Is Shamelessness The Answer?

In these daily musings and rants, I’ve frequently noted my inability to understand why anyone would look at Donald Trump–as he parades his monumental ignorance, his bile and his obvious mental illness–and say, “Yep. That’s the guy I want to trust with the nuclear codes.” I simply haven’t been able to get my head around it.

But over the holidays, I read a review in the Guardian of a book offering a plausible explanation. Let me share a (relatively lengthy) quote that describes the author’s theory:

Imagine a white, working-class American, most likely a man, from Louisiana or Alabama, perhaps, standing in a long line that represents his life’s journey. The man has been sold the American “bootstrap myth”, which states that his great country is a place where anyone can rise from the humblest of origins to become a billionaire or a president, and at the end of the line he expects to find a little part of that dividend for himself. But things aren’t panning out as he had hoped. For a start, the line stretches to the horizon, and even as he stands in it, he suffers: his pay packet is shrinking, the industry he works in is moving overseas, and the cost of everything from food to gas to healthcare is through the roof. Worse still, he can see people cutting into the line ahead, beneficiaries of “affirmative action” – black people, women, immigrants. He doesn’t think he’s racist or misogynist, but that’s what they call him when he objects. He is doubly shamed: privately, by his failure to live up to the myth; publicly, by liberal society.

This is the so-called deep story of the American right. We don’t have to accept the man’s worldview, just believe that this might be how he perceives it.

 Now a new figure enters the scenario, an orange-haired tycoon: we’ll call him Donald. Donald seems instinctively to understand the man’s shame. In fact, he’s a shame expert. He has a long history of transgression, and people have been trying to shame him for much of his life. But Donald has found a way around it: he has become shame-less. He demonstrates his shamelessness almost daily by producing a stream of shameful remarks – about Mexicans, say, or Muslims, or the sitting president, who happens to be black. Although people shout “Shame!” at him, each condemnation inflates Donald a little more in the eyes of his tribe, including the man in the line, who holds him up as a sort of shame messiah. By refusing his own shame, Donald absolves them, too.

The author of the book being reviewed, one David Keen, observes that the words “shame” and “shameless” are currently in greater use than at any time since the mid-19th century.

I have often theorized that the far Right is populated by people who are deeply unhappy with their lives–people who are looking for someone or some group to blame for their failure to achieve their goals. Keen’s analysis is consistent with that thesis, but adds another layer to it–the fact that failure to meet one’s own expectations (or those of the culture into which one has been socialized) will inevitably involve some measure of self-incrimination, or shame.

When you think about it, when people feel they’ve screwed up–when they fail at something they wanted or expected to accomplish–that failure is typically accompanied by feelings of unworthiness/shame, prompting a pretty human desire to find a scapegoat to whom they can “hand off” responsibility for the failure. Well-balanced adults can resist that urge, recognizing it for what it is, but a lot of people cannot–hence racism, misogyny, antisemitism.

The review made me wonder whether different cultural expectations might not ease those feelings of shame. What if we Americans didn’t “monetize” the concept of success? What if our expectations of other adults focused more on behaviors like loving-kindness or generosity or other markers of commendable adult behavior and less on career or money or fame?

What if we didn’t tell American children they could “grow up to be President”–didn’t burden them with expectations of professional or financial success, however we define that–but instead just told little boys and girls “when you grow up, I want you to be a good person–a mensch.”

What if we raised people who could be trusted with the nuclear codes?


  1. That would be a monumental paradigm shift. It would be great, but how many generations would it take to get there? Do we have the patience to get there?

  2. This certainly explains the behavior of many Trump supporters, but not all.
    What accounts for those wealthy, degreed, inherited wealth guys? The ones born with a silver spoon in their mouths. The ones who never went hungry, were never left out of a club, and never had to hunt for a job. They left college with a degree, social graces and no debt. They married the right kind of woman, the kind who would turn her head when he cheated, and together they sent their kids to private schools, took fabulous vacations, and lived in the best of neighborhoods. He never sat on the board of any not for profit group. He attended church only enough to be able to claim being a Christian. He did regularly donate to the Republican Party but never walked door to door.
    How do we explain these men? These men who for all accounts appear to be successful, yet never worked for that success… not really. Do they know that they did not earn it, deserve it, and that self knowledge is now some unspeakable shame? Maybe that is it. A deep self doubt about what they would be if they were not born into it.
    More’s the pity.

  3. I’m currently reading Kristin Kobes du Mez’s book Jesus and John Wayne, How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, and I can see the growth of this shame, driven by individuals and groups determined to convince Americans that they are insufficient in nearly everything they do-especially men who are not manly enough

  4. Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a country called USA, a man could get a good-paying job with a company—we’ll call it an auto production factory. And he joined a union, which ensured that the job, the pay, the benefits, and the retirement pension were secure. The man married, bought a house, raised a family, took nice vacations with his family, and looked forward to a comfortable retirement. All on a single income. This was called “the American Dream.”
    Then, one day, the greedy company owner (we’ll call him an oligarch), discovered that the work could be done at a fraction of the cost in an overseas, Third World country. His factory was thus closed, and other oligarchs followed suit. The unions were broken, and what workers remained received pittances instead of living wages. But the oligarchs couldn’t shoulder the blame for killing the American Dream themselves, so they pointed fingers at “others.” And now, so many people are living the American nightmare, and when someone waves a carrot or offers a brass ring, they grab for it in desperation.
    A big part of the problem, in my opinion, is figuring how to convince these understandably unhappy people that when they vote for the false prophets, that they’re voting against their own best interests—without having it come across as condescending and insulting.

  5. Theresa, it seems, from here, that the issue with these no-so-self-made men is that they can not let go of wanting “MORE!” Maybe each is, wittingly, or unwittingly, in a contest with others of their ilk.

    Eric Fromm, the psychologist who first delineated the concept of “Malignant Narcissism” to describe Hitler, found that “‘…the racial narcissism which existed in Hitler’s Germany, and which is found in the American South’” were equivalent, at the time of his writing, in 1964. “‘If one examines the judgement of the poor whites regarding blacks, or of the Nazis in regard to Jews, one can easily recognize the distorted character of their respective judgements.’
    In both instances, Fromm found the working class to be among the most susceptible, harboring an’inflated image of itself as the most admirable group in the world, and of being superior to another racial group that is singled out as inferior,’ he wrote. A person in this group ‘feels: ‘even though I am poor and uncultured I am somebody important because I belong to the most admirable group in the world—I am white’; or ’I am Aryan.’
    A group whipped into narcissistic fervor ‘is eager to have a leader with whom it can identify,’ Fromm wrote. ’The leader is then admired by the group which projects its narcissism onto him.’
    The right kind of leader can inspire a symbiotic connection that supplants logic. The susceptible group sees itself in the narcissistic leader, becomes one with the leader, sees his fortune and his fate as their own. ‘The greater the leader,’ Fromm wrote, ‘the greater the follower…The narcissism of the leader who is convinced of his greatness, and who has no doubts, is precisely what attracts the narcissism of those who submit to him.’” p.271, “Caste- The Origins of our Discontent,” by Isabel Wilkerson.
    And TFG is MASSIVELY narcissistic.
    So, people resent the judgments of those who rule that tfg is not eligible to run for office, and threaten them, perhaps from the very sense that they feel threatened seeing their Dear Leader threatened.

  6. The peasants have always been manipulated by the powerful. “For King and Country…”

  7. But pre-Trump, how do we explain how all those people who kept voting for Republicans and against their own best-interests (Think Reagan/Regan/Friedman and trickle-down/voodoo economics) rather than for any Democrat? I think they’ve been so inculcated with hate for ANYTHING sounding like egalitarian liberalism that they would rather sell their mothers into slavery than vote for a Democrat.

    Remember, those rich white people absolutely despised FDR for employing Keynesian economics to get us out of the Great Depression. To those people, FDR was Satan incarnate. Why? For the same reasons given in today’s essay.

    In the end, Trump is just another inevitability to those who drive free-market capitalism. Marx predicted all this 170 years ago. He understood human nature better than most pundits today.

  8. Theresa … you perfectly describe the Trump supporters that I respect the least. They have and have always had theirs and they want more and could not care less who gets trampled for them to have more. They also know the rules don’t apply to them. The uninsured masses don’t bother them because they have enough money always to obtain the best health care available. Women’s reproductive rights disappearing don’t bother them because they will always have access to safe abortions. The destruction of public schools doesn’t bother them because they can afford private school education for their children. As long as that struggling person standing in the ever-increasing and depressing line keeps voting for the Republicans who will reduce the rich person’s taxes, the rich will get richer and the line will get longer and more depressing.

  9. TO MITCH….interesting. Now…what can the rest of us do about the situation? Isn’t there a heavy element of the tribalism we humans cling to? (I was thinking about this yesterday, watching all those football games. It was all about OUR tribe/team and winning!)

  10. Sheila – KUDOS – gonna be hard to top this baby going forward! Summing up all comments – “it’s the culture, stupid.” Driven by….loss of core/common agreed upon values/standards, “truth” becoming increasingly fuzzy from fading journalism/religion….

  11. To echo Theresa, I do have to wonder what unites the shamed and the comfortable. I mean, there was a significant percentage of Jan. 6 folks who were doing very well. I never understood why/how people drove their $60k trucks with $30k worth of modifications out of their 3 car, oversized garages at their 5 bedroom/4 bath houses sitting on 3 acres to go complain about “economic hardship”.

    If you’re angry about feeling left behind, I guess I get liking Trump. If your life is going quite well, I don’t really get the “burn it all down” fervor of the right.

  12. Dirk, I don’t get it either. Is “burn it all down” their only response to their shame? Is this related to the kind of response some men have when their wives leave them? The I’ll kill her so no one else can get her?

  13. Theresa B. The ones you are describing are just a flip side of the same coin. They are being told that they aren’t that smart, that they aren’t that special. Like Trump, they’re just lucky, lucky enough to have been born when, where, and to whom they were born. They didn’t earn it. It was handed to them.

  14. One thing we can do about it is learn how to be more joyous and less miserable in our own individual lives. Then we may serve as examples for others to do the same. Joyous people are not greedy, violent, or cruel. The more people who are joyous, the better our society will be.
    In “The Book of Joy” the Dalai Lama teaches how to create joy for yourself, regardless of the material conditions of your life.

  15. Pam: The “solution” (if any) will not be had overnight. I am beginning to think that we need to elect more sociologists and fewer political scientists, i. e., new politicians who alter motivation in favor of common good outcomes rather than those who foster greed and tribalism as social and economic attributes.

    Vern: Marx had the correct diagnosis but the wrong medicine.

    To all: Gandhi, Jesus and others were into motivation via brotherhood and love of one’s fellow inhabitants on this swirling orb in space, but with mixed results, and currently laden in this country with TV preachers, bottom lines, high court corruption, poor me politicians and other indicia of terminal greed masquerading as sound public policy under pretended ethical guidelines. We can and must do better if we are to survive today’s Maga’s curse and chaos as the cohesive society envisioned by Madison, Jefferson, and more recently, FDR, so let’s get to work, starting today.

  16. SWD – I suppose it might all hang together on one of the fundamental issues democrats have – messaging and the problem with nuance.

    Republicans always have a short, pithy (if totally inaccurate) message that speaks to their wildly distinct audience. Democrats are stuck trying to do big tent messaging based on the wide variety of people and are always lumbered with the need to “well, technically” their message to be clear and accurate.

    The message about privilege is never “you didn’t do anything”. That’s just what conservatives SAY the message is. It’s pithy (and inaccurate) and it’s understandable that it would upset people (as intended).

    Privilege is knowing you didn’t do something in a vacuum. That you had some help along the way. That YES you worked hard. BUT, some things were afforded to you that were not afforded to others and that we should try to help those who didn’t get some help. Privilege is the complicated idea that “things would have been worse” if you didn’t have it. It doesn’t make things easy. It makes things possible.

    That’s a lot of explaining to have to do to counter the short “they hate your success”. Motivational and accurate aren’t the same things. It depends and it’s complicated – true, but hard to put on a sign – the classic liberal problem.

  17. Dirk – nail hit on the head, not “gently”! I would add that those who are doing well have no need for politics of any kind and, if they vote, they vote for the GOP tribe, because the DEM tribe has no message for them. Not to mention that they are busy being entertained by celebrity, sports, their screens, etc.. life is SO MUCH FUN THESE DAYS!

  18. Robert Reich wrote today: “Trump and his allies want Americans to feel so disgusted with politics that they believe the nation has become ungovernable. The worse things seem, the stronger Trump’s case for an authoritarian like him to take over: “I’d get it done in one day.” “I am your voice.” “Leave it all to me.” Hmmmm – grain of truth here???

  19. Gerald,

    Oh sure. Marx, as we do so often today, searched for an operating system that help solidify the community of man. In so many ways, he was ahead of his – and our – time. Then, along came Lenin and Stalin and blew the whole idea of community on a grand scale all to hell.

    Marx’s “medicine” didn’t have the necessary testing regimes available to him before the monsters got hold of his ideas. We’ll never know…

  20. trump (lowercase deliberate) legitimizes:
    1. Fear
    2. Prejudice
    3. Cowardice

    We all have those attributes. It’s easier to follow the golden boar than it is to find real solutions to our shortcomings.

  21. Love and hate are opposite poles of the same spectrum, with most of life spent somewhere between prompted by memories of cultural and individual experiences.

    That creates infinite possibilities when you throw in space-time, where and when those experiences occurred.

    I have a hard time figuring out myself, much less anyone else.

    The strength of liberal democratic governance is the when, where, and who of voting and the averaging of diversity.

    We have to trust the process and the Constitution that sets it in stone.

  22. . Under Trump the older generation have seen $2.00 gasoline, minor cost of living and someone to fix the migrant problem with the fence. This is their reality and they vote in a bigger block then any other demographic. Biden needs to drop out of the race or the Democrats are going to lose once again to Trump. A younger canidindate is what the Democrats need to win the election. The younger people won’t vote for Biden, plain and simple.

  23. I keep thinking that we need a better measure of “the economy”. GDP mostly a measure of how much richer the already rich get, as they’re the main beneficiaries. The fact that the S&P 500 is up 8.3% (i.e. the economy is doing fabulously well!) has no practical relevance to someone who doesn’t own stocks.

    So when the news says the economy is up while it doesn’t actually show up in most people’s paychecks, is it any surprise when some of those same people decide the the system writ large (democracy) doesn’t work?

  24. Football? american, or otherwise is all about tribalism, while the owners get still richer. How many street brawls follow the outcome of a boxing match, or soccer game, because the “wrong” guy, or team won?
    Gerald is right but, do not hold your breath. I can not see the the threatened working class paying any heed to the message about common good when their anxiety is up.

  25. For me, this is one of the clear reasons why some type of financial floor is necessary for people and families. When people are raised, largely by themselves or an older sibling, because the parents are working multiple jobs just to get by, it’s obviously detrimental to their growth. (It doesn’t mean they can’t overcome the obstacles, but the odds go way down, and it becomes so much harder.) When they are surrounded by stress, pressure and unhappiness, is it any wonder they are less likely to thrive? Not everyone will emerge hurt by this, but many will. It’s about probabilities: increase them for the good outcomes.

    Consider: in sports, a few people thrive on extra stress and pressure, performing better than they would otherwise, but the vast majority of us do not. Most people perform much better when they are confident, relaxed, comfortable, and feel just the normal sort of competitive drive. Building that confidence is a key part of coaching.

    I could have used education as an example, just as easily. When tutoring math (or physics, etc.), at least half my effort goes into convincing the person they actually _can_ do math. Their elementary school years have often convinced them otherwise, probably at least partly as a defense mechanism, and they carry that defeated attitude into high school. However, once I’ve changed their minds about this, significant improvement becomes more easily possible.

    Families are similar. Constant stress, pressure, want and isolation breed poor outcomes. If we can alleviate some of those negative factors, it will be better for all. It could head off many of these people who grow up deceived by the unattainable myths they were fed.

  26. Shame, real shame, proper shame, the ancient shame comes from the recognition that one’s behavior doesn’t live up to standards, especially those a person holds dear requires a sense of conscientiousness that they do not have. That’s different than the performative, modern shame of status consciousness, which is willing to cheat to appear superior. The result is shamelessness, with detachment from any objective criteria. This is directly tied to mental fantasies of all sorts, including the spreading of fake news and the willingness to lie and accept lies. They hold no standards dear, so there’s nothing to live up to, no compass, no guide to action. Its essence is nihilism.

    Some research indicates that conscientiousness mediated the spreading of fake news, but a reevaluation of that research found that ideology was much stronger:

    The big question is why? Is it that conservatism has an inherent suspension of disbelief in its mythological preoccupations with nostalgia and imagined injuries to status? The prevailing resentment of white people who feel that their status is being challenged “unfairly” is rooted in a kind of fantasy that they deserve more than they have. It’s all part of the same fever dream that they deserve to be on top because they’re the only people in the universe who work hard, pay taxes, etc. From there, it becomes a mob mentality of ‘usses’ and ‘thems’ where the usses can do no wrong and the thems are every shade of bad. Their brains have never been conditioned to override any of these impulses.

  27. Vern- Spot on. Marx is the least understood genius of modern history. How the others (Lenin, et al) corrupted and distorted his analysis in what eventually became the USSR is, unfortunately, how many view Marx. It is total false equivalency.

    Capitalism has proven since the The Panic of 1873 (the financial crisis that triggered an economic depression in Europe and North America that lasted from 1873 to 1877 or 1879 in France and in Britain) that IT DOES NOT WORK……..EXCEPT for the already RICH!!!

    Our nation has also had its CLASS WARFARE throughout this experiment with Capitalism.

    ONLY when the peasants have true democracy on the workshop floor (aka Unions) does a HIGHLY REGULATED Capitalism have much benefit for anyone not in the 1%.

    1929 and 2007/8 proved….again…that Capitalism only survives when TAX PAYERS come to the rescue (not to mention the more recent Covid Relief programs on our dime).

    This predictable and recurring problem of our economy is the CORE problem of our political system whom MOST people know CATERS to the Capitalist. A Populist in 2015 called out the obvious disparity between the 1% Haves and 99% Have Nots. Unfortunately, it was Trump who was heard to be the loudest dissenting voice, thanks in no small part by the so-called “liberal media” who gave him billions of dollars of FREE TV face time!!!

    This, in spite of the fact, that Bernie Sanders (a REAL Populist!) had been criticizing the obvious failings of the Wall Street Economy most of his public service career!!!! Unfortunately for Bernie (and our nation imho), he was gaslighted and made fun of by BOTH the GOP and the Democrats. Once again, the media piled on. Chris Matthews especially on MSNBC.

    Until we, as a people, get to the root cause that creates the inevitable Trumps to come along, we will continue, as we have been for 150 years, to resuscitate a cruel Capitalism that does anything but promise a fair playing field “for the welfare of The People.”

  28. The analysis sounds good, but telling our children to be a mensch in a country whose home-grown school of philosophy, Pragmatism, uses terms like “cash value” seems like a huge task, Jesus, the Dalai Lama, and Gandhi aside.

    As another aside, I was reminded of Jack Lemon’s character Baxter in “The Apartment”, who decided to “be a mensch” at the end of the film.

    I think one other appeal of Trump, not mentioned by Keen, is the joy of “sticking to the man”. I am old enough to remember that from a far different place. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. started. out as a civil rights leader, and can claim a legacy from his work for civil rights, but as he got older, he became incredibly corrupt, taking expensive junkets, pulling his wife on the government payroll for doing nothing, spending his time in Florida rather than his Harlem district, and even refusing to pay a slander judgement against him.

    I often heard the response from his constituents (in the news reports) and from my African-American friends – “He’s just beating the White Man at their own game.

    His constituents finally did get tired of him not showing up in either Congress or his district and he was defeated in a primary election.

    Trump and his MAGA crew always take great joy in “sticking it to the libs”.

Comments are closed.