Let’s play a game of word association. I’ll say a word and you say the first thing that comes into your mind. Ready?
The word is shameless.
If you answered Trump, then please feel free to continue reading. If not, then you may want to stop right here.
To be frank, I have no desire to bother trying to make a case for why Trump’s behavior ought to be described as shameless. If you can’t see it by now, then whatever proof I might muster won’t make a difference to you. I could easily fill this entire column with evidence, but it wouldn’t matter. And if I merely cited the most recent examples as of this writing, by the time it is published they’ll already be fading from awareness, displaced by newer instances.
In sum, I have no patience left for those who would deny a truth that is so very self-evident.
As I was writing this, the words “have you no shame, sir,” popped into my head, but a quick Google search showed that I had misremembered the quote. It was during the Army-McCarthy Senate hearings in 1954 that the chief consul for the U.S. Army, Joseph N. Welch, said to Senator Joseph McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you no decency?”
With those words, both the Republican senator from Wisconsin and the Communist witch hunt that bore his name—McCarthyism—were fatally shamed. Television played an instrumental role in this, because the hearings were broadcast on the ABC and Dumont networks. It also followed two See It Now exposés produced by the legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow.
McCarthy’s chief counsel, who was a key participant in the exchange that prompted Welch’s denunciation of McCarthy, was attorney Roy Cohn. Two decades later, Cohn would represent a young Donald Trump, and he became something of a mentor to the real estate developer. Cohn is also credited with introducing Trump to Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who gave us the scandal-ridden Fox News cable channel, whose claim to be “fair and balanced” also is delivered without shame.
The connection between Trump and McCarthy is not confined to scapegoating, but also extends to manipulation of the news media. The conservative historian and former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin coined the term pseudo-event to describe news that is manufactured by journalists and publicists, rather than gathered based on real world occurrences. He argued that the introduction of steam-powered printing presses in the early 19th century made possible the publication of daily newspapers, but there were not enough actual events, train wrecks, hurricanes, elections, armed conflicts, to fill their pages. It therefore became necessary to create pseudo-events that would not have happened except for the presence of the news media, such as interviews, publicity stunts, press releases, press conferences, and leaks. This is what Boorstin wrote about McCarthy in his book The Image:
It is possible to build a political career almost entirely on pseudo-events. Such was that of the late Joseph R. McCarthy, Senator from Wisconsin from 1947-1957. His career might have been impossible without the elaborate, perpetually grinding machinery of ‘information.’… And he was a natural genius at creating reportable happenings that had an interestingly ambiguous relation to underlying reality. Richard Rovere, a reporter in Washington during McCarthy’s heyday recalls:
He knew how to get into the news even on those rate occasions when invention failed him and he had no unfacts to give out. For example, he invented the morning press conference called for the purpose of announcing an afternoon press conference. The reporters would come in—they were beginning, in this period, to respond to his summonses like Pavlov’s dogs at the clang of a bell—and McCarthy would say that he just wanted to give them the word that he expected to be ready with a shattering announcement later in the day, for use in the papers the following morning. This would gain him a headline in the afternoon papers: ‘New McCarthy Revelations Awaited in Capital.’ Afternoon would come, and if McCarthy had something, he would give it out, but often enough he had nothing, and this was a matter of slight concern. He would simply say that he wasn’t quite ready, that he was having difficulty in getting some of the ‘documents’ he needed or that a ‘witness’ was proving elusive. Morning headlines: ‘Delay Seen in McCarthy Case—Mystery Witness Being Sought’.
There is no denying that the reporters who covered McCarthy also were shameless in their pursuit of content, and the same can be said of the news media covering the 2016 election. Recall the comment CBS head Les Moonves made that February about the coverage that Trump was generating: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS…. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Shameless pursuit of profit. Shameless self-promotion. Shameless exercise of power. The common denominator is clear.
But what does it mean to be shameless? The experience of shame comes from a concern over how others see us. We feel shame over something because we fear that it will cause others to think poorly of us. Adam and Eve were shamelessly unclothed until they ate the forbidden fruit, “and the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). This doesn’t mean that they had been blind, but rather that they had become ashamed in the sight of each other, and God.
We are not only ashamed of something, we are ashamed before someone. Someone whose opinion of us is important to us.
The Torah tells us that Adam and Eve felt shame because they were naked. It does not say that they felt guilt because they had eaten the fruit. Shame is a more basic, primal experience than guilt, based as it is on the fear of what others may think of us. Guilt is shame internalized. We can have a guilty conscience even if we have no fear of discovery. A guilty verdict is intended to be an objective statement about the defendant who is on trial, not about how others feel about that person. And guilt is separate from punishment. Shame signifies its own consequences—to be shamed before others.
Shame is about relationships. It is felt most acutely in regard to the people closest to us, but it also can extend to the larger entity known as the public. If you follow the HBO series Game of Thrones, you no doubt will recall from the season 5 finale how Cersei, then the Queen Mother, was forced to undergo a walk of atonement. She was stripped naked and led through the city, as crowds threw insults and garbage at her, and a priestess cried out repeatedly, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” And if you grew up in the United States, chances are you read National Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. That book’s title refers to the public shaming of its main character, Hester Prynne.
Television transforms the public of the city square and agora, as well as the reading public made possible by the printing press, into something at once broader and more diffuse. For more than two decades, investigative reporter Arnold Diaz gave us local news stories on WCBS-TV Channel 2 called Shame on You. (I still recall the jingle that preceded the segments: “Shame, shame, shame … shame on you!”)
More recently, social media have amplified both the process of shaming and our sensitivity to it, with many references to body-shaming, fat-shaming, and slut-shaming. Critics decry the decline of civility that leads to indiscriminate shaming on the one hand. But on the other, we have a desire to silence all forms of criticism, and that in turn leads to the accusation that any negative comment is a form of shaming.
We find ourselves in the midst of a series of shame wars.
Television shamed McCarthy, and more importantly, it shamed reporters so that they stopped covering him. The televised Watergate Senate hearings shamed Richard Nixon into resigning the presidency. But CNN’s and MSNBC’s unrelenting shaming of the president do not seem to have the same effect. Perhaps the contrary messages coming from Fox News and Trump’s Twitter feed—the president is notorious for blocking anyone who tweets anything negative about him—insulate him from any sense of shame.
Another possible explanation stems from Trump’s narcissism. Psychologists tell us that narcissism is a defense against powerful, at times nearly unbearable feelings of shame. Shame leads to blame, so that not only does a narcissistic person seek praise and approval, that person also responds in a highly defensive manner to any perceived criticism or slight.
Whatever the reason, a president who has no shame is a recipe for disaster. By way of contrast, consider the American remake of a British working class family TV series called Shameless. Our version, launched on the Showtime cable channel series in 2011, features a family living in extreme poverty, a family that is not working class but instead is part of an underclass. And while the subject of shame is not discussed much in the program, we recognize and even applaud the young family’s skirting of conventional legality and morality in their efforts to survive.
The fear of being shamed is a luxury they cannot afford.
Indeed, a sense of shame is directly proportional to honor, a somewhat archaic yet still significant notion, as well as status, something still very much with us. There is little or no shame possible for those on the lowest rungs of the social order, for example the beggar, while the greatest potential for shame is held by people of the highest status—once upon a time the aristocracy and nobility, today the rich and famous—anyone in a position of leadership at any time.
Honor served as a check against shameful behavior, preserving reputation and privilege, and therefore the leader’s legitimacy. For a person of honor, being dishonored requires that he or she must retreat from public life.
A leader without honor, a shameless leader, is a tyrant. And tyrants do not have a good track record in the United States.
When we talk about the shameless and the shamed, another word comes to our minds. It’s the Yiddish word for shame—shande. We speak of shande not just as individuals, but as a people. It’s the shame we feel collectively when one of our number behaves badly. And it is in this sense that I feel ashamed of our president.
Not guilt, because I didn’t vote for him, but shame as an American, before my friends and colleagues from other nations, shame before the rest of the world, and shame before history, posterity, the generations yet to come, and yes, before God.
In being shameless in his conduct, Trump has shamed all of us, and put our collective honor and status as a nation at risk.
It is a shande, plain and simple. And how shall we respond?