against minorities’ civil rights, or at the worst, totalitarian dictators. People like this are taught to value social conformity over individual or collective well-being—and they will use any method available, including bullying and ostracism, to ensure that anyone who sticks out is punished. If you follow the rules, nothing will happen to you; if you don’t, you’ll pay for it.
Whenever you see a politician, commentator, writer, or random Twitter gadfly rail over and over and over again about some disliked minority, it is time to wonder whether they were a bully in school.
Right-wing politics tends to attract this kind of bully, since the right tends to favour arbitrary social conformity over diversity1. (Yes, regardless of what right-wing commentators say. “Viewpoint diversity” frequently means “I want to get away with opposing pluralism in a pluralistic society,” which isn’t far off from “War is peace.”)
I want to emphasise, though, that your average conservative is not a bully. The problem with your typical right-leaning voter is that their unfamiliarity with or discomfort around minorities or nonconformists (which usually comes from living in homogeneous and highly conformist communities) makes them easy pickings for reactionary leaders who turn discomfort and unfamiliarity into hate. These Trump or Putin voters’ primary goal is not to inflict harm on anyone else, but they are afraid of what their bullying leaders may do to them if they dare step out of line. These are the archetypal authoritarian followers. They want to be loved by the Mean Girls—they’re too normal to be terrorised by them, but they don’t have the charisma to join the clique. They’re more scared than scary. I used to be this flavour of conservative as a teenager, and the conservatives I currently know are like this as well.
The right-wing authoritarian followers to fear are the petty bullies, the office tyrants, the social media trolls who go out of their way to bully awkward autistic trans women who are just coming into themselves, the people who kick and piss on homeless Latino immigrants in Boston and use Trump as a motivator. They are the police officers who wantonly shoot Black people who are just minding their own business. They are the ones who record their autistic kids having meltdowns and post the entire affair on YouTube to shame them into not having any more embarrassing meltdowns. They are the parents who kill their disabled children, citing how burdensome they are. It is those people, the ones who have made social conformity into a fetish and have lost their ability to see the Other as a person, who are the ones who will enthusiastically follow the next Hitler or Mussolini off a cliff. And these are the people I fear the most, even more than the Hitlers and Mussolinis themselves. Hitler cannot be Hitler if there is no throng of eager Nazis to march behind him.
Are there left-wing bullies and jerks? Of course. Are there Black, Brown, gay, trans, disabled bullies? Absolutely. We’re all human, and unfortunately, some human beings are assholes, no matter what they fill out on a census form. I am the last person to claim that because someone is marginalised, he cannot be a bully or harasser. But authoritarian leftism has comparatively little draw in North America or Europe compared with its right-wing counterpart, and the stories the authoritarian left tells are different.
Hitler and Mussolini tell you that the dominant culture should stay dominant, and anyone who doesn’t fit should be exterminated or severely marginalised. Stalin and Kim Il Sung, on the other hand, tell you that marginalised people will be liberated from colonial or royal oppression, that the outcasts will now gain control. But instead, they set up a new authoritarian dictatorship instead, just with new guys on top. The school analogues for left authoritarians are the autistic-adjacent geeks who got made fun of in school, go into Big Tech, and start becoming bullying assholes themselves. (I have known autistic people like this, mostly young white guys. They are deeply unpleasant and a pain in the ass in disability activism.) They are more sympathetic than the Mean Girls, but they are still repugnant and unworthy of support.
To sum it up: Right-wing authoritarians favour the current hierarchy. Left-wing authoritarians want to get rid of it and bring in a new hierarchy instead. Neither is particularly concerned about social justice, human rights, or basic decency.
- (as opposed to the good kind of conformity, like “don’t be a sociopathic asshole”) ↩