Buddhism advises we not spend our time pondering others, and that if spare time for pondering is available, pondering self is more valuable. Such advice, like most of its kind, is offered precisely because it speaks to how we generally behave and what behaviors get us and others into repeated trouble. From a sociological perspective, however, pondering the psychological mechanisms at work within individuals and the social conditions surrounding them provides us with potentially valuable insights.
When it comes to Donald Trump, there’s plenty to ponder. Although his term as President of the United States will end on January 20, 2021, we’ve roughly seventy days before that, during which time the most powerful military in the world is at his disposal. We’d best be prepared and realistic when it comes to Donald, for whom fear and loathing of humiliation is a primary psychological driver. As his niece Mary Trump recounts in her recent book, Too Much and Never Enough, Donald is still smarting from the humiliation he suffered at seven years of age, when his older brother Freddy dumped a bowl of mashed potatoes over Donald’s head because “he was being a brat.” That psychological seven-year-old has just suffered another great humiliation, losing to Joe Biden. How Donald will act now presents a period of danger.
Of all the emotional forces that are unleashed in human beings, humiliation is the most dangerous. The shame of humiliation can be murderous in individuals. When a sociopathic, narcissistic head of state with military weaponry at his disposal feels humiliated, his wounded ego may desperately try to recover respect and fear of his power and prompts war. This is the theme of Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play, Ubu Roi. We face such a moment and now witness mass firings of those who might mitigate Donald’s worst impulses, and elevation of authority to sycophants who will not stand in his way. Will it be a military strike against Iran or some other “enemy” of America? The next weeks and months are fraught with danger.
Thomas Scheff explains our predicament in his 1994 book Bloody Revenge. Using his experience as a sociologist, Scheff examines individuals and society from a clinical viewpoint, and the role of humiliation in episodes of violence. Humiliation, he points out, is a subset of shame, but not healthy shame. Rather, humiliation’s stimulation of unhealthy shame produces blaming behaviors: creating scapegoats and designating others for punishment in vengeful acts of displaced shame. He details the workings of humiliation and shame in Germany during the rise of Adolph Hitler, documenting both its personal and social expressions of violence.
America is not Germany in the 1920s, and as historian Jarques Barzan notes, similarity is not sameness; yet there are similarities worth noting, not the least of which is the mobilization and expression of shame and humiliation. Trump’s humiliation over the recent election has spilled over into the ranks of his supporters and the GOP; Republican senators who have spent decades working collaboratively with Joe Biden have been shamed by Donald into attempts to paint Biden and our entire election process a fraud.
Joe Biden has not taken the bait, however, and like a Zen monk simply smiled broadly when asked recently about Secretary of State Pompeo’s snide comment about “a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” Biden’s not about to throw gasoline on an already dangerous fire; thanks to Mary Trump, he knows about the mashed potatoes.