How would Mister Rogers deal with Mister Trump? Two things are certain: The President-elect has proven himself to be a bully, and Fred Rogers built his entire children’s program on an anti-bullying platform.
As a young boy, Rogers was bullied. “When I was a kid,” he recalled, “I was shy and overweight and scared to death to go to school each day. I was a perfect target for ridicule.”
And ridiculed he was. As he was walking home from elementary school one day, a pack of boys started to follow him. “Hey, Fat Freddy!” they yelled. “We’re going to get you!”
Rogers took off in a mad dash, barely beating the boys to the house of a friendly neighbor, where the adults told him to never mind those nasty kids. But Rogers could not help but mind. As he recalled the incident, “I resented the teasing. I resented the pain. I resented those kids for not seeing beyond my fatness or shyness.”
The awful feeling of being bullied never left him. When he recalled the bullying incident in public, as he did many times, his pain was palpable, close to the surface.
It was not unlike the pain described by women who have publicly alleged that Donald Trump bullied them in past years. Their allegations are not entirely surprising. As a presidential candidate, Trump ridiculed a disabled journalist, demonized Mexican immigrants, and made fun of overweight women. If he continues this behavior, he will no doubt be the Bully-in-Chief.
How would Mister Rogers deal with a presidential bully? It’s impossible to state with accuracy what any deceased person would say or do today, but the ways that Rogers responded to his own experience with bullying are crystal-clear.
Lucky for us, Rogers eventually channeled his pain into a wonderfully creative act: he gave us Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a program designed in part to help children face their many fears, especially the fear caused by bullies who make fun of them, chase after them, and even beat them.
Siding with the bullied, Rogers used his program to let them know that, in spite of what they heard or experienced on the playground, they were valuable, worthy of attention, and likable.
“I like you just the way you are,” Mister Rogers says. “Right now.”
Those were incredibly powerful, and life-changing, words for bullied children, and it makes perfect sense that millions of them ran home after school in anticipation of Mister Rogers accepting them just as they were. He made them feel worthy.
But Fred Rogers did much more than speak those words of reassurance through his television character. He also used his program to provide all of us, children and adults, with a model for healthy living: a strong and vibrant neighborhood that opposes and subverts the bullying rampant in our interpersonal and social worlds.
That’s what Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is all about: showing us how to build a countercultural community that subverts bullying big and small, local and far, interpersonal and political.
The neighborhood that Rogers built for us through the years was nothing if not an anti-bullying polis, a community of resistance to the personalities, principalities, and powers that bully us in our local and national lives. Opposing bullying in all its forms, the neighborhood waged campaigns against war, poverty, racism, disability discrimination, and even destruction of the natural world.
Occasionally, there were demonstrations and rallies in the neighborhood, but everyday resistance usually took the form of neighbors being neighbors—showing care for one another, whoever they were, and attending especially to those most in need.
A beautiful day in Mister Rogers’s neighborhood was a day without bullying.
So what would Mister Rogers do in response to the Bully-in-Chief? If we look to his past actions as our best indicators, the answer is now eminently clear: Rogers would resist.
Don’t be fooled by his soft red sweater, sensible blue sneakers, and slow speech. Fred Rogers was no passive pushover. He was no sappy sentimentalist. He was no docile dreamer.
Rogers was a bully’s worst nightmare: a radical truth-teller, a ferocious fighter for the marginalized, a really nice man who would not back down.
And he was a relentless recruiter to his politics of resistance. “Please won’t you be my neighbor?” he asked time and again.
This is where we must choose between the man in the red sweater and the man in the red tie.
Will we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the bullied, letting them know that they are valuable and likeable? Will we build our own neighborhoods, local places where we know one another, beckon goodness from one another, and gather strength to topple any who would dare to separate us? Will we help make a beautiful day in the neighborhood?
We may not be able to state with certainty how Mister Rogers would respond to Donald Trump, but he certainly showed us one compelling way to beat the bully. “So,” as Mister Rogers put it, “let’s make the most of this beautiful day.”