This week I, belatedly, finished Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a 2015 exploration of the new era of public shaming brought about by social media. The book is a thought-provoking study of why disparate, nebulous groups come together online on platforms such as Twitter to gang up on individuals, as well as a look at how the targeted handle en masse shaming and, in some cases, how they’ve grown.
Some names profiled in the book you will remember, others just their stories. There’s pop psychologist Jonah Lehrer, cut down by admissions of plagiarism, or Justine Sacco, the aid worker who lost her dream career after tweeting a terrible joke about “getting AIDS” in Africa.
One man’s story of shame, though, has stuck with me: that of Max Mosley.
If the name’s not enough to recall the story, here’s the basics. In 2008, Mosley was exposed by the News of the World as visiting dominatrixes and partaking in what the paper described as a ’SICK NAZI ORGY’, replete with whipping, spanking, shaving… the works. Mosley, the son of fascist politician Oswald Mosley, admitted being involved with one key reservation – there was nothing ‘Nazi-themed’ about the event. Mosley, rather than taking his shaming and hiding away, very publicly took NotW to court.
In the book, Mosley tries to describe to Ronson how he resisted succumbing to the shame the story hoped to squeeze from him. He arrives at: “As soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed, the whole thing crumbles.” Simply, a refusal to feel ashamed.
Which brings us to Donald Trump.
The first year of the Trump presidency has been marked by innumerable torrid things, each of which taken individually should discredit him for public office. Take them collectively, and Trump is not unlike The Simpsons’ Mr Burns being “indestructible” for having contracted every sickness known to man – hard to take down for one individual wrong.
Sexism. Recorded admissions of sexual abuse. Xenophobia. Racist appointments. Racist policies. “Shitholes”. “Very fine people on both sides”. Countless feuds with people of colour. Backing credibly accused paedophiles for Senate. Climate change denial. Abandoning US citizens who have lost everything in natural disasters arguably caused by said climate change. Loathing press freedom. Loathing free expression and protest. The weekly, daily, hourly lies. And this isn’t to mention that criminal investigation into potential obstruction of justice.
There is one central theme running through these scandals that make each of them so uniquely hard to bear: the total lack of contrition that Trump seems capable of feeling
There is one central theme running through these scandals that make each of them so uniquely hard to bear: the total lack of contrition that Trump seems capable of feeling. We will never in our time see him say: “yeah you know what, you’ve got me there, that was stupid and I’m sorry”. He is, in short, a man without shame. To paraphrase Mosley, he has removed himself from the social pact of feeling shame for what his administration wrought, of recognising the consequences of his actions.
Quite aside from the dreadful policy and incompetence, this sheer shamelessness is what makes the Trump presidency so dangerous. How do journalists hold to account someone who holds themselves unaccountable? How do you use facts to discredit a man who is deliberately trying to make the very idea of facts debatable? How do you have good faith arguments with a man surrounded and supported by bad faith actors? How do you engage with someone so shameless about their shamelessness?
This isn’t to say shame is a positive emotion that the world could do with more of. It’s that many of us do the things we do (and don’t do the things we don’t do) to avoid shame. Wanting a reputation as a good, well-meaning person is important to pretty much all humans. It just so happens that the single most powerful man in the world isn’t one of them.
There’s no answer to Trump’s shamelessness – the man is 71 years old and well past evolving even if he wanted to. But if there is one powerful Washington entity that can, and should, feel shame here, it’s a Republican Party that allows an unqualified, incapable ‘leader of the free world’ – who if he had his way would happily reign as a nepotistic, autocratic despot – to continue to stain the dignity of American democracy.