Bad Boys

Alan Zendell, April 13, 2021

We all know them. They grow up resenting authority, rebelling against rules, pushing the envelope and flirting with trouble. It’s not just boys, but in a world in which men still hold most of the power, we notice bad boys more than girls. I have a theory about bad boys. It’s unvetted, and when I asked a psychologist I know if it made sense, he declined to comment, but I can’t let it go.

Recent events won’t let me. It starts with the premise that the ultimate bad boy in our recent experience is Donald Trump. It’s not a very controversial premise. I imagine Trump would endorse it himself, even revel in it. He bragged about his treatment of women and his avoidance of the tax code, and referred to his bankruptcies and other nasty business practices as evidence of how clever he is. He lies and bullies unapologetically and has a long history of associating with unsavory characters like organized crime figures John Gotti and Roy Cohn. I think he really believes he could shoot someone in broad daylight and walk away scot free. He believes his Teflon coating is impenetrable, and up until now he’s been right.

That’s what is most important about the bad boy in chief. Call him amoral, sociopathic, insensitive, shameless – all those descriptions are apt, but why does it matter now that his presidency is in the past? For the same reason kids fascinated with space look up to astronauts and other kids on sandlots and playgrounds look up to sports heroes. Bad boys have their heroes too, which brings me back to my unvetted theory.

Suppose you were a budding bad boy – a compulsive liar, a vile racist, a cheater, a sexual predator, or someone with any other socially unacceptable or criminal tendency. As an adolescent, you learned to submerge those tendencies in a place where others couldn’t see them. You had your public face and another, darker one you kept hidden. Maybe you carried around a burden of guilt, maybe you lived under a cloud of anger and frustration, or worse, you couldn’t fit in to normal society and instead turned to cults, fringe movements, or hate groups.

In a sense, you’ve lived your life underground. Your parents, teachers, mentors, and elected leaders preached values you couldn’t relate to. Part of you understood that you were broken, while another, darker part felt superior to everyone else. And then a new hero came on the scene who seemed to embody all of the things you’ve felt bad about. He lived his life in defiance of all the rules you’ve been told you had to obey, and while many people blustered and screamed, he always seemed to come out ahead. Everything he says and does triggers outrage and fear in many people, but not you. When Trump talked about grabbing women by their pussies, I cringed, but you felt inspired by the way he continued to prosper and earn adulation from millions.

All your life you’ve been told you were wrong or sick or crazy. But seeing Trump get away with breaking every rule, ignoring every norm and custom, eschewing common courtesy and decency is freeing for you. You feel exonerated, justified, vindicated, enabled. It feels so good you ignore the evidence that it’s all an illusion. The number of people who have come under his spell and had their lives ruined when he no longer had any use for them goes unnoticed. You’re as hooked an any heroin addict; in a very real way, the example his life sets is a dangerous drug.

I can’t let go of this theory because it explains people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz. Gaetz is the quintessential Trump wannabe. As a young man, his influential father always had the ability to bail him out of trouble, things like mysteriously getting his drivers license restored after DUI convictions got it suspended, like keeping his sixteen speeding violations under wraps. And now, he is alleged to have been involved in sex trafficking and consorting with underage girls. Not exactly the same things his new hero brags about and gets away with, but close enough to instill worship in the mind of someone like Gaetz.

I don’t give a damn about Matt Gaetz. He’ll get what he deserves. He’ll be another sycophant who fell by the wayside when Trump had no use for him, like the leaders of The Proud Boys, The Oath Keepers, and Trump supporters who were swindled out of millions of dollars in unauthorized contributions. I only hope that the rest of the bad boys who were energized by Trump get the message and crawl back into their holes.

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