My Encounter with a Political Bully

I don’t like the term “bully” because it’s not strong enough for the tantrum that I witnessed first hand. There are plenty of terrible derogatory terms that are closer to the truth regarding this man’s actions, but I want to keep it PG.

I have been thinking about him a lot in the last week and a half. I hadn’t thought about him or his followers in years, but it all came crashing back as I watched footage of the mob in Washington. My experience is nothing close to what happened last week, but I think it is related on many levels.

Since I can’t get it off my mind, I thought it was time to share it with you. I hope it makes us all think about our allegiances and actions.

I moved to Florida about a decade ago. It was part quarter-life crisis and part commitment to working on my writing. I was searching for myself and my future, and I thought I might as well do that work on the beach.

To pay the bills, I took a job as the receptionist at a travel agency in a very wealthy community. Few of our clients were native Floridians. They were mostly millionaire retirees from other parts of the country.

My job was to come to work dressed to the nines, ready to welcome these clients with a smile and sometimes even a glass of champagne. I answered phones, organized clients’ itineraries and travel documents, and dreamed about far off places while I thumbed through the newest brochures. There were so many midwesterners in our client base that I became known as “The Hoosier” and quickly learned the Big 10 loyalties of many of the middle-aged men who came through the doors.

One fateful day, the agents were hosting a fancy afternoon party with plenty of bubbly and pearls and pocket squares to go around. I somehow still remember that it was all about travel to Africa. The clients ate canapés while listening to presentations and viewing photos of luxury safari accommodations (sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not).

Because everyone was in the adjacent party/reception room, I was alone in the outer office, sitting at my desk while palm trees swayed outside the wall made entirely of glass, listening to the same soft rock songs that played on a loop. After that year of working there, I never want to hear “If you like pina coladas” ever again.

That’s when “he” arrived. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m way too scared to give you his name. He and his base turned out to be so threatening that even a decade later I will not publish his name for fear of retribution. But I’d be happy to tell you in person some day 😉

“He” was a white man, around 65 years old at the time. He walked into our lobby wearing shorts and a polo, like he had just stepped off the golf course. I assumed he was late to the party… until he opened his mouth.

With not so much as a hello, he pounded his fist on my reception desk and demanded, “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?”

Startled, I tried to do my duty as the sweet little receptionist. “No, sir, I do not. Is there something wrong? May I help you?”

“My name is ________ _________. Rhymes with __________.” I will never forget how he introduced himself, because it seemed so ludicrous to tell me what it rhymed with while he was red with rage. “I called here days ago, and no one has responded. I want to know what’s wrong with you people.”

I had never heard of the man, but I could tell he thought I should be impressed by his identity.

“I’m so sorry, sir. Let me see if I can find where our communication broke down.” We kept record of every contact in a client data base. I searched for his name, and there was nothing. Nada. Zilch. Not a single phone call to or from him. Not a single email. We hadn’t sent him brochures. He didn’t even exist in our extensive list of potential clients purchased from a marketing company.

I swallowed back my nerves, tried to get my hands to stop shaking, and apologetically said, “Well, sir, I can’t find a record of that communication. Do you know which agent you were trying to contact?”

He didn’t have a name. And he was growing even more irate, as if I was lying to him.

“No one ignores me. This is outrageous.”

Around this time, due to his raised voice, my manager stepped out of the party with a frustrated look on his face. “What’s going on out here?” he asked. I imagine that “his” voice had carried into the party, ruining the fabulous atmosphere.

I had never been so thankful for my manager. “His” anger turned to my manager instead of me.

I witnessed a total tantrum and break down on the part of this supposed celebrity. When my manager told him he would have to leave if he didn’t calm down, “he” responded with cursing and threats, culminating in telling us we would regret it and storming away.

I thought it was over. My manager combed his fingers through his hair and re-entered the party. I’m sure he laughed it off with the guests.

We didn’t know that “he” would make good on his promise to make us regret it.

My manager and I did a little research after the party. We discovered “he” was a nationally-syndicated conservative radio personality with a massive following. He was known for “telling it like it is” and pushing his weight around. He seemed to really love being famous and adored for being a jerk. Sound familiar?

After some digging we discovered he was a client at another travel agency in town. He had called them, not us. He was ignored by them, not us. I don’t know why, but I can imagine…

The next morning, the phone rang, and I answered with my standard welcoming line. “_______ Travel Company. How can I help you?”

“How dare you treat ______ ________ this way? You are going to hell.” Click.

I stared at the phone. Two more lines were blinking and waiting on me to answer.

“________ Travel Company. How can I help you?” My voice shook this time.

“Do you have any idea what you’ve done? Do you have any idea who you’ve disrespected? We won’t let up til you’ve paid the price.”

Now every light on my phone panel was blinking.

I answered a few more, and it was all the same. One even said, “Oh, are you the sweet receptionist? He told us you were the only one who respected him in the whole place.” That comment left me dumbfounded. He only spoke to two of us (my manger and me), and all these people were calling and harassing me even though he had told them I was kind? “You tell the rest of your company that they are ruined. We won’t let them survive this.”

On and on and on. Every call was about how we were going to hell. They were about how we “disrespected” a “great” man. They threatened and berated us, and my fear made my heart pound and my eyes fill with tears. It was terrible.

And all because he had been ignored by a different travel agency. All because his pride had been wounded. And to be clear, even if we had been the “offending” agency, there was no excuse for this behavior.

Finally my manager unplugged the phones and locked the doors. We searched for “his” radio broadcast from that morning, and we listened to it with our mouths hanging open and all the agents gathered around my desk.

While addressing his thousands and thousands of followers, he told the story that he had been mistreated and disrespected by our agency. He read our phone number multiple times and told them to call us and give us a piece of their mind. He told them to spread the word that no one should ever give our company any business. I remember one statement was, “Tell them that no one treats me this way and gets away with it.” Then, he did in fact mention me (not by name. Just the sweet receptionist. gag.), and said that I alone had treated him with respect.

I had to laugh to keep from crying. How backwards is it that he spoke of the kindness of the receptionist, yet encouraged his followers to call and harass the company? Didn’t he realize the sweet receptionist would be the one answering the phones?!

We plugged the phones back in later that day, and the calls kept coming. They weren’t as frequent, but they were steady. I’d say about five per hour that first day, and a couple per hour for the rest of the week.

What must go on in a person’s head to follow these instructions from a radio personality they’ve never met? What level of misplaced allegiance must there be for someone to hear “him” say “you should do this” and actually go do it?

As kids, we all heard the phrase, “Well, if he told you to jump off a building, would you do it?” Yes, I do believe they would have.

But, why?! That’s what I don’t understand.

If my favorite celebrity (Let’s be honest: Taylor Swift. I’m obsessed with her.) got on TV and said, “I’ve been disrespected. If you love me, do this cruel thing to this other person,” I would NEVER do what they said. My devotion to her would diminish because she had encouraged something so stupid and terrible.

What makes people jump when these madmen say jump? I want to have empathy and understanding. I want to have compassion and see the root cause of this behavior. I don’t think we can move forward until we stop demonizing and dehumanizing each other. Yet, I find it so hard to put myself in those shoes. I am completely mystified by the behavior of those callers and the behavior of so many who followed the instructions to march to the capitol.

If you have an example of a centrist or someone on the left behaving in a similar manner, I would truly love for you to reach out and send me something to read about it. The only examples I can find are about conservative leaders and their followers. I am very curious if this is a bipartisan, equal-opportunity trait, or if it is unique among specific groups of conservatives. (and I want to be careful and acknowledge that I know it isn’t all conservatives.)

I required my team at the university (we work in Student Life) to read some articles this week about the social psychology of Trump supporters. I looked for peer-reviewed research, rather than propaganda from one side or the other. In order to have empathy, we must understand instead of dehumanizing. We need to understand the pain points that lead people to trusting a man like that and believing he is a great leader. We have to try to walk in their shoes to see why they so fully believe what he says, even when there is no evidence to support his claims.

But I still struggle. I don’t know if I will ever fully understand what makes a person passionately follow the lead of a man who encourages cruelty. I will never fully understand what made all those people pick up the phone to abuse me that day. But I also want to acknowledge that I don’t understand their fear and traumas and hurts.

Don’t even get me started on how much I don’t understand about others hurts. I don’t understand the traumas in the LGBTQ community. I don’t understand the traumas of the many diverse BIPOC communities. But within those groups, I have found love and joy and wisdom and beauty. I have learned much from their experiences and found a way to tap into empathy. I have yet to find those things within the extremist conservative community.

But I want to find empathy. I don’t want to hate. It’s so, so hard.

It is hard to see outside of my own privilege and experience. My life has been pretty easy, and I grew up in a home full of love for other people. When you grow up being instructed to love all people (and you grow up with such beautiful examples as my parents), you innocently assume that all people grow up with those same teachings. It comes as a shock later in life when you discover the hatred and fear that drive so many people. Especially when those people hate others in the name of Jesus or wear Christian symbols as they participate in evil/cruelty.

I just can’t understand. But I want to. I want to understand the hurts of so many of those loudest and most aggressive Trump supporters so that I can somehow find a way to follow Christ’s mandate to love all. Because right now, it is very hard to love them. (I’m even sickened with myself for typing “them” in that way. Our divisions are heartbreaking, and it only makes it worse when we see it as us vs. them. I’m so guilty of this and must remember my own sin and shortcomings. The log in my eye must be dealt with.)

(Received a helpful, wise message from a friend who supports Trump after I posted this. Her suggestion of adding “loudest and most aggressive” to the above paragraph was important and accurate. Thank you to those who have already reached out to dialogue!)

It is hard to love and have compassion, but I am trying. I welcome your wisdom (but please don’t send propaganda from some random website). If you have found helpful resources for understanding this phenomenon, please send my way. If you have a personal experience that may help me understand, please share. If you are interested in reading the research I have found, let me know and I’ll pass it along.

Bottom line: Don’t be a political bully who throws tantrums. And don’t pledge allegiance to a cruel man or follow his instructions. And try your best to understand those who seem like your enemy.

We have much work to do.

Notes from my conversations, 24 hours after posting:

  • The most powerful comment was from my friend Corey who stated that it is a sad state of affairs when a person knows our political party before they know we follow Christ. This applies to all Christians, no matter where we fall politically. Encouraging and convicting!
  • We can get into a lot of circular arguments when there are two entrenched sides with vastly different opinions about which sources are trustworthy. When I don’t trust your sources, and you don’t trust mine, it’s virtually impossible to find common ground.
  • The vast majority of comments and private messages were in agreement. This doesn’t prove I’m right. It proves that we often live within bubbles of our own thoughts, or “echo chambers” as some put it. While I love the high fives, we must be careful to seek out different thoughts and opinions so that we can keep some healthy perspective that we aren’t always right and that no side of the argument has the monopoly on truth and rightness.
  • I received a lot of “there are bad people on all sides. It’s not just conservatives.” I totally agree. I don’t think any group is perfect. However, only one of the many messages I received had a concrete example of famous liberal leaders asking their followers to do something cruel and/or illegal. Now, that one example was HEINOUS, and I was able to confirm through my own research that it happened. So, to that person, thank you for helping me form a better perspective!
  • I still see this authoritarian aggression (and the desire to follow it) more often among subsets of conservatives, and research links the trait to that group. There are some far left authoritarian figures throughout history, but it seems to happen much more often on the right. DM me if you would like to see some peer-reviewed research on the topic or if you have some resources that say something different. I want to keep learning!
  • I’m fascinated that so many think I am a loyal democrat, based on my writing. I’m far from it. I actually agree with bits of policy from both sides, and I disagree with elements of both platforms. I’ve read that this is a growing sentiment among Americans in general, and in my generation in particular. If I was forced to vote a straight ticket, I would really struggle. I hope in the future to better communicate that I am someone with some conservative thoughts who is still dumbfounded by much of what is happening in American conservative politics. Perhaps the way forward is for all of us to distance ourselves from leaders and groups who support or encourage violence, cruelty, supremacy of whites/America/western culture, or disenfranchisement. (P.S. I love America, even with her faults. I just want nothing to do with the idea that we are superior to others. I find that idea to be in direct conflict with the message of Jesus, and my pledge of allegiance is to Him.)
  • Last and most importantly, I have learned that the vast majority of my friends and readers are good people who think about their decisions, act and speak with kindness even when they disagree, and want something better for our nation than the divisions we have now. The two sides have different ideas of what “better” is and how we get there, but we agree that where we are now is ugly and dangerous. For those of you who follow Jesus, what might happen if we all prayed for Him to lead us to better times, without giving Him the parameters of how we think He should accomplish this? My prayers will be for wisdom, peace, and love to abound, and for God to heal our nation on his terms. I hope you will join me.

“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)

4 thoughts on “My Encounter with a Political Bully

  1. This made me tear up. It’s a terrible time we are living through and I’m not sure the behavior of people can ever be understood. Thanks for sharing this. Love you. Aunt Debbie

  2. What a difficult story! I, too, do not understand the deep in civility and lack of statesmanlike behavior. And, what makes people follow? Difficult discussions regarding policy or ideals are important, but violence and vitriol are inexcusable.

    Thank you for telling your story!!

  3. Well said………. so many issues, so many answers: most of them right to some and wrong to others. A Babel of reality. I always remind myself that Indiana is as RED a state as there ever was. “We” are surrounded by Trumpsters. They are our neighbors and our relatives and we love them as we love ourselves– but sometimes we don’t. LOL. Go figure……

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