Around this time every year, as colleges and universities begin to spring back to life, I am reminded of my years working within central administration and the excitement in watching the sea of people full of promise come spilling back onto the campus. I remember the familiar faces of returning students, beaming with the fresh potential of a new year, who dropped by just to declare themselves back again or share goals for the year hatched over the summer.
But I also remember just as clearly the faces of the students who didn’t return. Those we lost somewhere along the way to graduation.
Many of those students still haunt me today. I remember one freshman I met when I was working as vice chancellor and chief of staff at UNC Greensboro. She came into my office at the end of the spring semester in tears. A straight-A student through high school, she arrived on our campus full of confidence. But that confidence was shattered when her professors told her that she was a terrible writer. She struggled through the year in silence, determined to improve. But she never got the help she needed. The tears rolled down that young woman’s face as she learned that she’d been placed on academic probation and would lose her scholarship. It was too late. We were too late.
There are thousands more stories like this young woman’s -- of students from low-income families who could have made it farther than their parents did but whom we somehow failed along the way.
We used to blame our students: their poverty, their underpreparation, the extra burdens they carry. It turns out, though, that it’s a lot about us. Yes, poverty and preparation matter. But the choices we make matter, too. Some institutions are simply doing a much better job of graduating their students than other institutions serving exactly the same kinds of students.
As we begin a new academic year, this can be a moment for improvement-minded institutional leaders to engage campus communities in honest, data-driven conversations about what we might do better. How can we more fully understand the journeys our students take on the way to the degree, noting where those journeys are speeded and guided, and where they derail? How can we renew our collective commitment to expand what's working and to confront -- and address -- what’s not?
To assist institutional leaders in their reflection and planning, The Education Trust has sought to identify and broadly share the high-impact practices of institutional leaders who have driven impressive improvement in completion rates, particularly for students who have gone historically underrepresented -- and underserved -- on our campuses: low-income and first-generation students and students of color. Most recently we’ve examined practices at Florida State University, San Diego State University, the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire and Georgia State University.
While each of these institutions is distinct in their mission, and each set of leaders distinct in their style, at the core of their improvement efforts are common practices and qualities -- many of them steeped in honest analysis of data. Those practices and qualities are:
Courage. When then San Diego State President Stephen Weber addressed his Faculty Senate, applauding the many ways in which the faculty had worked toward -- and attained -- excellence over the years, he went on to issue a challenge that would spark a decade-long improvement effort: “But a great university doesn’t lose almost two-thirds of its Latino freshmen along the road toward graduation.” Like Weber, all of the leaders at the campuses we’ve been learning from are clear-eyed, intentional and dogged in their approaches to institutional improvement. They roll up their sleeves alongside staff and faculty and ask hard questions of the data on student matriculation and success. They zero in on areas of strength and weakness to draw out promising practices and needed interventions.
Shared commitment. These leaders are keenly aware that, while they have a strong role to play in leading change, staff and faculty members operating closest to their students are the ones who enact that change. Using data, leaders at University of Wisconsin Eau Claire engaged departments as partners and problem solvers. Said one senior leader on campus, “We give them the data … we’re not telling them where the problem is; they identify the problem and we encourage them to solve the problem.”
In examining their data, they found that, while their six-year graduation rate was relatively high, the four-year graduation rate was extremely low at just 18 percent. To address that pattern, faculty and staff members identified course bottlenecks and acted to remove them.
At each of the institutions we’ve studied, leaders draw together partners at every level -- senior administrators, department heads, faculty members, student-affairs professionals -- to engage in data analysis and problem solving. And they arrive not with answers, but with questions, trusting that those assembled in the room have much to contribute to improvement efforts.
Timely data for targeted interventions. These leaders understand that their students struggle in real time -- and that those working closest to them need information to intervene in real time. Further, they know from disaggregating data that all students don’t struggle at the same time with the same obstacles or need the same supports. They take time to parse data to understand the needs of all their students -- first generation, transfer, black, Latino, immigrant and many others. They identify benchmarks and warning indicators to ensure that no student is left to languish and disappear at any point in their educational journey without real supports to turn the situation around.
For example, practitioners at Georgia State University noted, “Four or five years ago, we had nothing consistent in our system that would help us track students.” Today, an impressive online data repository gives faculty and staff members immediate access to 130 screens of the most requested data on student progression and success. Through their Graduation and Progression Success advising system, which tracks more than 700 markers of student success, nightly feeds generate lists of which students have missed which markers. That information enables advisers to reach out immediately with targeted support for students who stumble.
Continuing evaluation of the data. Leaders at these institutions always come back to the data. A longtime campus leader at Florida State University described the cultural change ushered in by former provost Lawrence G. Abele: “When he came in, there was a huge shift in culture. It was no longer OK to just do things you thought were right; you needed data to support new ideas and also to assess, evaluate and improve current programs.”
For instance, when campus leaders analyzed their dropout patterns, they found that while white students were most at risk of dropping out in their first year, black male students were more likely to leave after the second, third or even fifth year. They realized that their retention efforts needed to stretch beyond freshman year to guide students through the entire undergraduate trajectory. Like Abele, leaders at these fast-improving institutions convene their teams regularly to monitor and review the data and to make midcourse corrections to ensure that their efforts, energies and resources are directed where they are most needed.
The lessons these leaders offer provide real insight from within successful college and university change efforts. They remind all of us in higher education that “success for some” is no great institution’s epitaph -- that institutional success will be measured not by how well some students are served but by how well all groups of students are served. If institutional leaders and those of us working alongside them don’t have the courage to confront the reality of what’s happening on our campuses in the narratives of all students, whether on commencement lists or dropout rolls, we are merely comforting ourselves with a half-true story that plays on repeat each year.
Bonita J. Brown is director of higher education practice at The Education Trust. She most recently served as vice chancellor and chief of staff at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Despite the excuses that administrators often give, a commitment to diversity can go beyond lip service and translate into more faculty of color in tenure-track, tenured, full professor and upper administrative ranks, argues Adia Harvey Wingfield.
On Aug. 23, the National Labor Relations Board issued its long-awaited decision in a case involving whether graduate teaching and research assistants at Columbia University could unionize, resulting in a significant decision that overruled existing precedent on the issue. In its ruling, a majority of the board concluded that student assistants employed by private institutions of higher education can be considered employees for the purposes of organizing and collective bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act. While the decision dealt with graduate assistants, the potential impact on each institution must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. The broad ruling has potential application to both undergraduate and graduate-level teaching and research assistants and thus may have substantial ramifications.
Tracing the history of NLRB precedent, which has changed course over the years, a majority of the board reduced the analysis to its essence: Do graduate assistants function as employees as that term is understood under the labor relations act? The difficulty has been that the act does not actually define the term “employee” in a useful or precise manner and simply applies to “any employee,” subject to certain specified exceptions. And while the definition of “employee” might seem to be universal, the board has applied several different tests to define the term.
For example, in a 2000 case involving graduate assistants at New York University, it used a common law agency test. The common law agency test employs the “doctrine of the conventional master-servant relationship,” which establishes that such a “relationship exists when a servant performs services for another, under the other’s control or right of control, and in return for payment.” The NYU board held that “ample evidence exists to find that graduate assistants plainly and literally fall within the meaning of ‘employee’ as defined in Section 2(3) and by the common law.” However, as one could imagine, the difficulty in applying the common law of agency test at institutions of higher education lies in determining whether the source of that control is primarily educational rather than economic.
Thus, in another case in 2004, the board applied an economic relationship test in order to determine whether graduate assistants and researchers at Brown were employees under the act. Concluding that graduate assistants had a “primarily educational” employment relationship with their universities, the board determined that the primary purposes of the relationship were not economic in nature.
The Columbia Decision
In the recent case, upon weighing the issue of what constitutes an employee, the current board concluded that it “has the statutory authority to treat student assistants as statutory employees, where they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated. Statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the act does not reach.”
With this deceptively simple analysis, and by overturning the economic relationship test used in the Brown ruling, the board disregarded the concurrent and requisite student relationship that these graduate assistants have with Columbia. By professing the legal fiction that the existence of this concurrent relationship effectively did not matter -- or would not affect collective bargaining -- the board was able to overlook the myriad of complexities that will be created by its decision and instead relied on its analysis that its decision would further the aims of the act.
Notably, the board dropped a footnote to explain any allegations of an inconsistency between its decision in the Columbia University case to characterize graduate students as employees in order to further the aims of the NLRA and its decision in the Northwestern University case, stating:
“In Northwestern University, 362 NLRB No. 167 (2015), we denied the protections of the act to certain college athletes -- without ruling on their employee status -- because, due to their situation within and governance by an athletic consortium dominated by public universities, we found that our extending coverage to them would not advance the purposes of the act. Here, conversely, we have no reason to believe that extending bargaining rights will not meaningfully advance the goals of the act.”
NLRB member Philip A. Miscimarra criticized that seemingly straightforward analysis in a lengthy dissent to the Columbia decision in which he concluded that the board should not have reduced it to straight employer-employee analysis, given the complexities of institutions of higher education compared to industrial workplaces and the dynamics of the student-university relationship. He raised concerns about the applicability of the NLRB’s policies and procedures, noting “the best interests of students, however, necessarily revolves around whether they obtain the education that costs so much in time and money and means so much to their future. The board has no expertise regarding these issues, and Congress did not adopt our statute to advance the best interests of college and university students.”
Although the decision may be appealed, given the recent ruling, many institutions have immediately begun to examine what life would look like if student assistants unionized. The public sector may prove instructive for this analysis.
Models for the Way Forward?
The NLRB noted that unionization of and “‘collective bargaining by graduate student employees is increasingly a fact of American university life.’ Recent data show that more than 64,000 graduate student employees are organized at 28 institutions of higher education ….”
That is because state public employee relations boards -- the equivalent to the NLRB for public institutions, which do not fall under the jurisdiction of the NLRB -- have characterized student assistants as employees for the purposes of unionizing and collective bargaining.
Citing the American Federation of Teachers’amicus brief, the board noted that “the University of Illinois, Michigan State University and Wayne State University include language in their graduate-assistant collective-bargaining agreements giving management defined rights concerning courses, course content, course assignments, exams, class size, grading policies and methods of instruction, as well as graduate students’ progress on their own degrees … these agreements show that parties can and successfully have navigated delicate topics near the intersection of the university’s dual role as educator and employer.”
Indeed, if the decision stands, the delicate balance that such public universities have struck with regard to that dual role may prove to be the way forward, but it likely does not resolve all the open questions. One example is the yet-to-be-determined impact of an economic strike on a graduate student and their ability to complete their program in the anticipated time. Indeed, in his dissent, Miscimarra notes that “Columbia University and other parties have identified cases where bargaining by student assistants ‘has proven detrimental to the pursuit of the school’s educational goals,’ with ‘strikes and grievances over teaching workload and tuition waivers’ and ‘grievances over classroom assignments and eligibility criteria for assistantships ….’”
Time will tell whether the NLRB’s procedures are the appropriate venue for resolving the concerns of student assistants. In the meantime, given the success of Adjunct Action in organizing adjunct faculty, institutions would be well served to evaluate the current nature of their relationship with student assistants and determine whether the economic and procedural remedies available under the NLRA will further the educator-student relationship or substantially alter a fundamentally academic relationship. As noted in our amicus brief, very real concerns exist about the tension between “collective bargaining under the NLRA (for the protection of the individual worker through the power of the group)” and “the type of individualized educational decision making that is necessary to mentor, guide and evaluate graduate students on their academic paths. Not only are such decisions inappropriate in the collective bargaining context, the very nature of such an adversarial economic relationship could undermine the fundamentally academic nature of the relationship between faculty members and their graduate students.”
As recognized by the NLRB in the Brown decision, the danger of characterizing graduate student assistants as statutory employees under the act is that purely academic decisions could become the subject of collective bargaining, such as course length and content, standards for advancement and graduation, and administration of exams under the broad definition of items subject to collective bargaining. For example, negotiations over whether there must be just cause for discharging a graduate student assistant will be inseparable from negotiations regarding whether a faculty member can exercise his or her discretion to determine whether a graduate student is meeting the academic requirements to continue in the graduate program.
Such decisions regarding a graduate student’s progression toward their degree and their fulfillment of academic requirements are exactly the types that faculty members must have the discretion to make on an individualized basis while exercising due concern for a student’s academic progress and career -- without being hampered by the provisions of a collective bargaining agreement. In the Brown ruling, the board noted that “collective bargaining is not particularly well suited to educational decision making and … any change in emphasis from quality education to economic concerns will prove detrimental to both labor and educational policies.” (Italics added.)
Unfortunately, such complexities will have to be sorted out with current cohorts of student assistants serving as test cases. Perhaps that risk is outweighed by the harm of the current terms and conditions under which student assistants serve. Where people stand on that issue probably depends on their general views of unionization and the specific conditions of their institutions.
Natasha Baker is a partner at Hirschfeld Kraemer LLP in San Francisco. She is on the Board of Directors for the National Association of College and University Attorneys, the co-founder of Title IX ASAP, and the chair of the Higher Education Council of the Employment Law Alliance. In the Columbia University case, the author participated in an amicus brief filed on behalf of the council.
The recent National Labor Relations Board decision granting graduate students at private colleges and universities the right to unionize takes me back to 2000, the last time the NLRB ruled similarly (3 to 2). I was a first-year Ph.D. student at Tufts University at the time, excited to be pursuing a path in literary and critical study.
Not long after that historic NLRB decision bore its first juicy fruit -- an epic 2002 contract for the unionized grad students at New York University -- we began a campaign at Tufts as well. The NYU contract had shown that it was possible for graduate students to receive not only increased stipends across the board but also free health care and other crucial benefits. Moreover, it demonstrated that unionization could win graduate student teachers, TAs and researchers respect that had previously been denied them. Professors from NYU were quoted in the news as saying how the new contract was actually improving their relations with students -- that the respect and decent pay afforded grad students was making it possible to do a better job in general.
Along with a collection of other humanities departments, English became the hub of the organizing for our union effort. We went with the acronym ASET, the Association of Student Employees at Tufts, and affiliated with the UAW -- cool folks with experience from NYU and other grad student campaigns.
Why did English become the hub of our organizing committee? It wasn't because we were the worst-treated or the worst-paid graduate students. As we came to learn, grad student lecturers and TAs in departments like drama or art history were paid just a fraction of what we were receiving for similar work, while some research assistants in the sciences were working far longer hours -- 40 or even 60 hours per week -- for little more pay than we got. Indeed, the gross inequities that became apparent when we started talking to people and gathering union cards from beyond our own departments became yet another impetus for organizing.
It wasn't because we were a bunch of intellectual radicals, either-- although a few of us were, and a few more would become radicalized through the work of the campaign. More crucial, I think, was the fact that it was clear to all of us in the English Department that we were teachers, providing the same type of work, delivering the same courses and awarding the same grades and credits that both adjunct and even some tenure-track professors were. The idea that we weren't employees -- that we were simply “apprentices,” as the private universities were then arguing -- was clearly bogus. (I credit many of our English Department faculty for treating us collegially as well, which helped to reinforce the notion that we were, in a sense, colleagues -- albeit junior ones.)
I found while organizing in other departments that grad students who didn't have that experience of teaching their own courses were more likely to be sucked into the ideology of apprenticeship -- even though their labor was just as essential as ours was. So there would be discussions and arguments.
But it was never just about ideology. There were barriers to organizing that weren't mainly about ideas: the fear of retaliation from hostile faculty, cynicism that students couldn’t really change things, plain old workload exhaustion and backgrounds of privilege that buffered peers from caring too much for the fate of others.
People offered plenty of passive support. They would sign a card and maybe agree to vote for a union if given a chance, and of course they would gladly accept its benefits. Who wouldn't want free health care? But for many of those folks, taking that next step to get actively involved was not on their agenda -- they were busy as heck, after all. Many of our supporters saw the union as a kind of third-party representation that would do stuff for them -- not as a community organization of which they themselves were an essential part.
A related and perhaps even greater barrier we encountered was that many grad students had a willingness to live in poverty for the promise (perhaps some imagined it as a guarantee) that at the end of their three, five or seven years of study, training and research -- and playing nice with their adviser -- they would be rewarded with a well-paid, secure and honorable position as a tenure-track faculty member. They assumed they’d become an assistant professor at an institution -- if not of their choice, then at least on earth and in this lifetime.
Looking back, I can see that even I was subject to that way of thinking at times -- budding Marxist intellectual and reader of Marc Bousquet though I was. Thus, borrowing $10,000 or $15,000 a year in living expenses for several years to supplement inadequate pay for teaching was something I didn't think twice about. I figured I'd be making $70,000 a year before too long. Wasn't I "wicked smaht," like all my professors told me? Given that, the six-figure debt load I was saddled with -- undergrad loans from a private college plus several years of grad student living expenses -- would not be too much to bear.
I'm sure I wasn't alone in this. At least in the early 2000s, the myth that we'd all be able to land that tenure-track job still had considerably more purchase than it does today (although even back then those who studied the trends closely knew better). I remember walking down the hallways at Tufts, confident that, in the near future, I would be like my professors, those well-dressed scholars whom I was wowing with my insightful comments in grad seminars. I would not be like the adjuncts teaching the intro classes and sharing offices and occasionally kicking the copy machine in despair. I would have an office all to myself … with my own starry-eyed grad students lined up around the corner.
Of course, graduate education is in various ways designed to encourage grad students to see themselves as the future tenured star professor -- not as the “lowly” adjunct. (Who were those people, anyway? And did they do research or write or have, you know, ideas? I’m sure that they did, and do. But we ambitious grad students did not want to find out.)
Yet the reality was that the vast majority of us were not going to be landing tenure-track jobs in the near future -- certainly not unless we were willing to move to Timbuktu or Dubai. Indeed, to multiply the tragic irony, as graduate students accepting low pay and a lack of benefits, we were effectively -- if for the most part unknowingly -- helping to undermine the future of our own profession, making it possible for universities to staff classes without investing in solid full-time (let alone tenure-track) positions. We were helping our own longed-for full-time tenure-track jobs to disappear. In effect, to use the vulgar term, we were scabbing on our future selves.
Of course, we could only do this because we were all, each of us, convinced we were sitting on a winning lottery ticket -- or, more precisely, scribbling one at night in the form of our beloved dissertations. And we could only maintain that illusion because we kept our distance from those abject adjuncts.
I've come to see this disavowal of the adjunct as a major weakness, one that we failed to take on adequately in our grad student organizing back in the day. That alienated way of (not) thinking cut us off from the reality of our situation, from our colleagues and our own likely futures. It was the antisocial underside of the belief that we had a merit-based path to a solid middle-class life. This individualist outlook in turn discouraged people -- at least at a place like Tufts -- from fully recognizing either their exploited status or their collective potential. We consoled ourselves with the (debt-buffered) fantasy that these low wages were temporary and that our best bet was to go it alone. Certainly we could hold our breath for a few more years, right?
Don't get me wrong -- most of the grad students that ASET was able to reach were in favor of joining the union. In 2003, our committee collected hundreds of union cards and held an election, which we think we won -- at least, according to our internal polling. We never found out for sure, because Tufts followed the lead of Brown and NYU and filed an appeal with the NLRB claiming that we were "apprentices, not employees" and therefore should not have been able to have a union vote in the first place. Alas, the ballots were boxed, pending the appeal. And after the Brown decision came down in 2004 (with a Bush-appointed board flipping 3 to 2 against our rights), they were destroyed.
Our union campaign didn't cease immediately. Throughout 2004, we kept working to hold things together, aiming our efforts at putting community pressure on the administration to recognize the union voluntarily. We used moral suasion, we wrote op-eds, we held rallies. The administration even made some adjustments and some concessions. Stipends in many departments were raised, and some grievances were addressed. It wasn't a total loss.
But it was a loss nonetheless. To compel the administration, we probably needed something like a work stoppage (or a plausible threat of one), backed by support from community allies. But we hadn't laid the basis for that kind of militancy. In our more immediate focus on merely gathering cards and winning votes, we ducked the difficult yet necessary work of pressing our peers to see themselves as having genuine power, power that stemmed not from the NLRB but from ourselves: our social networks, our labor, our principled arguments and our solidarity with other university workers. Rather than dig a firm foundation, we built on sand. Stripped of NLRB backing, ASET/UAW collapsed into history.
Looking back on it now, I wonder if we should have made the argument for unionizing in deeper terms from the get-go, in more radical and existential terms, instead of lulling our peers with the assurance that all we needed to do was vote and the NLRB would do the rest.
Grad student organizers today should not make our mistakes. Even as they surge to take advantage of this terrific legal opening, they would do well to place their faith not primarily in the NLRB but in themselves --including their future selves (those contingent faculty) -- and in their honest community allies.
One thing that makes the recent NLRB decision exciting is that it seems like grad students today -- at least the ones that I know -- may be less caught up in the individualist and meritocratic fantasies that many of us still had in our heads in the early 2000s. Facts that used to be the property of activists and experts are now widely known: most graduating Ph.D.s won't be landing tenure-track jobs (pending major structural change); most university teaching is now done by contingent faculty; most of those contingent faculty, unless they have the protection of a union, are exploited, expendable and often crammed in a shared closet-office. And also this: contingent faculty across the country are now unionizing in droves and winning contracts and respect that might just make being one of them not such a bad thing after all. (Here I should mention the lecturers at Tufts, who have recently won a union and a solid contract, inspiring further adjunct organizing across the Boston area.)
With such long-disavowed specters assuming flesh and blood among us -- I speak as one of them -- a legally rejuvenated grad student labor movement might become something much more exciting than it was a decade ago. No longer floating meritocratic fantasies on bubbles of debt but instead embracing its fighting future, this new wave of organized grad students might just help change everything.
Joseph G. Ramsey is editor of the volume Scholactivism: Reflections on Transforming Praxis in and Beyond Classroom, now available from Works & Days. A frequent contributor to Counterpunch and Socialism and Democracy, he is a full-time lecturer in the English and American Studies Departments at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where he is active in the Faculty Staff Union and the All-Union Organizing Committee.
Doubleday published Aaron James’s thought-provoking little treatiseAssholes: A Theory of Donald Trump in early May, but I have not seen a single reference to the book since the candidate clinched the Republican nomination later that month.
In the meantime, several million pundit-hours of commentary have gone to assessing the presidential horse race, mainly by people who live at the track. James, by contrast, is a professor and chair of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. His major work of scholarship to date, Fairness in Practice: A Social Contract for a Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2012), was well received by his peers, though it has been largely overshadowed by his pioneering work in asshole studies.
Let us first define terms. What, then, o Socrates, is an asshole? And how does the asshole differ from someone who is just a jerk?
The distinction is important. “The asshole,” James writes, “is the guy (they are mainly men) who systematically allows himself advantages in social relationships out of an entrenched (and mistaken) sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.” His sense of entitlement is absolute; his self-aggrandizing behavior is spontaneous and noticeably lacking in inhibition. The asshole may recognize that violating certain norms of acceptable behavior may cause pain or give offense but feels no conflict over that possibility.
The jerk, by contrast, is aware it is normal to apologize or express embarrassment -- and does so, sincerely or not. Someone parking in a handicapped parking space without the appropriate plates or sticker may be either a jerk or an asshole, but only the jerk will feel the need to come up with, at least, an excuse.
More important, the asshole will, James writes, often “feel indignant when questions about his conduct are raised. That, from his point of view, shows he is not getting the respect he deserves.” Just such an escalation -- from habitual, self-centered indifference toward the feelings of others to rage at even the perception of being slighted -- became familiar as part of Trump’s debating style throughout the Republican primary debates.
It proved effective, and that is the puzzle, which only deepened in the course of the summer. Somehow the candidate’s incessant and tireless asshole behavior (he has been at it for more than a year now, full time; even from this side of the process, it feels like 10) has never seriously damaged his base of support.
H. L. Mencken once defined a demagogue as someone “who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.” Trump has commanded the national stage with greater success than any demagogue since the 1930s, and yet Mencken’s quip is, as James points out, doubly insufficient in characterizing the candidate. For one, Trump is not so much dishonest as completely uninterested in whether or not what he says is true. (See Harry G. Frankfurt's On Bullshit [Princeton University Press, 2005].) Nor are Trump supporters all idiots. For many, James theorizes, “Trump’s value is mainly as a stratagem of asshole management: when stuck with heaps of assholes, turn to an even bigger, better asshole, in hopes of bringing order for public benefit …. In a system where officials routinely thwart the public interest, capitalizing on their position for power and profit, only an asshole so skilled as to school the other assholes properly, and so to awe them into submission, would restore order and peace, for the greater good of everyone.”
The asshole, so elevated and empowered, sounds quite a bit like the sovereign in Leviathan, which is no accident. Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump offers quick tutorials on Hobbes and Rousseau to suggest that the candidate’s rise makes a certain amount of sense in the context of a republic collapsing under strain.
Support for Trump, by this reading, is the perverse and rather paradoxical effect of 30 years (arguably more) of growing economic inequality and cultural atomization. Whatever communitarian spirit may have once glued the country together, the collage has been coming unstuck for a while now. Sustained growth over first two or three decades following World War II made it seem at least possible that 21st-century American citizens would take stability, security and opportunity as birthrights. Economic crises would be the stuff of history lectures. The biggest problem would be managing all our free time.
The sense of having gone off course somehow runs deep. Yet we have largely lost any language for framing an alternative. The notion of the general welfare has grown quaint, if not suspect. The individual self is engaged in a zero-sum game with the rest of the world; for anything to count as a good, it must have the potential to generate invidious comparisons. “Each [of us] needing to affirm his or her own value,” says James, “we devolve into a destructive contest for rank and superiority.”
We live, it seems, in an asshole oligarchy. Nobody thinks of Trump as an exception. But he is the one guy saying -- over and over, between the insult tweets and explosive ranting -- that the status quo is bad, folks, you have no idea how bad, trust me. The whole thing must be put into bankruptcy, after which he’ll negotiate a new social contract for us. What have you got to lose?
James is under no illusions about the candidate’s sincerity, competence, self-control or emotional stability. He calls Trump’s campaign rallies “the modern version of executions for public entertainment; it’s the dynamics of crowds and power that, with the help of technology, made the 20th century the bloodiest in human history.” So, not a endorsement. The idea that putting Trump in office represents a “strategy of asshole management … a last-ditch effort at taming a corrupt political system” can be explained rationally. That doesn’t make it a rational idea, though, and patience with the thought experiment will probably decrease as election draws closer.
Whatever Trump’s candidacy may reveal about the state of the social fabric, he’s torn a few more holes in it already. James quotes a line from Rousseau that arguably sums up the spirit of his book: “The manner in which public affairs are conducted gives a sufficiently accurate indication of the moral character and state of health of the body politic.” The implications of that sentence are almost as horrifying as the thought of Donald Trump with the nuclear launch codes.