This is an 8-minute piece of audio from Sam Harris explaining Trump's appeal. It's maybe the most underrated explanation for why Trump won 63 millions votes in 2016, 70 million votes a week ago.
Let me dispense some important bits of context, since I can feel the eye rolls. To wit:
- "I understand Trump's appeal: white people are racist."
- "We shouldn't normalize Trump's appeal. In fact, understanding—truly getting—Trump's appeal is an info hazard"
- Fuck Sam Harris in the neck
To all that I say: do you. It's a free country, and you're valid in what you feel. But if you are interested, or if my acknowledging your concerns creates some trust, I recommend you give it a listen. It's 8 minutes.
== Assuming you've now listened ==
Let's talk about shame. I've been thinking a lot about it. It's an unpleasant, self-conscious emotion "typically associated with a negative evaluation of the self; withdrawal motivations; and feelings of distress, exposure, mistrust, powerlessness, and worthlessness." I think we can agree that it's among the most powerful and shitty-feeling of emotions, and as highly evolved mechanisms for behavior change, the more powerful and shitty the more drastic the resulting behavior. Shame creates a roiling cognitive dissonance that demands resolution.
This here emotion *slaps roof of car* truly fucks people up.
I think shaming can be valid. People do shameful things, and ought to feel bad for doing them. In 7th grade, I was uninvited to my friend group's afternoon play dates because I was a truly insufferable asshole. I felt a wave of shame. I cried in the car with my mom on the way home. I remember the times I've been shamed to an almost exquisite level of detail. I'm sure many of you know precisely what I'm talking about.
That's why when I heard Sam's explanation, it slotted into my head as true.
Me and some of my libertarianish ideas have been attacked—validly so, I welcome the challenge. But it's the shame that stands out as, well... problematic. I've been called racist from a perch of arrogance, been called misogynistic for no more than liking a tweet that says that sex differences exist. There's a yawning distance between my childhood group of friends over politics. I've gotten it from some folks I really trust and with whom I have a lot of shared history.
(I am not throwing a pity-party. I relish sharpening ideas. I view the things I've experienced as profoundly character developing.)
But I am remarking how, to me, shame is too often too ready a weapon. In my experience, shame leads to positive behavior change only between people in close community, with context, and done with utmost compassion. "What you did affected me. Here's how I saw it. Here's how it hurt me." The positive behavior change typically follows from connecting what you did as harmful to those you care about. It's in this sense that shame "works" (although the utility of using shame as a route to behavior change I find highly suspect.)
In my—vastly limited—experience with politics, I've received shame exclusively from left-liberals. It's often self-righteousness; I can feel the monopoly on rectitude. Now, I've not lived amongst the shame-chucking religious right, or grown up Catholic, etc. The left didn't invent shame. I'm only speaking from my lived experience, and to what seems manifestly true these two presidential cycles.
I also acknowledge that this psychodynamic only partially explains Trump's appeal. There really are "deplorable" racists whites, or one-issue voters, etc.
But I bet money on Trump's victory not because I want him to be president. I find Sam's characterization of him to be spot on; Trump is amoral, ugly, malicious, deeply wounded from however his parents fucked him up. And I doubt the man has read the constitution. But I thought Trump would win because I found the poll's incapable of modeling accurately, again, an electorate touched so profoundly by shame. I can't find the article or podcast episode, but Nate Silver basically just added uncertainty to polls to correct for Trump's 2016 overperformance, instead of actively upgrading his support. I get that it's almost an insuperable problem—trying to find out, through polling, how much people distrust pollsters—so evidence of the shame theory is hard to get after. But with vote totals now in, Trump was a Pfizer vaccine announcement away from getting the few tens of thousands of votes that would've given him the election. It was not the blowout modeled.
And I think it wasn't a blowout—but a grade A barnstormer—because so many people feel withering shame.
This presentation is incomplete. It hasn't touched on Trump's performance in office, the shameful acts of individual Republican congressman, the electorate. And as hippie, free-love-and-psychic healing, small government conservative types like myself are a rare breed, this whole exercise might be simply self-indulgent. Really, it's likely that it wasn't shame but race that was the biggest mover; that the majority of Trump voters aren't motivated by shame. But I thought to offer it as a token for our pending truth and reconciliation.
And by the way, slightly off topic: the best thing so far about Biden winning is seeing my broader social network happy. The anxiety lifting, the relief is palpable. That's a very good thing.