It was a 2017 meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Donald Trump, and reporters wanted a handshake. Merkel leaned in toward Trump and seemed, to many observers, to say something like, “Shall we have a handshake?” Trump appeared to ignore her and glared straight at the camera, in what many considered a breach of protocol. Or at least an awkward moment. Merkel pursed her lips, an important woman attempting to go with the flow.
On Twitter, a comedian named Sean Kent took note. “Trump’s refusal to shake Merkel’s hand or look her in the eye is an embarrassment,” he tweeted. “Can we get him the hell out of office?”
Kent was far from the only one to voice those sentiments, as a quick Twitter search for the words Trump, Merkel, and embarrassment will attest. We all feel secondhand embarrassment sometimes, like while watching a co-worker writhe as she frantically searches her brain for the boss’s husband’s name. But according to a new research paper, many Americans seem to be feeling a lot of embarrassment on behalf of one person in particular lately: our president, Donald Trump.
Of course, Americans have a history of expressing shame and embarrassment about all presidents. President Barack Obama was hammered by conservatives for going on what they called “an apology tour” internationally. Nevertheless, this study found, people tweeted about embarrassment during Obama’s presidency much less frequently than they have during Trump’s. The one exception was on October 9, 2016, the date of the second 2016 presidential debate, in which Trump called Hillary Clinton “the devil” and admitted to not paying federal taxes.
An analysis of all tweets sent in the United States from June 2015 to December 2017 found that there’s been a 45 percent increase in tweets about embarrassment since January 2017, when Trump took office. And when there is a spike in people tweeting about feeling embarrassed, it is often because they are talking about Trump, says the study, which was published on Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Communication. On days when there were a lot of embarrassment-related tweets, 20 to 35 percent of them mentioned Trump’s name.
Part of the increase might simply be due to the tendency to say you’re “embarrassed” by someone when in reality you’re just “disappointed” and want to voice that disappointment strongly. This was borne out in the times the researchers found Americans were most “embarrassed” by the president. Along with a spike in cringeworthiness during the Merkel meeting, for instance, the researchers noted an uptick on May 25, 2017, when Trump appeared to shove Montenegro Prime Minister Dusko Markovic at a NATO Summit, as though attempting to get in front of him. (The White House claimed Trump was just getting to a predetermined photo-op spot, and Markovic shrugged it off.) Other embarrassment peaks occurred after Trump praised “fine people on both sides” after white nationalists marched on Charlottesville, and after he withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change.
“We found that people felt the need to share their emotions related to Donald Trump’s politics,” said Sören Krach, a professor of social neuroscience at Lübeck University and a co-author of the study, in a statement, “and embarrassment was the emotion that most clearly described what people felt.”
It wasn’t just embarrassment that was significantly associated with mentioning Trump’s name in a tweet. Disgust, shame, and anger were also positively correlated with the word Trump, while happiness was negatively correlated. In other words, “If someone’s saying, ‘I’m so happy today,’ odds are Trump is not associated,” Dar Meshi, an assistant professor of advertising and public relations at Michigan State University and a co-author of the study, told me.
These results must be taken with a grain of salt. Twitter is far from representative of the American public as a whole. During the time this study was conducted, 60 percent of Americans did say in a Marist poll that they were “embarrassed” by the president. But Twitter tends to be both more liberal and more negative than the general population, so a conservative president doing inappropriate things is perfect grist for the Twitter mill. Today, 42 percent of Americans continue to approve of Trump’s performance. Since Twitter only launched in 2006, it wasn’t nearly as big during the end of the George W. Bush administration, the last Republican presidency we have to compare it with.
The authors put forward a few explanations for why people might feel so much chagrin over the president’s actions. First, Trump smashes so many norms, it’s hard to write them off as simple mistakes that anyone could make. When George H. W. Bush threw up on the Japanese prime minister, it was clear he didn’t do it on purpose. But when Trump mocked the disability of a New York Times reporter, it seemed intentional. (Trump claimed he did not know the reporter was disabled, but fact-checkers later showed that Trump had met the reporter many times.) His apparent lack of remorse fans the flames of his opponents’ outrage.
Second, Trump might have started out just a bombastic real-estate developer from New York, but now he’s the president of the United States. He represents Americans. Because we see him as representing our group, we can feel vicarious embarrassment from watching him, the authors write. In a 2017 New York Times piece, the sociologist Neil Gross suggested that “Americans embarrassed by President Trump are experiencing vicarious embarrassment not for him but for the country. They’re embarrassed that, with Mr. Trump as president, the country’s claims to virtue, leadership and moral standing ring hollow.”
In a statement, Meshi said he hoped his study would help people better understand how their emotions are influenced by Trump’s actions, so that “it can help U.S. citizens avoid experiencing these negative emotions over such a prolonged period.” That’s kind, but it also misunderstands why many people go on Twitter. People tweet because they’re embarrassed or disgusted or ashamed, yes, but also because complaining feels great. In taking their grumbles to the platform, people can distance themselves from the president and claim to be part of a better, more enlightened tribe. They’re expressing their anger, in other words, and often it comes out as embarrassment.