[Donald Trump’s] cynicism is unbounded. His lack of empathy and compassion can be summed up in a phrase I suspect he’s most proud of having made famous: ‘You’re fired.’ I mean really, I’m not joking. Think about that. Think about everything you learned as a child, no matter where you were raised. How can there be pleasure in saying ‘you’re fired!'”

Vice President Joe Biden, Philadelphia, July 27, 2016

Ridicule is Donald Trump’s most prominent rhetorical strategy. Like the schoolyard bully, his attempts to humiliate and dominate others seize on a snippet of public identity, physical appearance or personal history. You can access many of these taunts on his Twitter account: in case you don’t want to sift through the whole thing, The New York Times has created a list of the 250 people, places and things Trump has most frequently heaped with shame here. 

These tweets, and Trump’s verbal assaults, purposely do not respond to facts or reveal new information. Instead, they are designed to shame and overwhelm people who ask questions or in any way impede his path to political success. He has characterized The New York Times as a “failing” newspaper; claimed that Jeb Bush came out against Super PACs to obscure his “failed campaign;” and called for a boycott against Macy’s, a “very disloyal company.” Most famously perhaps, in July, 2015, he derided Senator John McCain for having been taken prisoner during the Vietnam war; and yesterday, he accused his critic Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, of being cowardly and short.


These are difficult strategies to respond to because they turn normal assumptions about civility on their head. Many of Trump’s word bombs are baseless insults (“pig,” “weak,” “clown,” “dopes,” “total loser,” “SAD”) but that John McCain was a prisoner of war and that Michael Bloomberg is perhaps on the small side for a man (both Bloomberg and I are 5′ 8″) are undebatable facts repurposed as insults. Such moments cause me to fantasize about other figures who might qualify for Trumpian scorn: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (physically mocks him standing up on canes); Mother Teresa (“She was poor. Am I right? Sad!”); and Jesus Christ (“Crucified. What a failure. I like prophets that weren’t crucified.”)

Donald Trump’s lexicon of insults undergirds his most damning conclusion about an opponent: that he or she is a “loser” or a “failure.” On The Apprentice, the reality television show that Trump launched in 2004 that will be hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger during the campaign, the catchphrase “You’re fired!” means that someone who might have been a winner the week before was now a loser. It’s an eerie metaphor for the fragility of the twenty-first century economy. Becoming a loser — being foreclosed on, drowning in student debt, or being notified that your job has been re-organized out of existence — happens in the blink of an eye. You’re fired.

On the other side of the balance sheet, Trump’s multiple bankruptcies would seem to qualify him as a potential failure too. Politifact, which documented four bankruptcies in 2015, has now, in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton citing that number in her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, revised it to six. (Note to Secretary Clinton’s staff: do your own research, don’t just Google an answer.)

Yet Trump does not see these bankruptcies as evidence of his own “failures.” Why?

The answer may lie in the history of entrepreneurship in the United States, and perhaps more importantly, the history of success and failure. As  Scott Sandage has described it in Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (2006) while being chronically poor has always carried moral stigma in the United States, failing and losing has not always been “sad” or “disgusting.”  Not striving, Sandage argues, was a greater personal flaw in the nineteenth century than being ambitious and not succeeding. If one lost a few rounds along the way, or became a bankrupt, that was only greater evidence of the courage and character that success required. In fact, the increasingly volatile economy after 1865 almost guaranteed periodic failure for those who sought to become rich. The question, then, was not whether an entrepreneur would fail in the face of forces beyond his control. The question was how he would respond to failure, build himself back up again, and overcome obstacles on the way to restoring his fortunes. Furthermore, as Horatio Alger, Jr., a failed minister, illustrated in over a hundred books aimed at working class youth, character itself was capital. The only true failure was the failure to work hard, to fail to put oneself in the path of success, to fail to notice when the main chance had arrived.

In Alger’s stories about match boys and newspaper lads, good men and women identified each other across lines of generation and class, banding together rather than crawling over each other on the way to the top. Alger underlined the links between success and character, in part by introducing his protagonists at a moment in which they were both poor and of good character: they take care of smaller, weaker boys, assist lost middle class children, and save their pennies for a warm meal or a room that they then share with those less fortunate. Although each story line turns on luck, as well as pluck, to be “lucky” in these stories is to play one’s cards right. Some boys succeed because they see opportunities other boys do not; the successful manage their money wisely; and they lift up others. Similarly, the National Association of Colored Women, founded in 1896, promoted success as a virtue in the fight against Jim Crow, but only for race men and women who were “lifting as we climb.”

These stories and aphorisms did not acccurately describe the economic realities and class divisions, as well as the bigotry, of the nineteenth century United States. They created a narrative for moral ambition. But by World War I, the gloves were off, giving way to a crueler vision of success and failure not unlike that of the The Apprentice. “I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich,” pastor, educator and Civil War veteran Russell Conwell boomed over 6,000 times between 1882 and his death in 1925 in a speech called “Acres of Diamonds.” He excoriated those in the audience who failed to perceive and seize opportunities for wealth. Economic hierarchies reflected moral realities, while having wealth was a clear sign of one’s fitness to rule. “Ninety-eight out of one hundred of the rich men of America are honest. That is why they are rich,” Conwell told listeners (perhaps even Fred Trump, born in 1905, who may also have read it) until his death in 1925. “Those who cannot help themselves — let us remember that is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings, or by the shortcomings of some one else. It is all wrong to be poor, anyhow.”

It is all wrong to be poor. Disgusting. Loser. Sad.

By 1929, many Americans believed just that. Whereas the unemployed poor overwhelmed the private charities they had always relied upon, middle-class Americans too often believed that failure — to be fired, bankrupted, evicted, and stripped of savings, to become one of the losers — was a personal and deeply shameful shortcoming. “Everybody more or less blamed himself for his delinquency, or lack or talent, or bad luck,” psychiatrist David J. Rossman told journalist Studs Terkel in an interview for Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970).  Another interviewee explained that he had opposed the New Deal because urging Americans to turn to the government was a tacit “confession of the failure of our whole social order.”

Trump’s understanding of all failure — failure to grow, to keep one’s plane aloft in anti-aircraft fire, to be rich — may well be rooted in a deep, and perhaps familial, belief that exploiting the economic and social shame of others is a necessary ingredient of success. According to The New York Times (June 26, 1999) the years of the Great Depression were the launching pad for the Trump fortune. We know that Donald’s father Fred, formed a business with his mother as a teenaged carpenter, and began building and selling houses in 1927. We know that Fred not only survived the stock market crash, but also built a supermarket chain that he sold at a handsome profit shortly before World War II. Where did he get the capital? Did he buy up foreclosed mortgages, or foreclose on houses he had sold himself, property that became instantly valuable during the World War II housing crunch, and even more valuable as federal dollars were poured into home ownership benefits for returning, mostly, white, veterans and their families?

Donald Trump’s crazed and out of control tweets, and his constant attempts to heap shame on others by accusations of personal and institutional failure, may seem sociopathic in the moment. And they are. But in the long cultural history of success and failure in the United States, they may make perfect sense.