This book, “Shame: The Politics and Power of an Emotion” by David Keen, delves into the role of shame in politics and its influence on those in power, drawing parallels to the current political climate of Trumpism.
Imagine a Caucasian, working-class individual from either Louisiana or Alabama, most likely male, standing in a lengthy queue symbolizing the journey of his life. This man has been convinced of the American “bootstrap myth”, which declares that his great nation is a place where anyone can climb up the social ladder from the most humble beginnings to become a billionaire or even a president. At the end of the line, he expects to reap the benefits of this myth for himself. However, things are not unfolding as he had envisioned. Firstly, the line seems to stretch on endlessly and while he stands in it, he faces various struggles: his salary is decreasing, his industry is being relocated overseas, and the cost of living, including food, gas, and healthcare, is skyrocketing. To make matters worse, he witnesses other individuals cutting in line ahead of him, thanks to programs like “affirmative action” which benefit minorities such as African Americans, women, and immigrants. He does not believe himself to be discriminatory towards any group, but when he voices his concerns, he is labeled as a racist or sexist. He is deeply embarrassed on two levels: privately, for not living up to the myth and publicly, by society’s liberal beliefs.
This is the commonly referred to as the underlying narrative of the American conservative movement. We do not necessarily have to agree with this individual’s perspective, but it is important to recognize that this is how he may interpret it.
A new character, a wealthy man with orange hair, now enters the situation. We will refer to him as Donald. Donald appears to have an innate understanding of shame and is considered an expert on the subject. He has a history of wrongdoing and has faced many attempts to shame him throughout his life. However, he has found a way to overcome it by being shameless. He frequently makes offensive remarks, such as about Mexicans, Muslims, and the current black president, displaying his lack of shame. Despite being criticized and called out for his actions, his tribe, including the man in the line, sees him as a savior of sorts from shame. By disregarding his own shame, Donald also absolves those around him.
This, more or less, is the analysis of Trumpism offered by David Keen in his fascinating, occasionally frustrating book. We are living through a sort of shame golden age, Keen observes, with the words “shame” and “shameless” in greater vogue than at any time since the mid-19th century. We have developed a “habit of instant condemnation”, which is “choking off curiosity and narrowing the space for understanding of others”. It is also having a terrible effect on our politics.
The origins of our culture of shame are not difficult to discern. With the power of a witch-finder general now in the hands of every keyboard user, our phones constantly buzz with the never-ending cycle of online criticism, body-shaming, and self-righteousness that dominates social media. While shame can sometimes have positive effects, such as in the #MeToo and #BLM movements, it often leads to the shamed becoming even more angry and shameless. Surprisingly, despite the prevalence of public shaming on platforms like Twitter, X, Instagram, and Facebook, Keen does not discuss them in his book. Instead, as a professor of conflict studies at the London School of Economics, he focuses on case studies such as the Holocaust, the civil war in Sierra Leone, the Brexit vote, and Trump’s election.
His examination of the violence in Sierra Leone is convincing, his section on the Nazis is not as strong, but the main focus of the book is on Trumpism, and his arguments in this area are highly credible. Could an analysis of shame also clarify the major contradiction in modern politics, where one person can face backlash for a minor mistake while another can openly boast, like Trump once did, about being able to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still maintain support? Does the concept of shame and shamelessness not only apply to Trump, but also to other contemporary demagogues such as Johnson, Modi, Meloni, Bolsonaro, and now Javier Milei in Argentina?
I believe it may be possible, but I am not completely convinced without further exploration into the main cause of contemporary shame: technology.