Trump Tests the Limits of Shame

The president attacked a senator who has emerged as a crusader against all manner of sexual misbehavior by political leaders.

Alex Wong / Getty

Just after 8:00 on Tuesday morning, President Trump whipped out his phone and fired off this incendiary, insinuating tweet:

Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Chuck Schumer and someone who would come to my office ‘begging’ for campaign donations not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump. Very disloyal to Bill & Crooked-USED!

It’s hardly surprising that Trump is miffed at Gillibrand. On Monday, the gentlewoman from New York publicly called on the president to step down in light of the multiple accusations of harassment and assault swirling around him. Having long pressed for the military to address its sexual-assault problem, Gillibrand has emerged more recently as a crusader against all manner of sexual misbehavior by political leaders: She was the first Senate Democrat to call on her Minnesota colleague Al Franken to step down, and she contends that elected officials absolutely should be held to higher standards than regular folks.

Understandably, Trump does not appreciate the senator’s focusing a spotlight on his own … vulnerabilities in this area. What powerful man would?

But unlike most men, Trump is not content simply to push back against the substance of the accusations against him. Nor is it enough for him to follow the usual partisan playbook and dismiss Gillibrand as politically motivated—though his “flunky” crack did make that point.

No, Trump being Trump, he felt moved to take it that one step further by asserting that, back when Democratic politicians viewed him as a handy source of campaign donations, Gillibrand was all too willing to debase herself for nice sweaty wads of his cash. She would, he stressed, “do anything for them.”

What precisely is Trump implying? As is often the case, it’s hard to say with certainty. Considering his habit of misusing quotation marks, one can be generous and assume that he does mean that Gillibrand literally came begging for donations (a necessary if distasteful adjunct of the job)—as opposed to “begging,” which suggests something far ickier. But the “do anything for them” parenthetical is about as subtle as Anthony Scaramucci after several drinks. Whatever specific sleaze Trump is looking to evoke in people’s minds, his aim is to demean and shame Gillibrand, to trash her character with sexist innuendo as a way to deflect the questions being quite credibly asked about his own.

It is one of his signature moves: to take inconvenient facts, replace them with ones more to his liking, then redirect the shame back on anyone who questions him. In Gillibrand’s case, he’s turning the question of predation on its head: Accused of sexual malfeasance, he counters by implying that, in their past interactions, his accuser behaved like an actual prostitute.

This is classic Trump. When confronted with an ugly reality, he creates an alternative version, based on whatever story suits his heroic yet eternally beleaguered image of himself. In Trump’s mind, he is the victim of sneering haters laboring to bring him down. The specific charges they level to try to do so are of no interest to him. All he registers is that someone is out to get him and, as such, that person’s reality must be dismantled. Typically, this requires that the individual’s credibility, and by extension her character, be wrecked as well.

Trump’s reaction to the reemergence of allegations of sexual misconduct makes perfect sense. The women in question aren’t merely lying about what he did, they are lying about having ever met him. Likewise, he has shifted from dismissing the infamous Access Hollywood tape as empty “locker room talk” to suggesting that it is a fake. Maybe it’s not his voice on that tape after all. Maybe it’s just another plot by the haters.

This approach may seem wholly cynical and more than a little risky, especially with his more blatant denials of what people can see with their own eyes. (For instance, those inauguration photos that so obsess Trump.) But, at this point, it may be that the president has begun to get lost in his own spin. For him, nothing has any substance beyond how it meshes with his self-image. (These women’s experiences don’t just not matter to him; they do not exist beyond their potential impact on him.) And after spending enough time in an alternative universe where truth is relative and facts don’t exist, the line between reality and fantasy could very well have started to blur.

If the president can create a reality where these women’s experiences did not happen—where he, in fact, never met his accusers and he never made those boasts to Billy Bush—then he doesn’t have to acknowledge, much less engage with, the sort of public reckoning that is bringing down the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Al Franken, and Trent Franks.

Trump as an alleged sexual predator provides a vivid illustration of what happens when a fierce wave of cultural shaming crashes into the smug malice of a man incapable of shame. This is what makes this current moment both fascinating and terrifying. Just how much of a reality distortion field can Trump maintain? How much are members of his party willing to ignore? What can his opponents do, if anything, to force him to acknowledge any reality not of his own making?

Within an hour of Trump’s attack, Gillibrand had fired back with her own tweet: “You cannot silence me or the millions of women who have gotten off the sidelines to speak out about the unfitness and shame you have brought to the Oval Office.”

There’s that word: shame. It is a potent cultural force in this moment. Unless you’re dealing with a man for whom the term is meaningless.