Donald Trump and the Power of Shame

(This is a really quick translation of an article I wrote for the Leidsch Dagblad and some other Dutch local newspapers)

Sara Polak, November 10, 2016

Donald Trump – een open racist, sexist, and xenophobe – has been elected president of the United States. I do not belong to the school of analysts who think things will turn out alright.

But as I wrote here previously: I am not the kind of academic who tries to predict future developments. Thankfully, because in the Great Fingerpointing that always follows elections, the pollsters, who had predicted Hillary Clinton would win, are at the receiving end. At the same time, they are now under massive pressure to go on predicting right away. It is their job, and everyone wants to know what will happen now. A logical, but also an impossible question. Trump has often said that he wants to be unpredictable. For a wily businessman it makes sense to keep one’s cards close to one’s chest. But for the rest of the already unstable world, it is potentially dangerous if the global military superpower is unreliable. But whether this will first become a problem in Turkey, Iran, Germany, Yemen, Estonia, China, or perhaps nowhere at all – I have no idea.

The same goes for all those other questions. Will abortion be outlawed? Is there really going to be a wall to close off the Mexican border? Will there be large-scale deportations of undocumented immigrants? I don’t know. Because the Republican Party now supplies not just the president, but also has a majority in the House of Representatives, the Senate, and in the heavily politicized Supreme Court, there is little reason for reassurance.

If ‘Obamacare’, the collective health insurance program, is shut down – and that is to be expected – twenty million already vulnerable people will lose health insurance. This means in most states that people cannot go to the doctor, until their lives are in acute danger. I already found it a nightmare when we were living in the US – well-insured though we were. If one of the kids fell in the playground, or had an unusually high fever, I would get stressed about the insurance documents, and whether we would be able to find a clinic that did business with our insurance company.

The United States of America is one out of five countries in the world that has no federally paid form of maternity leave whatsoever – something Trump has in fact vowed to change – and the culture around health care is different from the Dutch. Medical care is expensive and commercial and Americans tend not to expect much from the government in this regard. But of course, American parents too get stressed when they cannot take their sick child to a doctor.

No more predictions from me, though.[1] I do have some thoughts about causes. I hear many hypotheses. ‘So many blacks are incarcerated in Florida – if ten percent of them had been allowed to vote and they had voted for Hillary Clinton, she would have won the election.’ ‘White women did go for Trump after all – it’s their fault.’ ‘The white working class feels neglected.’ And: ‘misogyny!’  All those factors have played a role, but they offer a limited understanding of what happened. The translation into demographic groups suggests a homogeneity within those groups that does not exist. ‘The elite’, ‘the latinos’, ‘the poor whites’. None of those groups really exist as such. They are labels that do not do justice to reality, but do influence public perceptions.

One analysis that I found more enlightening, was the one by Adam Haslett in The Nation of one month ago. If you are interested in reading the long, English original, google “Donald Trump, Shamer in Chief”. Haslett argues that the driving emotion of this election was shame – economic, ethnic, or personal shame. And not anger, as most have assumed. Almost everybody in the US is ashamed, Haslett writes. Of their poverty, relative imperfection compared to other people’s Facebook photos, obesity, disappointing business results, unemployment, you name it. The current culture – Donald Trump in front – is organized around exploiting that shame. The lack of solidarity and real contact between people makes it attractive to neutralize one’s own shame by humiliating others even worse.

I see a lot of that happening on Twitter. Someone says something, and another verbally attacks him – or more often: her – brutally. This happens in a way that in common interpersonal contact would have been completely outrageous. Twitter is a kind of schoolyard, and what is satisfying to many about such attacks, I think, is that it happens in public. Everyone sees you slam that other person to the ground, in 140 well-chosen characters. Social media – which of course are commercial media – lend themselves perfectly for this kind of bullying. And bullying is a strategy to negotiate social unsafety in a group. In American society most people, whether they are left-wing, right-wing, male, female, poor, rich, black, or white, feel ashamed and unsafe. The national ideology that America is the best country with the most opportunities for all, contributes to that feeling. If you are unsuccessful in any way, it surely has to be your own fault.

Perhaps the easiest way to assuage that feeling, and at least feel somewhat superior, is by shaming others. And social media offer a perfect environment for doing that. Facebook is one of the very few remaining spaces where people meet each other daily. In churches and village squares people also bullied each other, because there too, the atmosphere was often one of shame rather than open contact. But Facebook and Twitter are peculiarly geared to extreme and explicit bullying. Donald Trump is an expert in doing so, and has the support of thousands of Twitter users who have dedicated years to systematically demolishing Hillary Clinton. Successfully.

Of course there are other ways of dealing with your other and others’ shame. I have in the period I had the privilege to write for this paper, received one nasty reaction. Obviously intended to belittle me. It worked. I felt myself shrink. But the sting was removed as soon as I shared the incident with a colleague whom I trust, and who, as foreseen, responded with kindness and humor. Shame as driving emotion and social media as village square do not stimulate openness or careful listening. Still, that is the better way out than a pyramid game of humiliation with Donald Trump at the top. And it is a way out that remains available, also in the US – even if the country now seems even more polarized than last week.

And then, finally, because I won’t disappear after today, but this series about the US elections reaches its end here, I do wish to thank everybody who has read these columns very much. Especially those who have taken the trouble to respond (except that one person), and in particular the three people – Willemien Groot, Vincent van der Noort, and Menno Polak – who have read everything before publication, and who have saved me from many, sometimes shameful mistakes.  And who have mopped me up, last Wednesday, because the news did get me down immensely.

[1] It’s funny: the day after I wrote this about the probable end of Obamacare, Trump announced that he didn’t want to repeal it. Still that doesn’t say a lot about what will happen, but it did make me look a little bit ridiculous when this came out. Although it also proved my point about his unpredictability.

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Donald Trump en de macht van de schaamte

Donald Trump – een openlijke racist, seksist en xenofoob – is gekozen tot president van de Verenigde Staten. Ik behoor niet tot de school die denkt dat het allemaal wel mee zal vallen.

Maar zoals ik eerder schreef: ik ben geen voorspeller. Gelukkig, want in het Grote Vingerwijzen dat altijd volgt na verkiezingen, krijgen de opiniepeilers, die een overwinning voor Hillary Clinton verwachtten, het wel voor hun kiezen. Tegelijk staan ze nu onder druk om meteen weer verder te voorspellen. Het is hun vak en iedereen wil weten wat er gaat gebeuren. Een logische, maar ook een onmogelijke vraag. Trump heeft vaak gezegd dat hij onvoorspelbaar wil zijn. Voor een slinkse zakenman is het handig je kaarten dicht tegen de borst te houden. Maar voor de rest van de toch al instabiele wereld is het potentieel gevaarlijk als de mondiale militaire grootmacht niet betrouwbaar is. Maar of dat als eerste tot problemen gaat leiden in Turkije, Iran, Duitsland, Jemen, Estland, China, of misschien wel helemaal nergens – geen idee.

En ook al die andere vragen. Wordt abortus nu verboden? Komt die muur aan de Mexicaanse grens er echt? Gaan er op grote schaal deportaties van illegalen plaatsvinden?  Ik weet het niet. Omdat de Republikeinse partij nu niet alleen de president levert, maar ook een meerderheid heeft in het Huis van Afgevaardigden en de Senaat, én in het zwaar gepolitiseerde Hooggerechtshof, is er weinig reden voor gerustheid.

Als “Obamacare”, het collectieve zorgverzekeringsprogramma, sneuvelt – en dat valt wel te verwachten – komen twintig miljoen toch al kwetsbare mensen zonder zorgverzekering te zitten. Dat betekent in de meeste staten dat mensen niet naar de dokter kunnen, tot ze in acuut levensgevaar zijn. Ik vond het al een ramp toen wij – verzekerd en wel – in de VS woonden. Als één van de kinderen van een klimrek viel of ongebruikelijk hoge koorts had, raakte ik vooral in de stress over de verzekeringspapieren, en of we bij een huisartsenpost zouden belanden die zaken deed met onze verzekeraar.

Amerika is één van de vijf landen ter wereld zonder enige landelijke vorm van betaald zwangerschapsverlof – wat Trump trouwens heeft beloofd te veranderen – en de zorgcultuur is er anders dan in Nederland. Medische zorg is duur en commercieel en Amerikanen verwachten niet veel van de overheid op dit punt. Maar ook Amerikaanse ouders raken gestresst als ze niet naar de dokter kunnen met hun zieke kind.

Verder geen voorspellingen van mij. Wel een paar gedachten over oorzaken. Ik hoor er veel. Er zitten in Florida zoveel zwarten in de gevangenis – als tien procent van hen had mogen stemmen en ze hadden op Hillary Clinton gestemd, had zij gewonnen. De witte vrouwen hebben toch op Trump gestemd – het is hún schuld. De witte arbeidersklasse voelt zich verwaarloosd. En: vrouwenhaat! Al die factoren hebben meegespeeld, maar leveren een beperkte verklaring. De vertaling in demografische groepen suggereert een homogeniteit binnen die groepen die er niet is. ‘De elite’, ‘de latinos’, ‘de arme blanken’. Stuk voor stuk bestaan die groepen niet als zodanig. Het zijn etiketten die de werkelijkheid zo plat slaan als een dubbeltje, maar de beeldvorming intussen wel beïnvloeden.

Een analyse die voor mij meer verhelderde, was die van Adam Haslett in het blad The Nation van een maand geleden. Wilt u het lange, Engelstalige, origineel lezen, google dan ‘Donald Trump, Shamer in Chief’. Haslett beargumenteert de stelling dat de drijvende emotie van deze verkiezingen schaamte was – economische, etnische, of persoonlijke schaamte. Dus niet woede, zoals alom wordt aangenomen. Bijna iedereen in de VS schaamt zich, schrijft Haslett. Voor armoede, relatieve imperfectie in vergelijking met andermans Facebookfoto’s, overgewicht, tegenvallende bedrijfsresultaten, werkloosheid. De huidige cultuur – Donald Trump voorop – is erop gericht die schaamte uit te buiten. Het gebrek aan solidariteit en echt contact tussen mensen maakt het aantrekkelijk om eigen schaamte te neutraliseren door anderen nog harder te vernederen.

Op Twitter zie ik dat veel gebeuren. Iemand zegt iets, en een ander valt hem keihard, op de man – of vaker, vrouw – aan. Dat gebeurt op een manier die in gewoon menselijk contact buiten iedere orde zou zijn. Twitter is een soort schoolplein, en het lekkere van zo’n aanval zit er voor veel mensen, denk ik, in dat het in het openbaar gebeurt. Iedereen ziet jou, in 140 welgekozen tekens, die ander de grond in boren. Sociale media lenen zich bij uitstek voor dat soort pestgedrag. En pesten is een strategie om om te gaan met sociale onveiligheid in een groep. In de Amerikaanse maatschappij voelen de meeste mensen, of ze nu links, rechts, man, vrouw, arm, rijk, zwart of wit zijn, zich beschaamd en onveilig. Dat wordt versterkt door de nationale ideologie dat Amerika het beste land met de meeste mogelijkheden voor iedereen is. Als je dan buiten de boot valt, op wat voor manier dan ook, ligt het blijkbaar aan jezelf.

Wellicht de makkelijkste manier om dat gevoel te dempen, en je in elk geval een beetje superieur te voelen, is door anderen te pesten. En sociale media bieden een perfecte omgeving om dat te doen. Facebook vormt tegenwoordig een van de laatste plekken waar mensen elkaar dagelijks ontmoeten. In kerken en op dorpspleinen werd vroeger al gepest, want ook daar was vaak eerder een sfeer van schaamte dan van open contact. Maar Facebook en Twitter lenen zich voor een veel explicietere en ergere vorm. Donald Trump is er een expert in en heeft duizenden twitteraars achter zich, die al jaren systematisch Hillary Clinton online kapot maken. Met succes.

Trump heeft daarmee van schaamte een wapen gemaakt. Niemand wil zelf gepest worden en als je hem, de ‘Shamer in Chief’ maar volgt, dan behoor je zelf tot het gilde van pesters, en niet tot dat van slachtoffers. Dan hoef je de schaamte over je eigen gebrek aan succes, rijkdom, of wat dan ook, niet te voelen.

Je kunt natuurlijk ook anders omgaan met je eigen schaamte en met die van anderen. Ik heb in de periode dat ik voor deze krant mocht schrijven, één keer een nare reactie gekregen. Overduidelijk bedoeld om te kleineren. Het werkte. Ik voelde mezelf krimpen. Maar de angel was eruit zodra ik het voorval deelde met een collega die ik vertrouw en die, zoals voorzien, lief en geestig reageerde. Schaamte als basisgevoel en sociale media als dorpsplein stimuleren niet tot openhartigheid of goed luisteren. Toch is dat een betere uitweg dan een piramidespel van vernedering met Trump aan de top. En het is een uitweg die ook in de VS open blijft – al lijkt het land nu nog verder gepolariseerd dan vorige week.

Dan tot slot, want ik ben na vandaag niet weg, maar deze reeks over de verkiezingen is wel afgerond. Ik wil iedereen die deze stukken gelezen heeft hartelijk bedanken. Zeker degenen die de moeite namen inhoudelijk te reageren, en in het bijzonder de drie – Willemien Groot, Vincent van der Noort en Menno Polak – die alles vooraf gelezen hebben en veel, soms beschamende, fouten hebben voorkomen. En die mij weer bij elkaar hebben geveegd, toen ik afgelopen woensdag toch behoorlijk kapot was van het nieuws.

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PhD Defense in 15 Pictures

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Very many people

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Vincent, me, Tobias & Beerd

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Hora est

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The Dress

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Dr. S.P.

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The line that wasn’t supposed to be

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no title

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Happy Days Are Here Again! (Champagne Charlie)


Many thanks to Maaike Warnaar and Tjerk Jan Schuitmaker for taking these and many other beautiful pictures, and to everyone in them for being there!

Happy holidays!


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Hora est!

diplomaI don’t have much photographic evidence yet, but this picture should suffice. I defended my dissertation, and I’m upgraded from Drs. P. to Dr. S.P. And, equally exciting, from PhD candidate/lecturer to assistant professor (it still means I teach and do research, though).

If you read Dutch, by all means check out twitter pal @DeDaanmans’s Storify of the defense: More photos to follow.

And to everybody here: thank you for your support, readership, comments, tweets, emails and good thoughts! Chatting to you – even if only in my mind – has been really important.

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A Statesman Is a Dead Politician

FDR_unfinishedThe final proposition – traditionally meant to be funny – is a witticism stolen from my father. It was also the final proposition to his doctoral dissertation, which had nothing to do with political leaders (it was about coins in the 17th and 18th century Dutch economy). Is it true though? I think there are statesmen (and stateswomen, although the word is tellingly awkward) who are recognized as such before their death, including Roosevelt. It is, however, important to realize that historical statesmen in their own present were – certainly in democratic systems, but probably elsewhere too – in the first place politicians whose power and elevation above common partisan (and intra-party) politics were by no means a given. Michael Kammen has argued that Americans tend to depoliticize their history, and this has contributed to the remembrance of FDR as a statesman. Had Roosevelt not already been regarded as a statesman during his life, one might even argue that his becoming a dead politician in office contributed to his elevation to statesmanship.

A statesman is a dead politician.

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Representation Is Always Also About What Is Not There

FFMemorialINDOCThe ninth proposition is a bit of a cliché, but a cliché that I am always happy to remind myself and others. When you study any text (in a broad sense, this also includes visual or otherwise non-verbal “texts”), it’s useful to look for what is missing. Even when watching the news or reading yearly business reports of companies it is usually rewarding to look out for silences. What don’t they say?

And FDR is a particularly grateful object for this type of inquiry, because there is a lot that he did not address, and much of what he did say could easily be interpreted as drawing up smokescreens to keep audiences’ attention away from what he did not want to be discussed. The wheelchair is an example – he did not lie about it, but did what he could not to direct attention to it, diverting it to other issues. But also in later FDR remembrance many things are not addressed – and in some cases the wheelchair may indeed have become the smokescreen by now. For a long time the internment of Japanese Americans was habitually omitted from FDR representations, for instance, while the compassion, strength of character and crisis management skills he learned from having polio were overemphasized. Another particular, but by no means unique, instance that intrigues me is the almost ostentatious absence of Eleanor Roosevelt from the Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island (NYC). She is not referred to at all, except that the memorial (with FDR’s bust) points to the UN Headquarters – and Eleanor Roosevelt was the first American delegate to the United Nations. It is as if she is hovering in the air between the Park and the UN building. My ninth proposal wants to draw attention to such prominent absences:

“Representation is always also about what is not there.”

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Cultural history & cultural analysis

Olympus-Lens-CollectionOne important argument my thesis makes is that methods from cultural analysis (and literary studies) can help historians to interpret the past. One aspect that is central to cultural analysis is the idea that through observing one’s own responses to an object, one can get at a better understanding of the object. This can be viewed as antithetical to what historians often try to do: establishing objectively, or at least as dispassionately as possible, “what really happened” in the past. Historians of course know that real objectivity is impossible, but the idea nonetheless usually is: the smaller the historian can make herself, the better it is.

Cultural analysts like Mieke Bal (e.g. in Loving Yusuf) take a very different approach: by establishing what it is in a cultural text that creates their own responses, and by tracing the trajectories of that text through times and contexts, they interpret it. Such interpretations are not asking what a text “really” or originally meant, but rather how and why it can take on particular meanings. This is not entirely what my thesis does, but it certainly argues for a more explicit acknowledgement and use of the researcher’s positionality in explaining its interpretive choices. Historians, like all researchers, operate in a context, and that context will influence how one reads the past, so to my mind, at least some attention to that interference – whether it is seen as disturbing or as productive – is necessary. So my eighth proposition is:

“Good historians are aware that they produce narratives that serve ideologies of the present. Reading both historical sources and historical analyses using the methods of literary studies can help to understand and make explicit this dynamic.”

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More Prosthetic Memory

C-Leg Red Dot BewerbungThe seventh proposition to my thesis goes back to the third, and responds to Alison Landsberg’s theory about prosthetic memory. While Landsberg suggests that prosthetic memories created through watching, say, a movie about slavery, can work like “real” lived memories. Such medially imbibed memories according to her do more than just create an image of what happened, or a memory of a cinematic narrative: the produce memories – prosthetic memories, that are artificial, can be put on or taken off, and are adjustable to the body that they are fitted to.

Although I really see Landsberg’s point – in the age of mass media most of what we experience reaches us in mediated form, and those are often very visceral experiences that produce memories – the nuance that I would make to that, is that the ‘distance’ between the mediated event or experience and one’s own social, geographical and temporal location does matter a great deal. For instance, when I see Amistad or Twelve Years a Slave I do take in and assimilate a prosthetic memory of slavery, but it is not really a memory (rather than an artificial memory). However, when I see footage of 9/11, which I experienced as an adult, although I was thousands of miles away from New York, and didn’t even see the television footage on the day itself, it does work like a memory – as if I was there and had seen this happen in some more immediate sense than was the case. Which events can and can’t produce real prosthetic memories (constructs that function as memories, even if not directly ‘lived’) depends on the positionality of the person remembering.

“People have memories of events they did not live through. They are aware of the artificial nature of their memories, yet the memories can still culturally, ideologically and politically function as lived memories, particularly when the person remembering could have been present at the remembered event.”

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for a new dealThe sixth is by some distance the longest proposition. It engages political theory and gives an explanation for why Roosevelt has also been virulently hated by opponents. In common-sense terms: he was a slippery rhetorician. This is related to the previous proposition, in which I claim that Roosevelt’s success depended – and the success of his memory continues to depend – upon his malleability, and his flexibility to fit into many different, sometimes politically antithetical, narratives. When asked about his political beliefs, he once famously said: “I am a Christian and a democrat.” The two labels he explicitly espoused are so broad that they say nothing that would not be true for all American presidents (unless we hear Democrat with a D, but since this was said rather than written, there is no knowing which he meant). However, judging not from his words, but from his political deeds, he moved on the left of the political spectrum, and many of his New Deal policies were considered radical. His rhetoric tends to deny that, or at least does not acknowledge it in concrete terms. Through his consensual and often soothing rhetoric he in a sense avoided conflict.

Political theorist Chantal Mouffe argues that the space at the heart of politics – a space that once used to be filled by absolute monarchs – in a democracy should be open, and should be allowed to work as a space for “agonistic” (political) conflict, to avoid “antagonistic” violence. My thesis argues that Roosevelt’s rhetoric tended to fill up this open space at the heart of politics too much, and thus did not give room to necessary agonism. This irritated his opponents – not to the point it provoke outright violence, but enough to ignite an intense hatred, as well as to invite accusations of tyrannical behavior. Thus, my sixth proposition is:

“Through his rhetoric Franklin Roosevelt could appear more inclusive than his politics really were. Accusations that his behavior was regal were in a sense justified, not because he occupied the heart of god-given power as medieval kings did, but because his jovial non-committal presence filled the space at the heart of power which should have been a site for political agonism central to democracy (Mouffe, Lefort). Roosevelt’s remembrance has continued and strengthened this occupation.”for a new deal

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Plasticity and vagueness

FDR with his advisers Louis Howe and James Farley (1932)

FDR with his advisers Louis Howe and James Farley (1932)

The fifth proposition represents, I would say the most high-level, over-arching conclusion to my thesis, the idea that FDR through his rhetoric, autofabricated a public image that is profoundly plastic. I don’t use plastic here to mean “fake”, but flexible – although the creation of a flexible public image does call for a rhetorically astute approach to authenticity that allows audiences to believe it is artless, but is not itself naïve.

Franklin Roosevelt often presented himself as informal, and open about his thoughts, strategies, and personal experiences, while being very selective about the precise details of what he was open about (for instance, with regard to his private life, his dog Fala showed up regularly in relative details, but not his experience of being disabled). A famous example of the simultaneous frankness and deviousness of his rhetoric is this quotation about his role in the American war effort:

You know I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does. I may have one policy for Europe and one diametrically opposite for North and South America. I may be entirely inconsistent, and furthermore I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.

“I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does,” reminds of the liar paradox (“This sentence is false.”) because Roosevelt is actually compellingly honest about his own dissimulation. “You know” in the full quotation enhances this effect, because it makes the addressee complicit in the performance of enchanting deception. Thus Roosevelt assertively licenses himself to “mislead and tell untruths,” a claim that would perhaps only have been acceptable in 1942, in the context of the war. However, this quote is remembered, explicitly through Warren Kimball’s book The Juggler, and implicitly also in the film Hyde Park on Hudson, as speaking to an admirable quality. Many of his best remembered words have this same vagueness – “the only things we have to fear is fear itself” is a case in point – and therefore allow for re-appropriation in a wide range of contexts. Or as the fifth proposition has it:

“Franklin Roosevelt remains relevant to the present and future because he positioned himself as a, not limitless but malleable, space into which needs, desires, ideologies, even aversions, can be projected.”

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