Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump

assholes.jpgAaron James has written about assholes, people who regard themselves as above the rules and all-special. “If one is special on one’s birthday, the asshole’s birthday comes every day.” The asshole has three critical traits according to James. He — “he” because most assholes are men — (1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically, (2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement, and (3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

In his new book, James explores why Trump, universally recognized as an asshole, is so likable and destabilizing:

“To sum up my answer: he keeps us guessing, by flashing between different asshole types, boorish one moment, self-aggrandizing the next, then bullshitting, all while managing to be very entertaining. In today’s politics, a showman can capture media attention and coffee shop chatting, along with the political agenda. And Trump is a stunning, even likable showman. His display of the asshole arts — as schoolyard bully, or cutdown boxer — is unrivaled, and its own spectacle. The question is then why enough of us are not flatly revolted. My answer is that we — most of us — really like an ass-clown. We are drawn to him even in revulsion, and his supporters forgive or overlook his transgressions. Our pleasure in the spectacle, and our confusion about his type, leave us unsettled in our feelings and him free to do pretty much as he likes.” (pp 53-54)

How else to account for the love of Trump who flouts the values of the party he supposedly represents? It’s often said that Trump’s success owes to being an outsider who speaks against the failure of the two-party system, but the problem with that answer is that he would worsen the elements of that failure rather than reform it. James discusses the various political theories of republicanism (worker republicanism, corporation republicanism, left and right-leaning republicanisms, etc.), and summarizes the common denominators of “general republicanism” (see pp 119-20). They include tenets like (1) citizens are to be ruled by laws and not men or women; (2) state power is held in trust on people’s behalf; (3) officials are accountable to citizens, and their decisions must be justified in an open forum with free press, free speech, and free association; and (4) official speech is to appeal to common reason and not our passions. “Trump’s inflammatory and contemptuous speeches violate these principles. They sin, if you will, against a republican community of equals.”

If Trump is intent on torpedoing the values of a constituency who persist in voting for him anyway, this may be part of the answer: people actually like assholes, particularly in roles of leadership, and as long as we don’t have to deal with the asshole personally or directly. I suspect that populist demagogues speak to our inner asshole — the part of us which is gratified by egotistic privilege, disdains accountability, and wants to trample on the feelings and opinions of others.