The Shameless, Shameful, Shamer-In-Chief

Hello again — I’m writing again for Frank’s blog — until I start my own. Thanks so much for taking the time to read, and all comments are appreciated. — Jan

By Jan Warrington

The day I thought Donald Trump would be expelled from the roster of 2016 Republican presidential candidates was in July, 2015, when Trump, in an interview, so breezily dismissed John McCain’s years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam: “He’s not a war hero,” said Trump. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” I remember where I was when I heard that comment; I was stunned. How could someone say such a vicious thing about McCain — a Naval aviator who for six years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam was tortured in unspeakable ways?

The fallout over Trump’s words? Certainly not a bang, barely a whimper. How could those comments not be met with unanimous outrage among those who claim to be patriots? What I thought would be a crash-and-burn moment instead seemed to have, at the time, little lasting political impact — as have so many of Trump’s comments and tweets that have been so harshly cruel and demeaning.

Let’s be clear: Trump was attempting to shame McCain for being captured. Trump was saying: You were captured, weak, you failed to escape — and in some twisted, brutal way, he succeeded when Republicans, despite stating McCain was a war hero, failed to condemn Trump for those remarks. Trump was a perpetrator (North Vietnamese torturer) re-traumatizing a victim.

Make no mistake: Shame is about control, and Trump intuitively grasps that it works. The person who has been shamed might feel deficient — and even better in the political arena for Trump — diminished in the eyes of others. Shaming others is finding their most tender, hidden secrets and exposing them: I see your weaknesses, and I’m going to exploit them.

If Trump is the master of anything, it is destructive shaming. His tactics include lying, distortion, and name-calling — and then trying to take back the destruction he has caused (“Who me?”) If you read the Trump Twitter archive, you’ll see a list of shame-directed targets: the New York Times is “failing,” Bob Corker is “incompetent,” Elizabeth Warren is “nervous and skinny,” Bernie Sanders “somewhat pathetic,” Mitt Romney “awkward and goofy.” And think about this: In December, 2015, Trump tried to shame Hillary Clinton for using the bathroom during a debate break. “Too disgusting,” he said about her using the bathroom, a human necessity, something I’m pretty sure Donald Trump shares with us.  

Trump can hope that his rivals feel more vulnerable, and are weakened after his attacks. And with Twitter, what better instrument? Shame on you, he says to his targets. He does what we can only hope no parent ever does to a child — tell the child that he or she is flawed and defective as a person. Think about that — Republicans make excuses, rationalize, and allow him to get away with abuse that — one can only hope — they would never inflict on their children or loved ones.

Shame, it is said, is different from guilt in that guilt refers to a behavior: I feel bad that I did that. Shame is about who I am as a person: I am a terrible person, worthless, unlovable, incompetent. Shame can be more corrosive to a person’s self-worth. One expert on shame, Brene Brown, describes shame as “the fear that we’re not good enough.” But shame used constructively can serve an adaptive purpose: A parent’s correction of a child’s behavior is necessary in order to teach a child how the world works, what the world expects.

But Trump’s attempts to shame have worked, polls tell us. His targets may seem less powerful, not worthy of our time or respect. Hillary Clinton will forever be known as “Crooked,” and to many Trump supporters, Robert Mueller will be “conflicted and compromised.” When shame is used to attack political rivals, the outcome is more destructive than a simple lack of civility in public discourse. For Trump, weaponized shame has replaced policy dialogue as campaign and governing strategies. The antidote? Voters must be mindful, aware of how his tactics are affecting us — and we must always seek the truth.

The word “shameless” has been used to describe Trump, and the irony is that Trump’s behavior is what is shameful. Trump as “shameless?” An illusion. Weaponizing shame may temporarily help Trump maintain his need to feel powerful — and prevent him from feeling fears of his own unworthiness. Just imagine all the energy he’s expending not to feel his own shame — “Gee, maybe I am a terrible person.”

Or worse? A “loser.”

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