Disgust and Contempt in the White House  Susan B. Miller, Ph.D.





Keywords: Disgust, Contempt, Shame, Humiliation, Trump


Abstract: Disgust and Contempt in the White House

This paper examines a constellation of emotions that relate to self-regard maintenance in the face of interpersonal vulnerabilities.  The emotions defined and discussed are disgust, contempt, shame and humiliation.  The author conjectures that presidential candidate Donald Trump’s relationship to this emotion constellation predicts the type of leadership he might provide if elected to the US presidency.  His focus is on preserving elevated self-regard, and he is willing to pursue this aim through disidentification with many individuals and classes of people.  This self-protective and self-elevating urge combines with Trump’s disregard for conventional morality around truthfulness and personal responsibility to create a readiness to disengage from the needs of large swathes of humanity.



It hasn’t escaped notice that Donald Trump is easily disgusted, Not as much has been made of Trump’s inclination to contempt, a related but distinct emotion.  Donald Trump liberally uses both the sneer of contempt and the psychic heave of disgust to define his place in the world.


When Mr. Trump calls an opponent “loser,” “basket case,” “moron,” “clown,” “third-rate,” “dope,” “pathetic,” or “desperate” (NYT, March 4, 2016) while at the same time portraying himself as a hugely loved and successful winner, he is talking contempt, not disgust.  When he refers to another as “grubby” (NYT March 4, 2016) or he talks of the awfulness of imagining his female adversaries’ body functions, he is expressing disgust, which he communicates with his face as well as his words.  Can  psychological insights about the nature of these emotions allow us to elaborate on why a person might be so quick to feel and express them and how they might serve the person’s psychological balance and influence his leadership behavior?


Disgust is one of a group of anxious emotions.  We feel it when our sense of self is threatened by something “bad” coming from outside (Miller, 1986, 1993, 2004).  The disgusted person is reacting to what’s “out there” but is close and could come closer still, which means it might attach to my hair or skin, or suffuse my air, or come right inside my stomach, mind, or imagination.  If I am disgusted, I am in a hurry to create more distance and distinction between me and what I experience as icky or awful. Because disgust aims to keep out what is objectionable, I call it “the gatekeeper emotion ” (Miller, 2004).  Everyone gets disgusted.  Nature equipped us with the mold for this emotion, but the mold fills more readily for some of us than others.


Contempt shares with disgust the determination to assert distance between myself and another.  Disgust takes distance in an openly anxious way that says, Get this awfulness away from me, it’s making me sick.  When I am disgusted, I am quick to admit I feel vulnerable and to admit that what approaches me has power.  But when I feel contempt, I make no such admissions.  Quite the contrary: feeling contempt, I don’t have to rush to get away from anything, because I am already positioned above and distant from whomever is drawing my contempt.  I am aloof.  Note that contempt is very much about other people and their actions and characteristics, whereas disgust is just as likely to be about substances or non-human creatures (though the substances are organic and have creature characteristics, if not human characteristics).


Why might a person be prone to both disgust and contempt?


A high level of discomfort in the world of people (and human bodies) is a likely precondition for combined disgust and contempt proneness.  So a strategy of distance-taking ensues:  I won’t get too close to you.  I’ll either be above you, in an altogether different class from you, or I’ll energetically push you away.  In both modes I can attack you, which reduces your power and increases mine.


Such distancing probably has a number of elements, and so it gives rise to different shades of emotion.  Let’s look more closely at Trumpian contempt and then move on to disgust.  Mr. Trump’s unmistakable psychic focus is on his own perceived grandness: he is manly, rich, infallible, attractive, immensely popular, very smart, a winner and so forth.  In contrast, “Cruz is a nervous wreck…nobody likes him” (MSNBC, January 26, 2016).  Trump is remarkable in his reluctance to admit any data that does not fit that self-schema.  If a publication criticizes him, the publication has no subscribers and is “dying”.  No criticism has validity.  The dynamic of self-elevation fits with Mr. Trump’s contempt-proneness.  He is the kid on the playground yelling, “I’m king of the castle and you’re the dirty rascal.”


Developmentally, what might give rise to this emphasis on personal greatness and the attendant intolerance of having personal flaws?  We can look at that question through the lens of a third emotion, shame, which has an important relationship to grandiosity and contempt.


Shame is the flip-side of the contempt coin.  It is a self-characterization that says, I am weak, I am inferior, I am small, I am incompetent (Miller, 1985, 1996).  The person who overuses the self-protective emotion, contempt, may well be fearful of its opposite, shame, or of the related emotion, humiliation, which “involves being put into a lowly, debased, and powerless position by someone who has, at that moment, greater power than oneself.  Humiliation often involves rage over one’s position….The drama is in the self-other interaction, in the interpersonal field” (Miller, 1988 p.44).  In the background for the ashamed or humiliated person may be active experiences of being painfully belittled; those experiences lead to a great emphasis on being strong and invulnerable.  Sometimes, the background experiences are more subtle.  For example, a boy might grow up with a doting father but one who so greatly values manliness and toughness and so deeply devalues so-called “weakness” or sissiness in others that the boy learns to fear any such qualities within himself and dares not own or embrace them.  He needs to say, I am nothing like those others who Dad disdains.  In this scenario, to experience the emotion, shame, is a sign of weakness, so the emotion itself is circumvented.  People who can stand their own and others’ human vulnerability, who have learned that vulnerability doesn’t equate with inferiority, may at times feel shame and will learn from it.  If I’ve been dishonest with a friend and I feel ashamed, I will learn to avoid the behavior that created inner disharmony.  But if I can’t tolerate a moment’s shame, I likely won’t learn that lesson.


Trump’s intolerance for shame experience may be part of a broader societal trend discussed by Layton (2007).  She states:


In trying to understand what has been going on politically and psychically in the US during the right wing backlash that has dominated the past six years, I have been most struck by the way that need, dependency and vulnerability have become increasingly marked as shameful-at the same time that fears about an out of control world are daily stoked by media and government alike (on-line publication, no pagination).


A disciple of Desmond Tutu and doctor of theology, Dr. Reverend Thandeka published a fascinating analysis of class and race, entitled Learning to Be White (1999).  She argues that, historically, disadvantaged whites did not freely affiliate with poor blacks–as might have been natural and politically advantageous–in part because the whites were exposed to demeaning discourse about blacks and came to fear that loving or feeling kinship with people so disdained would result in they, too, being disdained.  So they “learned to be white” by learning to reject and demean blacks and to see only difference between them and us, not common ground.  Donald Trump appears to bond strongly with whatever group refuses to find common humanity with those low in status.  From this psychological position, he is effective in stoking and  solidifying antagonisms among various have-nots who could be natural allies.  He uses such antipathies to gain political advantage.


Beyond the context of racial politics, we can see people disidentifying with anyone seen as low status, whenever the status judgment comes from a person with prestige.  An example is the high schooler who dumps an old friend because the popular kids in the school disdain that friend and she dreads losing the approval of the popular kids.


While we can’t know the particulars of Mr. Trump’s contempt history, we can conjecture he felt threatened by identification with losers and needed to get the hell out of there, which he did through his ambitious business activities and his steely inner insistence that he is a winner, who is always “liked” or “loved”.   It is not uncommon in childhood for people to feel in danger of being inferior; what is less common is finding a “solution” to this danger in such extremes of contempt and superiority.


Mr. Trump’s disgust is psychologically less transparent than his contempt.  It often focuses on women and their bodies, though can turn toward men’s bodies as well.  His thoughts quickly go to images of bodily processes and activities that he sees as intolerably dirty, rather than natural and commonplace.  Like the contempt reactions, disgust of this sort is likely anxiety-based: something about these human bodies is frightening.  Trump tends to swing between contempt and disgust or to combine the two reactions.  Think of his reaction to Marco Rubio’s perspiration.  Contempt dominates when he uses the Rubio’s sweating as an indicator of his unmanliness.  Disgust dominates when he uses the sweating to flag a bodily grossness from which he wants distance.  Though disgust generally acknowledges some vulnerability to whatever has been labeled as “disgusting,” Mr. Trump’s disgust emphasizes the attacking rather than the vulnerable aspect of the emotion and becomes hard to distinguish from contempt..  The disgust-attendant dynamics and history are not known to us.  Do powerful people–especially women– who can attack and diminish a man, especially his manly “winner” status–have to be devalued by turning them into subhuman, dirty animals who have no worth and thus no power?  If so, the disgust and contempt work in tandem to protect an elevated status.


Likely there is another element to the story of Mr. Trump’s disgust over bodies; he would not turn so readily, for ammunition, to these ideas that bodies are gross unless something in his experience had underscored that point for him. Perhaps he learned that body processes revolted those around him, whose love he needed.  Perhaps women in particular were characterized as messily physical.  If so, one way of falling out of one’s castle is to fall into the dirty moat of femininity.  In this psychic world, women are wonderful when they are washed and prettified in gold and fur and adorning the arm of a manly man, but real women with normally functioning bodies are dangerous and thus must be rejected as fat pigs, dogs, disgusting animals, and so forth.


Many people experience considerable contempt and disgust and will work to calm such reactions and to get over the tendency to condemn others via such responses.  Trump’s political genius is that, rather than trying to “get over” a strong reaction of disgust or contempt, he recognizes the utility in amplifying his emotion and using it to validate and feed similar anxious reactions in others. His supporters are encouraged to form an army of angry, attacking, and superior souls who jeer at others’ supposed weaknesses or revolting characteristics.


A few additional, general observations about the nature of disgust and contempt may be of interest.  Key components of disgust are the experience of outer badness and of a vulnerable sense of self.  Neither self nor badness is a unitary experience.  Both have some range, which complicates our topic.  Let’s take a look at the range that exists within the concept of badness.


One of several things can make something bad from the perspective of the disgusted person.  Pitifully weak things (usually creatures, human or otherwise) can be seen as bad, as can dirty, germ-laden creatures or substances, or creatures that are malformed and monstrous (including those that are “intercategorical” (Lidz, 1973) meaning that they are, for example, neither male nor female, human nor inhuman.)  Substances that are not where they belong (e.g., hairs in food) also evoke disgust (Douglas, 1966).  Badness can associate with powerlessness (the worm, the slug, the half-naked person wandering drunk down the street, the panhandler groveling for change), but it can also associate with power (the dangerously infectious, germ-laden tissue, the ruthless politician who preys on the poor).  So power can be present or absent in the disgust stimulus.  In contrast, contempt rests squarely on the view of the other as weak and powerless and on the self as superior.


Some paradoxes exist around the relationship between power and disgust.  The weak, humiliated, damaged person coming too close is ultimately experienced as powerful in his or her capacity to reduce the self, through contact and contagion (Rozin and Fallon, 1987), to a much diminished state.  The powerfully noxious smell that disgusts might threaten to adhere to one’s clothes so that one becomes disgusting oneself, to others, and as such one is powerful in driving others away (yet powerless if wanting to keep them close).  So power dynamics around disgust are more complex than around contempt in that badness can both produce or reduce personal power.


When we are talking about concrete things we see or touch (not moral concerns), invasiveness is another important component of badness.  Things and creatures that can come inside us, violate our boundaries and our form, are disgusting (even horrifying, but that is a topic for another day) (Miller, 2004).  The disgusting would include sticky things or slimy things, which don’t have to do anything but stick or cling to be disgusting.  Their form–which suggests adherence, invasion and boundary violation–makes them psychically dangerous and repulsive.  Disgust over others’ moral infractions seems formally different from other disgust experiences.  To the extent that morally outrageous things are invasive, they invade only our consciousness as they stir our emotions, perhaps threatening us with unwanted identification with alluringly bad behavior.  The morally disgusted person often uses disgust more aggressively than defensively.  He attacks the bad politician rather than protecting himself from him.  This type of disgust likely develops later in life than disgust over the concretely physical since it requires a more advanced sense of values.  It follows the reaction-formation model of disgust that was elaborated by Freud and other psychoanalytic writers (Freud, 1905, 1923, Alexander, 1935).


I have referred repeatedly to the self-boundary being threatened in the disgust experience, and to the denial of such threat in the contempt experience.  The boundaried self–which is a set of experiences, not a reification–evolves and changes through childhood and indeed throughout life.  A teenage boy’s sense of self might be dominated by wishful ideas such as, I am strong, I am tough, I am smart, and I am sexy (rather Trumpian ideas), as well as fearful ideas (I am weak, I am dumb, I am insincere, I am clumsy).  A four year old child’s sense of self might center on the feeling, I am Daddy’s favorite, Daddy loves me (also rather Trumpian, with its emphasis on being adored.  An infant–who has no formed ideas–may still have a sense of self but one that centers on moments of focus on faces and sensations, with attendant feelings of pleasure or discomfort.


A broader range of emotional states become possible as the sense of self matures.  Contempt is about my superiority to you.  Contempt grows out of a formed, though insecure, sense of who I am, so it is not an emotion of infancy.  Later in childhood, when a child can feel his or herself wakening to ideas about who I am and who I want to be, how I compare with others, how I meet or fail others’ expectations, contempt comes on line.


In contrast with contempt, disgust can occur very early in life.  Nature seems to have equipped all humans to show rudimentary disgust reactions to simple experiences around ingestion and touch (Tomkins, 1962, Miller, 1986, Haidt et al, 1997). These experiences likely offer us the basic structure of an emotion that over time becomes incrementally more complex as we add other kinds of “bad stuff” into the category of what we reject, including very abstract “stuff” such as political views that offend us (Miller, 1986).  It’s as if nature provided us with a container with a certain shape and over time we fill it with a variety of things.


So what might be some of the leadership inclinations of a person who turns so instinctively to both contempt and disgust, whose inner moral compass does not tell him to temper his use of those emotions in labeling others?


He likely will be quick to put psychological distance between himself and anyone who threatens his sense of exceptionalism.  If he does so in the contempt mode, he will elevate himself above people who don’t venerate him and will see them as insignificant and not meriting care or attention.  Those people will not be on his radar screen as valued constituents.  He will be deaf to their concerns unless commanding and obeisant people articulate them.  If he separates himself from others by way of disgust, he will be actively beset those who are different from him and will make choices that hurt them, whether they be immigrants or women in pursuit of improved opportunities.  He will see the harm done to these dangerously bad “others” as a service to himself and to those he sees as worthy.  These disgusting people are bad; they need to be stopped and deserve to be hurt.  Combined attitudes of contempt and disgust ease the way toward exclusion of immigrants, deportation of “illegals,” wall-building, neglect of women’s and minorities’ rights, and belligerence, both at home and abroad.


A President Trump would likely be enormously sensitive to slights to his elevated self-regard, very quick to strike back aggressively in response to real or perceived snubs, and inclined to surround himself with flatterers rather than honest witnesses.  He will also be loath to admit error and ready to entrench in defense of any poor decisions.  He will distort information rather than admit his fallibility.  He also may become enraged, despondent or disengaged if circumstances make it difficult to maintain his elevated self-regard through bluster.


His excessive focus on maintaining elevated self-esteem will relegate others’ feelings and goals to minimal importance.  An attitude of service to others or commitment to rooted values will be beyond his interest, which will focus on personal power and the infusion of power and status into any entity with whom he strongly identifies.  To the extent that he identifies with America, a militarily-mighty America and an America successful in business–his personal area of focus–will be high priority.


It is important to state that Donald Trump’s bent toward contempt and disgust is not such an unusual quality; in and of itself it might not create great problems in leadership.  The essential problem is his lack of any concern about the hostility toward others that follows from contempt and disgust.  Many people feel contempt or disgust followed by some degree of shame or guilt about the emotion or some concern that the emotion might be unwarranted or might say as much about me as it does about you.  With that self-reflection, I keep an eye on my disgust, or question my contempt.  I try to remember the value in respecting others.  I try to remember that we all have worth and we all have messy, smelly human bodies and I’m not better than the next person.  Frosh (2011) stated:


Every subject has injuriousness within it and is tempted to express that in relation to others with whom it has contact and on whom it is likely to be dependent. When we share a space, whether physical or psychical, we are likely to do harm. Recognition of this tendency to violence, this temptation to destroy everything, leads to recognition of the responsibility one has to struggle against the temptation and to acknowledge what one has done when the struggle fails.  (p.232 )


At a March 11, 2016 news conference, Mr. Trump said, “I don’t like to over-analyze myself, but I try to be who I am.”  It’s okay not to over-analyze oneself; the problem is that Mr. Trump under-analyzes himself and doesn’t seem to do the normal work of questioning his destructive emotional responses.  Instead, he amps up those emotions and broadcasts them for political advantage, which has kindled a nationwide tsunami of unashamed bigotry and violence.


It is noteworthy that Mr. Trump’s political views swing wildly, such that it is hard to locate any core values.  The single thing that emerges as core is the value placed on protecting the self from diminishment.  This value leaves Mr. Trump oscillating between a stance of shameless bully and that of panderer, depending on where the advantage lies.  Frequently, he rationalizes unscrupulous and dishonest behavior with stating “what am I gonna do?” because he was attacked first and “had no choice.”  He says this even when he is the first to strike.  Normally, a mature conscience disavows this level of schoolyard morality.  But Mr. Trump offers it up, over and over.  He has no apparent guilt or shame over immorality but a great potential for shame over being a small guy or a loser, and that variety of shame he is determined to defeat whatever the cost.


I believe that his shamelessness around things that normally do cause shame–for example, lying–has been emotionally confusing to his audience.  We look to others’ displayed emotions as a important cue for our own appropriate emotional responses.  If a powerful and successful person admits openly that he lies, and demonstrates no shame about such behavior, some may begin to question the necessary linkage between lying and shame.  Mr. Trump has been shameless about lying, personal slander, and unfettered verbal attack and thus conveys to his audiences the acceptability of such behavior.  He offers liberation from the constraints of civility by dismissing them as mere “political correctness.”


Layton (2007) discusses the impact on individuals of  “how a culture manages vulnerability.”  As head of state, a leader who handles his own personal vulnerability through contempt and an attacking form of disgust is likely to further entrench in our culture an intolerance of vulnerability in self and others, a lack of empathy for the vulnerable, and a failure to meet the needs of the vulnerable, a category that includes us all.  A coarsening of our culture is a likely and troubling result.



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