Shame is a powerful force that society possesses to shape the actions of its members.
Shame can certainly be used to evil ends: to push hypocrisy; oppress that which is different; and deny the freedom that a free society does and should afford. But especially in the modern era it can also be a way to shout STOP!, to say that something is beyond the pale and won’t be tolerated.
The middle of December – like seemingly every month before it – brought an event that should have, but largely didn’t, result in the recrimination of shame.
In what feels like ancient history, President Trump engaged in his usual taunts and mockeries of his political rivals at a rally in Michigan on December 18th, hours after a vote to impeach him passed the House of Representatives. Trump’s ire that evening in particular was fixed on Michigan’s Representative Debbie Dingell, who, along with most of her caucus, voted for and continues to support impeachment.
Trump told the story of how Rep. Dingell called to thank him for affording her husband, former Representative John Dingell, full honors when he passed away earlier this year. After mentioning how Debbie Dingell had suggested that her husband was looking down on them, Trump suggested to his rally audience that, maybe, he was instead looking up from Hell.
We don’t have many taboos left, and I won’t pretend to assume Trump’s grasp on Christian theology and custom is particularly nuanced, but suggesting anyone – particularly a person of faith – is suffering in eternal hellfire and damnation is an enormous charge, not something to be bantered about lightly, and a down-right terrible thing to say about someone who has recently passed. It is a uniquely cruel suggestion to make flippantly toward a public figure spending her first Christmas without her husband of nearly 40 years.
Some conservatives, including elected Republicans, have criticized and attempted to shame President Trump in response. But the response has largely been muted, with a sprinkle of applause and whataboutism for good measure.
Now, you may say that President Trump is a man seemingly incapable of possessing shame. His (repeated, chronic) commission of adultery is well-known. He’s bragged about sexually assaulting women. He speaks in the crudest, most vile terms about his political rivals and detractors. In more normal times, each of these would be significantly beyond the pale.
It can be easy to cave on accountability, given the stakes and teamsmanship of politics, the reality of who Trump is, and the necessity of everyday life. But he is the highest elected Republican, and this, combined with his inability to police his own actions, makes holding the line that much more important.
If we conservative Christians fail to hold the line, we lose credibility among the world we’re called to witness to, and inevitably surrender moral standing on the issues that matter. This credibility, once abandoned, is an enormously difficult thing to reestablish.
Sometimes shameful behavior becomes normalized because we think enough about the behavior being shamed and realize it shouldn’t be. Sometimes it gets normalized because we give up, and give a pass to behavior that’s unacceptable.
In the last few years, people of good faith have allowed the latter to happen – for judicial appointments, to defend the First Amendment, because they saw the Democrats as even worse.
But the nature of Trump’s shamefulness is insidious. It will never go away. It won’t be snake-charmed out of him by wise handlers or elder conservative statesmen who promise behind closed doors to reel in the worst of his excesses. His 73 years have hardened in him a seemingly immutable character that finds no fault in inflicting pain just for pain’s sake.
And what needs to be said is that the president is a petulant, cruel, mean-spirited bully, willing to hurl invective at a grieving woman during one of the holiest periods of the Christian calendar. The reason so many Republicans held him in contempt leading up to his nomination in 2016 is that he is deeply deserving of contempt.
A reasonable person can weigh his or her options and decide, despite that, to vote for him. But it doesn’t make his character any better. And even for a man seemingly dispossessed of all shame, it bears repeating – over and over – that what he did was, and what he continues to do often is, unacceptable.
Drew Holden is a public affairs consultant in Washington, D.C. and a former Republican congressional staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives.