Despite congratulations like Henry Olson’s in the Washington Post, Amy Klobuchar didn’t abandon “Minnesota Nice” at the Nevada Democratic Presidential Debate. What happened onstage wasn’t strategy or defiance, it was something very different. She was swept down into a shame spiral.
Shame is an innate emotion we experience irrespective of gender. It’s the feeling of being so intensely flawed and exposed that all we want to do is hide because the wound to our self-esteem is so acutely painful. But when we’re out there in public we can’t hide. So how do we cope? We lash out in anger or contempt, either pushing people away or trying to make ourselves feel better than, superior to, whoever has triggered our shame.
Klobuchar’s meltdown was a classic shame spiral as described by psychologist Gershen Kaufman, author of Shame: The Power of Caring. The audience watched her become engulfed by shame. No wonder Pete Buttigieg, standing only a few feet away, looked shocked.
Klobuchar’s shame spiral started when Vanessa Hauc of Telemundo asked her about the highly embarrassing Telemundo interview the previous week when she couldn’t respond with the name of the Mexican president. The Senator also couldn’t mention any of his policies, but she did say “I know that he was elected,” which made her sound even more unprepared, almost juvenile.
Hauc pressed her about saying the day before the debate that what happened “wasn’t Jeopardy!” Shouldn’t she know more about one of our largest trading partners? Klobuchar agreed, but dismissed what happened as momentary forgetfulness, and then proceeded to make herself look even worse by greeting President Lopez Obrador as if he were watching.
She looked down before saying his name, either because she was embarrassed (breaking eye contact by looking down or away is a key facial indicator of shame) or because she had to remind herself what his name was. She botched the pronunciation. Then she proceeded to trivialize her gaffes by reeling off how many members of the Israeli Knesset there were and what the name of the Honduran president was. Klobuchar was clearly rattled and defensive.
Hauc wouldn’t let her off the hook and followed up, saying that her colleague specifically asked the Senator if she could name the president of Mexico and she had said no. Klobuchar then bragged about being humble.
That’s when Pete Buttigieg pointed out all the relevant committees that Senator Klobuchar was on, which made her not being able to share any knowledge of Obrador’s policies even more surprising. This was clearly the tipping point for Klobuchar who immediately lashed out at Buttigieg. Her voice became shaky, she sounded tearful, and she said: “Are you saying that I’m dumb? Are you mocking me?”
This was a woman in the profound grip of shame, a presidential candidate suddenly and very publicly revealing deep wounds to her self-esteem, a woman who earlier in her life either felt dumb or was made to feel dumb, someone whose insecurities exploded onstage to stunning effect.
No wonder she sniped at Buttigieg with a sneer later on: “We can’t all be perfect like you.” That was her contempt speaking, her defense against public humiliation. But he wasn’t calling for perfection. He was merely questioning whether experience was the same thing as expertise and judgment.
Viewers and readers ought to take another look at that interchange and study how she reacted. It’s also worth comparing Senator Klobuchar to Senator Warren, for instance, and watching how both candidates respond to criticism, since both of them come from hardscrabble backgrounds.
Public scrutiny has the potential to trigger shame. But how anyone handles that scrutiny, especially a presidential candidate, is equally governed by their previous encounters with that most deeply disturbing of human emotions. And how they’ve coped with shame in the past all too often dictates how they’ll cope with shame in the future. If Klobuchar crumpled so quickly in Nevada, imagine her dealing with the pressures of the Oval Office.
Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, including Edith Wharton’s Prisoners of Shame.