Lake Buckhorn, Ontario For some reason reading about the latest outrages of Trump and the wildness in the White House and Washington, the 1962 Gene Pitney song, “A Town without Pity,” has been rolling around in my head with a slight variation. Where the famous line was, “No, it isn’t very pretty what a town without pity can do,” in my mind it has morphed to “it isn’t very pretty what a town without shame can do.” One of the tactical propositions that has somehow disappeared in the modern public sphere is the role of shame. President Trump has almost succeeded in establishing that shame has, like integrity, has no weight any longer in political life.
Sure, shame still works at a certain level in the marketplace. Companies that depend on the good will or at least the ambivalence of consumers can still be impacted to a certain level by “naming and shaming,” but perhaps political leaders less so. We are simultaneously watching the drama play out with four political figures in arguably democratic countries, America’s Donald Trump, Britain’s Boris Johnson, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, and India’s Narendra Modi all prove that in post-modern political life, you can ignore levels of shame and defeat that under the norms of previous public norms would have – and did – devastate public figures. They can lose elections, be indicted for corruption, be accused of crimes high and low, initiate purges and inspire ethnic and racial hatred, ignore laws and court orders, and more, yet still hang on not only to power, but large levels of support.
In organizing, I have long argued that you “only really lose when you stop fighting.” Trump is a master of this principle applied to the political sphere, as are the others, even when there is huge condemnation of their actions within their own countries and horror globally. Trump has been under investigation and facing resistance even before he took office as President, yet in a town without shame, he has learned nothing and never adapted his behavior to what were thought to be the accepted norms of public office at the highest level in this country. Now, cracking the egg once again in his self-dealing with Ukraine where he has clearly attempted to lure another country into involvement in US-domestic politics to his own interest, he is proving that the entire experience with Russian involvement in 2016 never impacted any of his thinking or instructed future action.
Is there even such a thing as impunity, when there is no norm that would establish shame? With the ability to mobilize popular support outside of institutions and structural power, is there even an establishment in the way we once understood a status quo? Does reputation matter in a post-modern politics, if you can continue to control your own narrative without shame, making everything water-off-a-duck’s-back?
Maureen Dowd pointed out recently in her New York Times’ column that Trump is redefining politics and the Democratic list of excellent professional politicians is inadequate and groping to understand the new reality of public contest. In a world, Washington, and White House where shame has disappeared and every reality is contested and fabricated, anyone trying to navigate the new world needs to realize what Trump and his mimickers have already learned, and re-calibrate how to operate differently. If not, we will all be mired in the consequences.