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Shame as a political weapon: Donald Trump and the US presidential election

By sustained rhetorical attacks on women and minorities, Donald Trump absolved white working-class shame. Reuters/Mike Segar

Shame as a political weapon: Donald Trump and the US presidential election

By sustained rhetorical attacks on women and minorities, Donald Trump absolved white working-class shame. Reuters/Mike Segar

Many reasons are still being advanced to explain Donald Trump’s win over his experienced, accomplished, much-fancied-in-the-polls rival Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election. White working-class anger has received a lot of attention, but Trump’s success exploiting anger’s inner manifestation – shame – should be getting a lot more focus.

Shame has a political pedigree in modern US politics. So strong has been its impact that merely a tincture is usually enough to have big consequences:

  • Joseph Nye Welch, chief counsel for the US Army, is credited with turning the tide against Communist witch-hunter and senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954. He declared during a hearing: “You’ve done enough. Have you no decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

  • Democratic vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen called out Republican rival Dan Quayle during a debate in the 1988 presidential election campaign, when Quayle compared himself with John F. Kennedy, with: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Quayle replied: “That was uncalled for, senator.” Perceptions of Quayle never really recovered from Bentsen’s put-down.

By comparison with what might be described as surgical shame strikes, Trump’s use of shame in 2016 was more carpet-bombing in nature. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild says Trump employs a “choreography of shame” that diminishes everybody – except working-class men.

Strangers in their own land

Hochschild spent five years interviewing poor Louisianans – most of whom were Democrat voters, but who have now travelled to the Trump camp via the Tea Party.

Her recent book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, provides an empathic account of working-class men and women who not only feel without hope but, worse, misunderstood, or – worst of all – not seen or heard at all.

The profile of white, blue-collar men – the demographic which by a considerable margin voted most strongly for Trump – that emerges in Hochschild’s research goes some way to explaining their vote. They feel crunched by technological change and economic crisis on one side, and perceive their remaining white male privilege subsiding in absolute terms simultaneous with its redistribution towards women and minorities.

This much has broadly registered and been understood on both sides of politics. But it receives a complex mix of empathy and aggravation on the progressive side of politics: empathy for obvious class-based reasons; aggravation because women and minorities are due a fair share of that privilege whether it is subsiding or not.

Hochschild is going for something more in her research, however, than the topline economic and demographic facts. She pursues, too, an understanding of the “emotion in politics” of her subjects’ situation, of how they feel and what they are getting emotionally out of their move from the political left to right.

Hochschild wants their “deep story”. After repeated interviews with scores of subjects over a period of years, she summarises it thus:

“You are patiently standing in a long line” for something you call the American dream. You are white, Christian, of modest means, and getting along in years. You are male. There are people of colour behind you, and “in principle you wish them well”. But you’ve waited long, worked hard, “and the line is barely moving”.

Then “Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you!” Who are these interlopers? “Some are black”, others “immigrants, refugees”. They get affirmative action, sympathy and welfare – “checks for the listless and idle”. The government wants you to feel sorry for them.

And who runs the government? “The biracial son of a low-income single mother”, and he’s cheering on the line-cutters. “The president and his wife are line-cutters themselves.” The liberal media mocks you as racist or homophobic. Everywhere you look, “you feel betrayed”.

In short, you are resentful, and perceive yourself as ridiculous to the rest of America; you can’t hold your end up economically, therefore neither socially nor familially either; and you feel ashamed.

But shame is a secret emotion; pride prevents its utterance. Could this be the key, perhaps, to most pollsters’ failure to capture the full extent of Trump’s support?

Here lies the likely explanation for that hidden vote. By sustained rhetorical attacks on women and minorities, Trump negated – absolved – white working-class shame. And, by winning the election, he relegitimised white working-class men’s place in American society.

Trump’s campaign slogan – “Make America Great Again” – was not simply a narrative of national decline typical of proto-fascist political campaigns: it was also code for “Make White Working-Class Males Great Again”. In restoring them to the centre of the national narrative, Trump turned women and minority group members into strangers in their own land.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Like Hochschild, feminist legal scholar Joan C. Williams also has a deeper take on what is happening in the “white working class” – which she sees as driven by a “class culture gap”.

Among other things, this makes more advantaged Americans blind to several features of white, working-class culture – including a resentment of “professionals” alongside what seems, at first blush, a paradoxical admiration for the rich.

Poses Williams:

Why the difference? For one thing, most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day. The dream is not to become upper-middle class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable – just with more money.

Trump personifies Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous; Clinton personifies the professional class perceived to boss the white working class around. Trump promises – and embodies – a return to the era:

… when men were men and women knew their place … it’s comfort food for high-school-educated guys.