Mellman: Red in the face?

Mellman: Red in the face?

Truth be told, President Trump, his administration and his supporters have a good deal to be embarrassed about of late.

Yet, not a trace of that emotion is ever apparent from him, his spokespeople or his acolytes. And that ought to be deeply troubling.

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The potential causes of embarrassment are legion.

Take, for example, the president’s reaction to the February jobs report earlier this month.

Trump celebrated the employment gains, retweeting an item which said “GREAT AGAIN: +235,000.”

His press secretary was similarly enthusiastic—”Not a bad way to start day 50 of this administration.”

Yet, the very same Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWhite House, ethics office feud escalates Poll: More people view NATO favorably EPA chief jabs California’s environment push MORE derided an even greater increase of 244,000 jobs under President Obama saying, “Today’s job report is not a good sign… No real job growth. We need over 300K new jobs a month.”

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin BradyKevin BradyOvernight Finance: Inside Trump's first budget | 66 programs on the chopping block | Hearing highlights border tax divide | Labor to implement investment adviser rule Eliminate Foreign Investment in Real Property Tax Act of 1980 to create jobs Hearing highlights GOP divide over border tax MORE (R-Texas) fell into the same trap, calling Trump’s 235,000 job gain “a great report…a good sign that our economy is moving in the right direction.”

Just a year earlier, when Obama still occupied the White House, he criticized an increase of 242,000 jobs saying it was “disappointing to see so little growth...”

More recently, Trump claimed his predecessor “tapp(ed)  [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process.”

Monday, the nation heard the directors of the FBI and of the National Security Agency make clear that the president made this tale up out of whole cloth.

Usually getting caught in a lie is cause for embarrassment. Not so for this president.

Nor were his minions embarrassed when they falsely blamed the British for the wiretap.

The American public feels the shame. Nearly 60 percent described themselves as “embarrassed” by Trump’s performance as president, according to a Marist poll last month.

But not so, the president himself.

Why should we care if the president refuses to be embarrassed?

Because, as psychologist Rowland S. Miller argues, embarrassment “is often a desirable, correct response to social predicaments.”

Those unwilling to express embarrassment identify themselves as socially suspect. “A capacity for embarrassment is a marker of normal humanity,” concluded Miller. The president seems to put himself outside the rather vast tent of “normal humanity.”

Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner maintains that embarrassment is “a sign of respect for others, our appreciation of their view of things, and our commitment to the moral and social order.”

Trump’s apparent inability to express embarrassment is yet another signal of his desire to upend, not just the political order, but also the moral and social order under which we live.

Trumpeteers’ failure to be embarrassed by their violation of social norms tells us not just about their goals, but about them as people.

A group of Dutch psychologists concluded that conveying embarrassment signifies an individual’s recognition that they have committed a social or moral infraction and regret it.

Trump and his supporters apparently either don’t recognize dishonesty or hypocrisy as social or moral infractions or don’t regret crossing those lines.

Experiments conducted by the Dutch psychologists demonstrate that people who express minor embarrassment are better liked by others than those who are not visibly embarrassed by their infractions of social codes.

When the president and his supporters remain steadfastly unembarrassed by hypocrisy and dishonesty, they convey to Americans not just that they are dishonest and hypocritical, but also that they don’t care; they don’t acknowledge those behaviors as wrong or undesirable.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason Trump’s approval rating has hit a new low of just 37 percent.

It’s not just his bad actions but it’s his refusal to acknowledge even subtlety and nonverbally that his dishonesty and hypocrisy violate useful social norms. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.