Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine’s cover story was “The Fog of Rudy”–a retrospective of sorts on a career that began semi-conventionally and now has a major role in the clown show that is the Trump Administration.
The article was undoubtedly informative for people who don’t obsessively follow political news. Since I’m among the obsessed, I was aware of most of the high and low points of Guiliani’s pursuit of fame and fortune–what the article described as his “seemingly hormonal desire for power and fame.” But I was struck by a theme running through the biographical material: shamelessness.
As a prosecutor,
Giuliani practiced politics in a different key, one characterized by brazenness, by shamelessness, by chutzpah. He embraced publicity indiscriminately, picked the highest-profile fights he could find and took all of them to the furthest possible extreme. He acted as if he were bulletproof; and so, in a way, he was.
Shamelessness is a central characteristic of what the article accurately describes as a new breed of politician
a publicity-obsessed, reality-defying master of resentment politics — that is, just the kind of figure who is now ascendant across the globe in the form of strongmen, oligarchs and even populist Tories. These are not men of vision, but men of appetites.
Shameless is a word that describes both Trump and Guiliani. These are men who are willing to say and do anything that will bring them attention–it’s almost as if they believe they don’t exist when the cameras aren’t on them. The Times article recounts Rudy’s numerous shady and self-serving activities as prosecutor, Mayor and private lawyer monetizing his connection with the tragedy of 9/11, and then returns to the theme of shamelessness:
Watching his invariably viral TV performances, it often felt as if the closest thing to a unifying explanation for his behavior was his pronounced inability to experience shame. Shamelessness is not an art or even a skill. It’s simply a way of operating in the world that informs all of your actions and interactions, for good or ill.
It’s a state of mind that he shares not only with Trump but also with a growing number of blatantly dishonest, nakedly opportunistic political figures. What creates the conditions in which such truly shameless figures can thrive? In 2020, the obvious answer is the rise of an all-consuming media ecosystem in which truth is no longer meaningfully litigated. … Combine that with the ubiquity of social media, which makes no distinctions between truth and lies, and what you end up with is a political conversation without consequences that favors the most outrageous voices. If you reliably make over-the-top claims, you will be rewarded with attention, and Giuliani never fails to make over-the-top claims.
The ability to feel shame requires an ability to recognize the distinction between right and wrong, and a desire to be–and be seen by others as– moral. I couldn’t help wondering about the sort of people who lack that desire, soI googled “mental health and shamelessness,” and found this psychiatrist’s explanation of the phenomenon compelling.
He writes that shamelessness is often displayed by pathological narcissists who are saddled with deep feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness, and who compensate with displays of “rampant arrogance and a sense of entitlement.”
To be shameless–as opposed to shameful–is also to be guiltless. For in their assuming superiority over others (unconsciously, to dispossess themselves of buried feelings of inferiority), they see themselves as entitled to push their way (as it were) to the front of the line. Having once felt small, unimportant, and possibly demeaned and humiliated as well, their massively constructed defense system now enables them to feel “privileged.” They can experience themselves almost as above the law, and certainly beyond the court of public opinion. These are the individuals who, when convicted of trespassing on others’ rights–of having acted in flagrant disregard of their fellow humans–may demonstrate little, if any, remorse. And shamelessness, at its irremediable worst, is just one of many traits keying into the diagnosis of anti-social personality disorder.
The real question we must ask ourselves is: why do presumably rational people reward these damaged folks with our attention and/or our votes?
And why on earth would we trust one of them with the nuclear codes?