Who’s Shameless?

August 11, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

How can Donald Trump, with his 39 Pinocchios from Fact Checker, continue to make false and outrageous claims? How could he denigrate the gold star parents of a Musliim US soldier killed in Afghanistan? Why has he no sense of shame?

Trevor Noah, interviewed on Ezra Klein’s podcast, suggested that it started with bankruptcy. For most people, declaring bankruptcy is a matter of shame. It is a public admission of failure. But for a business, it’s not really so bad. American bankruptcy laws allow business persons to pick themselves, dust themselves off, pay their creditors and suppliers a fraction of what they are owed, and start all over again. Which is what Trump has done at least four times. Even if he might have felt a slight touch of shame the first time, it quickly wore off in subsequent bankruptcies. Trump the businessman might have taken a financial hit, but Trump the public person suffered no loss of social standing.

Before looking for other explanations – surely they must be out there – I wanted to  see the extent of the image of Trump as shameless, I went to Google.

Nearly 700,000 hits. The difference between him and other polticians must be huge. For comparison, I tried the Democratic nominee.

Hillary, by this measure, is not quite so shameless as the Donald, but 500,000 seemed like a lot. Then again, her opponents could reel off a list of scandals dating back to her days in Arkansas. I tried a few successful presidential candidates.

Obama and Bush were not so far behind. The toll was high even for Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, who served before shouts of “shameless” could be echoed around the Internet. Besides, Reagan and Carter, whatever you thought of their policies, seemed like decent human beings. Yet their quotient of “shameless” pages runs to hundreds of thousands. I confess I am ignorant of the ways of the Google algorithm and what those numbers actually reflect. Still, nearly half a million seems like a lot.

Maybe this is not about the politicians themselves. It’s about reactions to those politicians, especially in a polarized polity. Partisans strongly committed to their own point of view often believe that those who disagree with them are acting in bad faith. (See this earlier post about politics and perception.) They think that their own views are so obviously valid and true that a person who sees things otherwise must be denying reality and deliberately lying. These denials and lies are so blatant, so transparent, that most people would be ashamed to utter them. Who could say things that they know are factually and morally wrong?  The politician who is shameless. But the shamelessness may be mostly in the eye of the beholder

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