The Trump era: deliberative democracy’s shame

Many political pundits have been aghast at Trump’s antics as a leader on both the national and international stage. His refusal to apologise for many of his flagrant violations of democratic norms speak to his sense of shamelessness. But does Trump’s lack of shame merely reflect our own disdain for him as an unconventional political figure, or is there something fundamentally dangerous about it that lurks beneath the surface?

The politics of shame

The perception of shame has been widely used as a tool in contemporary democratic politics, and there are several examples that attest to this. Backbenchers in the British House of Commons can often be heard heckling the politician addressing the House by repeatedly yelling, “Shame!” [i] When three leaders of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement were jailed in August this year, supporters also shouted “shame on political prosecution” outside the appeals court.[ii]

Within the political sphere, the perlocutionary force behind an utterance of this word expresses some anger or frustration towards a violation of some democratic norm, whether perceived or otherwise. The Liberal backbencher is outraged that the Tory is proposing an income tax cut, since this might disproportionately affect those in the lower tax brackets. Hong Kong’s “yellow umbrella” supporters were voicing out what they deemed was an unjust treatment of the city’s citizens, at a time when all should be equal under the eyes of the law.

These examples perhaps also show that shame can be capitalized upon for individuals to make seemingly primitive or irrational outbursts. One might thus question whether shame can be wielded in a way other than as an unhelpful expression of political passion, or even whether this emotion can be politically constructive in the first place.

Positive vs. negative shame

Shame can be seen as a cowering of one’s self due to a self-awareness of one’s own inadequacy, in a moment where one is expected to be adequate.[iii] The pain that arises from this form of ‘negative’ shame might elicit certain forms of behaviour that are contrary to the tenets of deliberative democracy. In avoidance of the shaming gaze, one may choose not to voice out important and valid concerns in the worry that their very sense of self might be publicly ridiculed.

The consequences of negative shame should not be underestimated. During the 1980s HIV/AIDS epidemic, the African continent endured a much higher infection rate for the disease, in part due to the sexual stigma surrounding homosexuality and the enduring shame of potentially being found out.[iv] The success of the civil rights movement in the U.S. in response to the epidemic, on the other hand, largely hinged on urging activists to ‘come out’ and emerge behind the veil of shame. One of the movement’s most famous posters reminded citizens that “Silence=Death”.

I would argue, however, that there is room for shame to be constructive in political discussion and debate. The political theorist Christina Tarnopolsky writes that ‘respectful’ shame can prompt us to be open to the possibility that “who we are cannot be captured by any particular norm or image that we currently self-possess.”[v] Our sense of shame can attune us to the realization that we are not living up to our ideals and values. In these critical moments of self-reflection, we might be motivated to better ourselves to right our past shameful actions.[vi]

The ancient Greeks, too, long recognized that the emotion of shame is integral to the concepts of citizenry as well as personal and public dignity, terming it aidōs. The great Homeric poem the Iliad, for example, is in many ways an ode to shame. When Nestor, counsellor to the Greeks, challenges Acheans to rise up in the face of battle, he declares: “dear friends, be men; let shame be in your hearts and discipline, and each one of you remember / his children and his wife, his property and his parents’’.[vii] Shame is the figurative wall that inhibits the soldier from fleeing upon sight of his enemy; it is the silent restraint against caving into one’s self-serving impulses. The function of aidōs in Greek democracy is thus to direct a citizen towards the societal “common good”, something that is beyond themselves.[viii]

Shame in deliberative politics

Deliberative democracy is a political philosophy that is not solely interested in the mechanics of the voting process, but also concerns itself with the public exchange of discussions about what people want. This dynamic conception of democracy attempts to adjudicate between substantive disagreements in actual politics through deliberation or discussion.[ix]

A key principle of this theory is the notion of reciprocity: the idea that citizens must aim to seek agreement on the laws or policies that bind them by feeling obliged to justify their chosen principles to others.[x] Another distinctive value that emerges from this need for justification in deliberation is that of mutual respect. Citizens can only recognize their obligation to justify to one another the laws and policies they think work best when they mutually respect one another.[xi]

A critical examination of the emotions, particularly that of shame, is perhaps more urgent within this picture of deliberative democracy. Public debates indubitably invoke a great deal of affectivity; as we have seen in many parliaments and its global equivalents, arguments, if not properly moderated, can quickly turn into anger and chaos.

The role of ‘respectful’ shame is thus crucial in preserving the principles of reciprocity and mutual respect. Without shame, there would be no obligation for an individual to respect another’s differing beliefs, much less justify their own. Shame is a powerful moral force that modulates the sensitivities of civil discussion and restrains the individual from making pernicious accusations that might undermine the deliberative aspect of a democracy.

Trump and shamelessness

Donald Trump has been characterized and caricatured; he has been portrayed as both an idiot and a political savant, both hero and foe to the fabric of America’s political landscape. It is precisely Trump’s lack of shame that has led to such divisiveness. While stewards of democracy point out in incredulity how he routinely violates democratic norms, supporters rejoice in his daringness and courage to ‘stand up to the establishment’.

Trump’s shamelessness is evidenced by his dismissal of empirical facts, indifference towards arguments laid out logically before him, and outright mockery to those who even slightly challenge his view. A brief perusal of his Twitter account will show a bundle of self-praises, such as “My I.Q. is the highest”,[xii] along with undignified jabs on other politicians. Such tweets merely scratch the surface.

Trump’s political persona reveals himself as a man who cannot bear to endure the psychological feeling of shame precisely because it conflicts with his ego and grandiose sense of self. When Stephen Curry informed the media that he would personally decline an official invitation to the White House after his team won the NBA Championships this year, Trump swiftly retaliated by brazenly tweeting: “Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!”[xiii] Such schoolyard comebacks can only be made by a man who sees himself as a giant, whose shoulders others need to desperately cling onto else they will hit rock bottom.

The ego of the authoritarian-like

Trump so far displays little intention to stick to the principles of reciprocity and mutual respect that are key to democratic deliberation without significant pressure by his aides; it is quite likely that he does not even favour deliberation in the first place. Rational discourse in the Trump era has instead been replaced by a politics of suspicion and surveillance, a phenomenon that has the capability to both empower and distort the democratic process at the same time.[xiv] On one hand, while McCarthy-like politics violate the value of mutual respect that each citizen should have for another, such politics can also be considered a form of resistance against rule by an elite status quo.

Trump’s shamelessness does, and should, give cause for worry as a direct threat to the deliberative process. However, it is perhaps support for his egoist character that we might want to properly ponder upon. It is one thing for a political leader to gaze into his own reflection and see no capacity for shame; it is another for a group of people to consciously want in their leader someone who is not imbued with any kind of self-restraint or humility.

What exactly is the power of Trump’s shamelessness, and how does it work? Whether consciously or not, in my opinion Trump first strives for an ideal of the impeccable authoritarian leader. Displaying an ego that is unflinching in the face of even the most disastrous of mistakes is a clear demonstration of the authoritarian’s power. Mao Zedong, for example, never wished to publicly acknowledge the Great Famine in the 1960s that led to the death of 30 million people. As Greg Sargent of the Washington Post writes, Trump follows a similar philosophy that “the more brazen or shameless, the more potent is the assertion of power.”[xv]

A consequence of this brazen display of ego is that Trump is able to posture himself as a political figure who does not cave into the demands of a perceivably ‘corrupt’ elite. His shamelessness, which once reflected a resistance against the power of the establishment during the 2016 elections, is now a vagrant display of his triumph over it. After all, who needs to bother about a president’s potential conflict of interest in his private businesses, when the law is clearly “on his side”?[xvi]

For some who have long yearned for a radical change in the American political landscape, thus, shame is perhaps an emotion associated with establishments of the old. Many voters have begun to distrust the cunning ways of the democratic politician: the moment when he hangs his head in guilt and owns up to his mistakes is nothing more than a well-rehearsed gesture in American political theatre, a pity display to prevent more lies from leaking out into the public sphere.

Trump: a danger to democracy?

Thus, Trump’s shamelessness, in its own perverted way, is his sophistic method of presumably speaking truth to power. Trump thinks that he is resisting the insidious power within ‘respectful’ shame that the cunning politician has capitalized upon in order to escape truth. What, then, is the truth that Trump wants to speak?

A few political commentators might suggest that Trump sees no value in truth; his establishment aims instead at an anarchical grab of power in every corner. This view, however, neglects the idea that Trump does posture himself as the antithesis to the “deranged” and “untruthful” D.C. elite. The perceived truth that Trump wants to declare might simply be that his persona – the shameless, bordering on megalomaniacal, politician – is in fact politically constructive to the fabric of American democracy.

Trump thinks that deliberation and sweet-talking has led the nation nowhere; his solution is that “this country needs a strong leader – and fast!” If statesmanlike politicians such as Obama have attempted to deliberate with little results to show for it, then a new kind of leadership should arise: one that is assertive and most importantly, yields results. To have shame is to cower, and to cower is to hinder one’s self from making any kind of real progress.

It is perhaps too early to tell what the consequences are for democracy in America due to Trump’s politics of shamelessness. One deep worry, however, should have already taken hold: the notion that the Trump era has already made it difficult for a citizen to properly sift through the contours of shame. With shamelessness being wielded both on the right and left as a motivating force for recent political protests (the notion that one will not ‘cower himself’ in the face of injustice), it is hard to differentiate between which demonstration of aidōs leads to the common good, and which does not. Perhaps, in a time of such political uncertainty and disarray, it might be wise to simply gaze into the mirror and reflect on how we have failed to live up to our own ideals as participating citizens in a democracy instead.

Until the next elections, perhaps that sort of shame might be enough.


[i] Monique Scotti, “‘Shame!’: Stamping out heckling in the House of Commons”, Global News. October 29 2013. Web. Accessed November 20 2017.

[ii] Venus Wu and James Pomfret, “Critics cry foul as Joshua Wong and other young Hong Kong democracy leaders get jail”, Reuters. August 17 2017. Web. Accessed November 20 2017.

[iii] Martha C. Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, Princeton Press, 2007, pg. 183.

[iv] Helen Epstein and Kristen Ashburn, “Why is AIDS Worse in Africa?” Discover Magazine. February 5 2004. Web. Accessed November 20 2017.

[v] Christina Tarnopolsky, “The Pedagogies of Shame”, Cabinet Magazine 31. Web.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Jill Locke, Democracy and the death of shame, Cambridge University Press, 2016, pg. 20.

[viii] Ibid., pg. 21.

[ix] Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, “Why Deliberative Democracy is Different”, Social Philosophy and Policy, 17(1), 161-180. pg. 165.

[x] Ibid., pg. 167.

[xi] Ibid., pg. 168.

[xii] Donald Trump, May 8 2013. Tweet.

[xiii] Donald Trump, September 23 2017. Tweet.

[xiv] Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, “Trump, Elections And Devolution Of Deliberative Democracy In US”, Eurasia Review. October 11 2016. Web. Accessed November 20 2017.

[xv] Greg Sargent, “Two new reports suggest Trump has come unhinged. The truth is worse”, Washington Post. November 29 2017. Accessed December 1 2017.

[xvi] Jonathan Freedland, “Trump has no shame: that’s what makes him dangerous”, The Guardian. 12 May 2017. Web. Accessed November 20 2017.


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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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