Doubleday published Aaron James’s thought-provoking little treatise Assholes: 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.
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