Joseph Burgo Ph.D.



Shame Management and the Trump Supporter

Don't dismiss all Trump supporters as racists.

Posted Nov 13, 2016

In an earlier post during primary season, I discussed Trump’s narcissistic personality and how he models a particular approach to the management of shame for voters who feel like social “losers.” Righteous indignation, blame and contempt help some white working class (WWC) voters who feel displaced by global trade agreements and illegal immigrants to shore up a sense of themselves as valued members of society:  they make themselves “winners” at the expense of those “losers” scorned as beneath them.

While this view explains his appeal to one segment of the electorate that supported Trump, it doesn’t account for his larger-than-expected victory. Not everyone who voted for Trump is racist, xenophobic, or intolerant of people who hold values different from their own. But many of those voters nonetheless struggle with a fear of being social “losers” in a country they feel has forgotten them; their sense of self-worth has been ravaged by the economic downturn and the loss of solid middle class jobs to globalization and technical advances that make those jobs obsolete. Trump’s message on illegal immigration and “bad” international trade deals resonated powerfully with these voters.

In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, law professor Joan C. Williams profiles WWC workers (and WWC men in particular), offering an explanation for why they supported Trump. If you despair that our country is descending into an abyss of misogyny, racial hatred and intolerance, I strongly urge you to read it. Trump’s message, Williams argues, is “comfort food for high-school-educated guys who … feel like losers — or did until they met Trump.”

“Manly dignity is a big deal for most men. So is breadwinner status: Many still measure masculinity by the size of a paycheck. White working-class men’s wages hit the skids in the 1970s and took another body blow during the Great Recession. Look, I wish manliness worked differently. But most men, like most women, seek to fulfill the ideals they’ve grown up with. For many blue-collar men, all they’re asking for is basic human dignity (male varietal). Trump promises to deliver it.”

Williams describes men whose sense of self-worth has suffered a major insult. In my profession, we refer to this as a “narcissistic injury,” and in my most recent book, I discuss the various ways that all of us defend against a painful threat to our sense of self-worth. At one time or another, most of us have blamed other people for our own mistakes, become defensive or indignant when criticized, and taken brief refuge from shame in a feeling of superiority. In healthy personalities, these defensive maneuvers are temporary measures meant to soften a blow to our self-esteem.

Some WWC workers who feel they’ve lost their “basic human dignity” may take refuge in a hateful racism that demonizes others, but many more voted for Trump because he promised to restore those middle class jobs that gave their lives a sense of meaning and value. (Whether you believe Trump can actually do that is another matter.) In writing off all Trump supporters as racist, we fail to understand what truly drives most of them – a fear of being a social “loser” (what I would describe as shame) and a longing to feel that they are valued members of society whose lives have dignity. Even if we disagree on what it means to be “manly,” we can empathize with the pain and shame of feeling that you don’t matter.

Like many of you, I’m upset about this election and disturbed by the role of misogyny and racism in the results. I worry about our country’s future on issues of diversity and tolerance. At the same time, I refuse to vilify the nearly 50% of Americans who voted for Trump as racist. To do so is to dehumanize them, making them entirely “other” and completely unlike me. I prefer to focus on what we all have in common – the need to feel that our lives have “basic human dignity” and the painful shame that arises when we don’t.

I may disagree with the way they’re trying to reclaim that dignity, but I can still empathize with the shame behind it.