Fat Shame to Übermensch Shame: Hypocrisy Doesn't Break the Frame

This week Trump is fat-shaming  —  and now other people are fat-shaming Trump back, pointing out his hypocrisy. Unfortunately, calling out hypocrisy doesn't undermine shame-based politics. Historically hypocrisy seems to be nearly a requirement for using shame to build political movements:

Case in point, Hitler was not the tall, blond, muscular Aryan hero ideal he endlessly talked about. This was no accident. People who felt like failures listened to him talk about the Übermensch Aryan, and felt OK about it because he was fantasizing just as much as they were. In US politics, Rush Limbaugh has long followed this pattern, claiming superiority and throwing shame while having problems in his own life that he would treat mercilessly in another. 

Not all conservatives frame themselves using shame. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a good counter-example. He challenged people to work hard rather than attacking others as inferior, and he exemplified what he talked about. 

Trump follows the shame pattern. When he says “You’re Fired,” and we watch it on TV, we are supposed to identify [nervously] with the man with bad hair doing the firing. It’s cathartic to take your fears and imagine being with the guy doing the pointing. Imagine if Schwarzenegger had shamed people who weren’t fit: large majorities would feel targeted rather than able to dream that they were with Schwarzenegger pointing fingers at someone else.

Hypocrisy is actually a necessary ingredient to shame-based politics. If Trump were built like Arnold Schwarzenegger, people who felt overweight couldn’t help but see themselves as the target, and the attacks would not be a cathartic release from their fears.

This week Trump is fat-shaming  —  and now other people are fat-shaming Trump back. But it’s no accident or surprise that Trump is overweight and using fat-shaming at the same time, and calling him on it only solidifies his frame. The more shame is in the air, the more that people with insecurities see others being shamed, the more desire to be with the guy doing the pointing rather than the target. That is Trump's frame: that we live in a world of shame and strength. Joining that frame, body-shaming Trump, won't dismantle his frame.

If Trump gets many voters who feel economic insecurity, and adds the votes of everyone who doesn’t like their own hair, every man afraid of the size of his “fingers,” every person who worries about their weight or body image — we’re in trouble.

Shame is not a tool that good people can turn around and use effectively against hypocrites. There are two counters to Trump's shame-based "You're Fired" politics. One, we need to counter shame directly with a sense of empowerment, so everyone feels like they can stand on their own feet and is not so vulnerable that they need to stand behind a bully. Two, we need to connect with the people who still aren't ready to stand on their own, the people Trump shames until they nervously stand with the bully, and help them realize that we (whoever we are) want to stand with them and that Trump will turn on them. To break Trump's self-framing as a strong-man, pointing out hypocrisy is useless, we have to help his followers walk in the shoes of people who trusted Trump and then were betrayed.


From Chapter 5 of Cognitive Politics: Shame, Blame and Authority