So let's think about this word. My first thought is, it's just an old trick to get your interlocutor to stop talking, like saying he's being "defensive." Who has not encountered an antagonist who criticizes you and then, when you respond, says something like: "Oh, I guess I hit a nerve" or "Don't be so defensive" or "You're awfully thin-skinned" or "You need to grow a thicker skin"? It's a call for unilateral disarmament! They want to keep attacking you, while you demonstrate how good you are at not fighting back. To be called "thin-skinned" heightens the aggravation yet if you react, they'll glory in your proving of their point. Aha! So you are thin-skinned! They knew it!
You've had that experience, haven't you? What did you do? 1. Accept the insight into your personality problems and try to model forbearance and a willingness to absorb blows without lashing back, 2. Withdraw from this fight and resolve to extract yourself from future discussions that might cause you to feel that you need to fight, 3. Confront your antagonist on his self-interested, phony psychoanalysis and insist on your right to respond to his attacks with commensurate forcefulness, 4. Ignore the distraction of the meta-conversation — the conversation about the conversation — and just keep fighting hard on the substantive issues that you were already talking about, 5. Take up the challenge of turning it into an argument about psychological shortcomings and hurl some equivalent insults at your opponent.
Now that you've thought about how you respond to this conversational gambit, think about what you want in a President. Maybe a good President needs all 5 options (and more), but it's obvious that all #1 all the time — or all #2 — would be absurd. I like ##3 and 4. Trump seems to like #5 —"If she wants to go the low road, I'm fine with that... I can handle the low road if I have to do it" — or at least he knows how to make his opponents feel they're not going to win that game.
But maybe Hillary and Elizabeth Warren think that "thin-skinned" is the one mean insult that can work, because it's the one where, when you try to return fire, you seem to be confirming their assessment. They also like it because it seems to fit a strategy of scaring people. The idea is that a thin-skinned President might lose his temper and take us into a war. Do people believe that? We've been in a lot of wars, but did they ever arise from a President getting mad? There have been bad decisions to go to war, but I think these had more to do with grim, sober analysis or with political calculation. Still, there's always the idea of the button. Hillary followed her "thin-skinned" remark with: "Do we want his finger anywhere near the button?"
Anyway, I got very interested in this word "thin-skinned" and did a search in the NYT archive. Here's a 1998 essay by Frank Rich recommending the "old-fashioned adjective thin-skinned" to describe the complaints of perpetually offended Americans:
Let any theater, museum or entertainment company float a project that might offend someone -- even sight unseen -- and that someone will scream, tempting the offending party to retreat or stick to the tried, the safe and the PG-rated in the future. No one can call this insidious syndrome censorship, because the protesters are always careful to say they are not demanding censorship and their targets are equally careful to say expressly that they do not back down in response to protests. But it's a disingenuous dance. Does anyone believe that NBC elected not to rerun the Puerto Rican Parade ''Seinfeld'' episode for any reason other than the public complaints? Or that the Library of Congress postponed an exhibit on Freud solely for budgetary reasons rather than because of a heated petition campaign by such prominent anti-Freudians as Gloria Steinem? This cautious cultural climate -- fueled by the right, the left and virtually every religious, ethnic and racial group -- can't be accurately described by that tortured term P.C., which is always in the eye of the beholder anyway. A better term would be that old-fashioned adjective thin-skinned.So Rich wanted to use the insult "thin-skinned" to push back political correctness. How interestingly Trump-related! Trump is notoriously thick-skinned when it comes to political correctness and his antagonists are betting on the thin skin of American voters, whom they nudge to feel outrage at anything Trump might say that could be interpreted as racist/sexist/xenophobic.
And here's something from April 5, 2008, when Hillary was fighting Barack Obama for the presidential nomination. Some young Obama supporter fretted about the hostility she'd been expressing toward Obama, and she said:
“For those of you who are new to politics,” she said, “it can be a little eye-opening especially when you choose sides and you’re for one or the other of us you can take personally anything one of us or the other says. Believe it or not, there have even been some things said about me. I don’t take it personally. I don’t take most of it seriously.”Isn't it funny? Obama is often praised for his cool temperament, but he's also been called "thin-skinned" quite a lot.
Then, suggesting that perhaps Mr. Obama, or at least his supporters, were a bit thin-skinned, she added, “If you can’t take the heat, don’t run for president, because it’s a really hot kitchen in the White House. You’re supposed to present your case and critique the other case,” she added. “It is not a coronation. This nomination is worth fighting for and I’m going to fight for it.”
I think we should be thin-skinned about "thin-skinned." It's a tricky insinuation about a person, and I think we should be sensitive about it. I'll even be so sensitive as to suggest that it's an under-the-radar race word: Why are we talking about a person's skin?