The release of e-mails suggesting that Gov. Chris Christie's top aides choked off transportation to a small town as political retribution against the town's mayor are a huge deal. I wouldn't go so far as Jonathan Chait, who says "they will probably destroy Christie’s chances in 2016." But they make it much likelier that something will emerge to destroy Christie's chances in 2016.
Christie inhabits a rare space in American politics: He's a bully. He's followed around by an aide with a camcorder watching for moments in which Christie, mustering the might and prestige of his office, annihilates some citizen who dares question him.
Almost everywhere Christie goes, he is filmed by an aide whose job is to capture these “moments,” as the governor’s staff has come to call them. When one occurs, Christie’s press shop splices the video and uploads it to YouTube; from there, conservatives throughout the country share Christie clips the way tween girls circulate Justin Bieber videos. “The YouTube stuff is golden,” says Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. “I can’t tell you how many people forward them to me.” One video on Christie’s YouTube channel — a drubbing he delivered to another aggrieved public-school teacher at a town hall in September — has racked up over 750,000 views.
Now in Moorestown, Christie was hoping to create another such moment. After some introductory remarks, he opened the floor to questions. “For those of you who have seen some of my appearances on YouTube,” he cautioned, peeling off his suit jacket as he spoke, “this is when it normally happens.”
It's not an accident that Christie emerged in a period when the Republican Party is out of power. His videos make them feel powerful at a moment when they're weak.
The reason Chris Christie is so good at this is that Chris Christie is actually a bully. That doesn't mean he's not also a nice guy who cares deeply about his family and his constituents and his country. It doesn't mean he's not an unusually honest politician who's refreshingly free of cant and willing to question his party. There's a lot about Christie that's deeply appealing. But there's one big thing that's not: He's someone who uses his office to intimidate people and punish or humiliate perceived enemies.
Watch this video of him screaming at a guy on the New Jersey Boardwalk. Watch him stalk toward the man, flanked by security and aides. Listen to what he actually says. "Keep walking. Keep walking."
That's not typical behavior for an adult. It's definitely not typical behavior for a national politician. But it's typical behavior for a bully. In fact, it's not even very creative bullying. Anyone who's ever been a boy in an American middle school has heard "keep walking!"
What makes Christie unusual is that he's a bully with power. That can be a dangerous combination.
There have been previous hints that Christie's proclivity to publicly humiliate his opponents is matched by a tendency to privately punish them, too. On Dec. 24, the New York Times ran an article titled "Stories Add Up As Bully Image Trails Christie." It began with an anecdote of a New Jersey assemblyman who got a nasty note from Christie after making some relatively innocuous radio comments.
The gesture would come to seem genteel compared with the fate suffered by others in disagreements with Mr. Christie: a former governor who was stripped of police security at public events; a Rutgers professor who lost state financing for cherished programs; a state senator whose candidate for a judgeship suddenly stalled; another senator who was disinvited from an event with the governor in his own district.
In almost every case, Mr. Christie waved off any suggestion that he had meted out retribution. But to many, the incidents have left that impression, and it has been just as powerful in scaring off others who might dare to cross him.
The bridge e-mails show that it's not just Christie. His aides are in on it, too. Christie staffer Bridget Anne Kelly e-mails David Wildstein, a Christie appointee on the Port Authority, saying, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” He's a bully with a staff of bullies.
It's entirely possible that Christie didn't know very much about the bridge episode. It might just be the product of the culture he's created, or permitted, to arise around him. What's dangerous for Christie, though, is that now every political reporter in the country will begin believing rumors of his punishments and hunting down evidence of his retaliation. And things Christie was able to do before to wide applause — like berate a schoolteacher and then have his staff upload it to YouTube — will begin feeding a very different kind of narrative.
Chris Christie rose because he's a bully. It might be why he falls, too.