Trump campaign 2016. Brennan Linsley AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s appalling ‘bus tape’, it is now clear that one central idea underpins both Trump’s personal and political behaviour: the solution to shame is to shame someone else.
Trump’s instinctive response to the tape was to claim that some other party (Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, or even terrorists) had done something much worse. In one of the more bizarre and uncomfortable non-sequiturs in modern political history, Trump declared in the second presidential debate, “yes, I’m very embarrassed by it. I hate it. But it’s locker-room talk, and it’s one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS.”
More and more people seem to be realising that the hypocrisy denounced by Trump is actually something he embodies.
Trump’s political appeal surely arises from his ability to offer the same reflex – and the same magical ‘solution’ – to the American people. First, hype up the shame: “our infrastructure is… third world”; foreign governments are “laughing at how stupid we are” over trade deals; America is “not a country” without rigid border controls.
Then, he offers to extract his audience from the shame, by scape-goating others, whether they be Washington elites or Mexicans or Muslims. Here, he seems to draw on a deep well of shame at the confluence of poverty and the American Dream: the short mental trip from "anyone can make it if they try hard enough," to "I have not made it, so I’m not trying hard enough".
Trump’s antipathy to women is part of a package that heralds strength, masculinity and ‘winning’, while denigrating various kinds of ‘weakness’. For Trump, aggressively groping a woman is not abuse; it is what his status as a star allows him to do. It is winning, and winning banishes shame. By claiming in advance that the election result will be ‘rigged’, Trump shows just how important winning is in Trumpworld – more important even than respect for the decision of the American people.
For Trump, aggressively groping a woman is not abuse; it is what his status as a star allows him to do.
Portraying America as a country swamped with Mexican 'rapists' and 'criminals', Trump’s infamous solution is the wall: “on day one, we will begin working on an impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall,” he enthused. The adjectives are like a hymn to all the masculine strengths that America, in Trump’s eyes, has meekly surrendered.
The idea of Trump 'protecting' American women from sexual predators was never very convincing; today it looks remarkably hypocritical. Nevertheless, the wall does make psychological sense: the idea seems to be that it will stop Mexicans from doing to the US what Trump has apparently been doing to women for some time.
The impression that Trump has eroticised the wall is surely confirmed by his choice of the word “beautiful”. The crowd too is in some kind of ecstasy (“Build the wall! Build the wall!"), and Trump offers a thrilling additional humiliation: “and Mexico will pay for the wall!”
If the wall is to symbolise everything masculine and good, what might symbolise everything feminine and bad? Revealingly, Trump immediately goes on to evoke a hyper-masculine world that will destroy the hidden tunnels that bring everything bad into America:
We will use the best technology, including above and below ground sensors, that’s the tunnels… Towers, aerial surveillance and manpower to supplement the wall, find and dislocate tunnels and keep out criminal cartels…
Like many people, I have often been amazed by the speed with which Trump’s serial cruelties have been set aside and even forgiven. With surprising frequency, Trump’s abusive boasts and threats – and the thrill of transgression – have been part of his attraction. Hence he boasts, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone [mimes shooting] and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
In Hannah Arendt’s insightful analysis of the rise of fascism (The Origins of Totalitarianism), the German political philosopher argued that a world that is seen as corrupt and hypocritical offers plenty of opportunities for demagogues to thrill the populace through spectacular violence and what she called "open crimes". Like any good demagogue (and in line with Arendt’s analysis), Trump polices his fantasies by widening the category of ‘enemy’ and subsequently subjecting a larger target group to his shaming – from Islamist terrorists to Muslims, from Hillary to critical journalists and errant Republicans.
Trump’s binary thinking – which essentially lumps together "strong, home-grown and male" and opposes them to "weak, alien and (implicitly) female"’ - has proven to have popular appeal. It’s his reactions to those who span these categories that make him look most foolish: the strong woman (prompting implausible attacks on Hillary’s stamina); the black American president (the ‘birther’ fiasco); the traumatised soldier (not as strong as his comrades, according to Trump); the captured soldier (McCain as “not a war hero”); and the Muslim war hero (whose death in Iraq was somehow comparable to Trump’s ‘sacrifice’ of working hard).
His cruelty looks increasingly naked.
More and more people seem to be realising that the hypocrisy denounced by Trump is actually something he embodies. While surprising numbers of voters have tolerated the billionaire ‘outsider’, the China-manufacturing jobs-protector, and the Vietnam-evading military strongman, Trump's latest hypocrisy – the groping protector of American women – is surely a step too far. How can he continue to sell his constant cruelty as a thrilling and ‘politically incorrect’ challenge to the hypocrisy of others? His cruelty looks increasingly naked, and his attempts to magically banish shame through shaming others – whether the underlying shame is his own or America’s – look more and more unconvincing.