Leidsch Dagblad – November 12, 2016 (English)

Donald Trump and the Power of Shame

Donald Trump – an 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. 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.

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