If you are interested in knowing about assholes, Aaron James is your man. In the rather new and thin area of assholology, James has emerged as the leading voice. His Assholes, A Theory (Anchor Books) was a New York Times bestseller in 2012. Assholes, A Theory of Donald Trump (Doubleday, 2016) is his more recent sequel. Unfortunately, one will not learn as much about Donald Trump, assholes, or the political landscape that produces and honors assholes today as one would want from reading the short book. Still, if you are looking for a starting point, this is hands-down the best book on the market.
The book does not aim to convince people that Trump is an asshole. James is rightfully confident that we can accept that as a starting point. His goal in this book is merely to describe what kind of an asshole Trump is and to consider whether an asshole like Trump should be disqualified from the office of the presidency. The book does a fair job of fulfilling those two goals. However, the main fault of the book is that it only tacitly — not clearly and consciously — recognizes that assholology alone does not provide adequate tools for analyzing the unfitness of Trump to be the president. More on that later. In addition, however, even if one just wants to consider how far the tools of assholology can get us in political analysis of Trump or Trumpism, it fails to clearly enough consider explicitly enough a whole host of important questions related to the election and support of such an asshole. For example, what were the cultural and structural conditions that lead not only to Trump emerging as an asshole, but also to the citizens of the United States deciding that it was OK to vote this asshole into office? What might we do not only about the asshole President but also about the assholes who support him? In fact, while James mentions that some cultures might be more likely to produce assholes than others, he only implicitly addresses what in the United States has lead to the support for an asshole of major proportions — a kind of Ueber-asshole or super-asshole like Trump.
James begins with a characterization of the asshole: “The asshole 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” (p. 4). The asshole differs from a jerk, because he has a greater sense of entitlement. His rudeness is more deeply entrenched. He is more insidious than an ass-clown, who acts more from a sense of pleasing or gaining the approval of the crowd. Though assholes can also be ass-clowns, not all ass clowns are straight ahead assholes. The ass-clown per ass-clown lacks the greater seriousness of the asshole. That is not to say that some ass-clowns cannot also be assholes. Donald Trump is in James’ view, a case in point. His ass-clownness allows him to appeal to many, to benefit from the media spectacle. But he is clearly more than an ass-clown, even if his assholeness is combined with ass-clownery more than we find with many well-known straight forward assholes like Ted Cruz, Dick Cheney and New Gingrich, perhaps the father of assholes in contemporary U.S. politics. We of course know such assholes when we see them — and miss in them the entertainment quality we find in an asshole like Trump who is also an ass-clown. James differentiates such assholes — and ass-clowns — from psychopathic autocrats like Stalin or Hitler.
Though James notes Trump is an ass-clown and asshole, he eventually suggests that the problem with Trump is that he is not merely an asshole. The greater concern with him is that he has autocratic tendencies. James is surely right about that. The problem is that he does not acknowledge it squarely enough. His analysis at one point simply moves beyond his said topic. It’s at this point that he should have clearly acknowledged the relative impotency of any analysis of Trump from the perspective of assholology. Trump is an asshole — sure. But to know why he is unsuitable to be president, we have to move on to another kind of analysis.
It is not the fact that Donald Trump is an asshole, or even any particular kind of asshole, that makes him unsuitable for presidency. It’s that he is so much more than an asshole, even if he is not (yet) the kind of autocrat of a Stalin or Hitler. In fact, assholes, even people who are assholes in a way somewhat similar to Trump, can be pretty good presidents. Bill Clinton was an asshole, who cheated on his wife regularly, lied to her and the nation on numerous matters, but was a pretty good president. He still had some sense of what the job required, had self-control in important ways, and had a commitment to some ideals beyond himself. Trump isn’t unsuitable for being the president because he’s an asshole. He’s unsuitable to be the president, as James’ analysis itself goes on to suggest, because he undermines democratic principles and constitutional norms, because he cares to little about the well-being of many Americans and focuses on what is advantageous for a very small number of the Americans, because he is neither curious about the world around him, nor informed about it. A study of assholology does not provide the resources for handling any of these issues well enough.
In the book, James argues that Trump is not only a particular kind of asshole, but that he is a particular kind of bullshitter. But I believe his analysis of Trump as a bullshitter also misses the mark. Trump is not a liar or a conman, he argues, because a liar and conman knows that he is lying (p. 38). A bullshitter, by contrast, just doesn’t care about the truth (p. 31). Yet, what is missing from this is that a bullshitter also is often just shooting the shit. He isn’t really doing what he’s doing to gain a lot of concrete results in the world or in politics. As Harry Frankfurt says when describing one such bullshitting orator, he “intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself” (qtd. p. 32). It’s not that Trump does not do this, and does not disregard the truth. It’s just that he does so much more. Through what he is doing, he isn’t just shooting the shit and getting people to view him a certain way. He is ultimately aiming at lowering taxes, eliminating environmental policy, appointing certain supreme court justices. Bullshitters are not folks who pick your pocket after gaining your trust. Conmen are. Just as asshology fails to supply the right tools for an analysis of Trump, so does bullshitology. It’s not that Trump isn’t a bullshitter. It’s just that he’s so much more than a bullshitter that labeling him a bullshitter obfuscates more than it clarifies.
James does go on to evaluate Trump’s inadequacy for the presidency by highlighting some of these issues that move beyond asshology or bullshitology. But he does so without a clarity of purpose. He does so without clearly enough noticing that he is doing it.
In those sections of the book, he notes Trump’s authoritarian tendencies (pp. 48 ff.). He notes “Being an asshole, per se, might not even be [Trump’s] worst flaw. Trump’s worst flaw could lie in his sexism, his racism, his naked self–servingness, or his destructive potential” (p. 53).
In fact, an analysis of what makes Trump unsuitable for the presidency — insofar as it focuses on character issues at all — needs to be rooted in psychoanalysis more than the reflections of asshology offer. We do better to turn to studies of Eric Fromm and Theodor Adorno on the authoritarian personality and to reflections by Hannah Arendt on how propaganda works in authoritarian cultures.
More importantly, we need to look to broader social movements. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s Merchants of Doubt, about how lies are increasingly consciously manufactured with the funding of big business and distributed in our media ecosystems, provides an important starting point. More recent analysis of dark money in politics productively builds on this. Furthermore, recent studies by Timothy Snyder (Tyranny) and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblat (How Democracies Die) that try to draw lessons from the erosion of constitutional norms in various countries of Eastern Europe and South America are very useful.
For all that the theory of assholes cannot do in helping us to analyze Trump, perhaps it does have some little part to play that can be helpful. Besides that, Trump isn’t the only asshole out there. We are surrounded by assholes. James notes strategies for self-preservation in our everyday environments with assholes.
I number here the coping strategies he notes, otherwise using his language verbatim:
- avoid the asshole if you can;
- accept that he probably won’t listen or change;
- affirm your worth by calling a wrong a wrong;
- hope for his best;
- laugh as much as possible;
- go easy on yourself;
- cooperate on your own terms;
- make small improvements, in order to increase your sense of efficacy;
- politely request to be treated as you prefer (because he might do it);
- mildly retaliate;
- take a public stand to uphold your or other people’s rights (e.g., refuse to shake his hand);
- and by all means, be understanding of different coping styles to better cooperate in holding the guy accountable.
Besides that, James notes strategies for decreasing the suitableness of our political and cultural environment for the proliferation of further assholes. For that, he suggests supporting “moral and civic education,” encouraging students to pursue life’s of service rather than just profit maximization, a general countering of the “greed is good,” Capitalist system. The final two chapters of the book uses general tools of political theory to argue that we need a renewed commitment to social life based on mutual respect — the kind of respect that assholes deny others. He affirms the need for the type of Republicanism for which Philip Pettit argues, one in which the development of a common reason is facilitated and the constitutional and respectful norms of communication and recognition are affirmed. In all this he is getting at some of the questions of how we make the ground less fertile for the success of someone like Trump to begin with.
I wholeheartedly support James’ focus on these issues here. In doing these things, he seems to me, however, to be moving far beyond the analysis of assholology. He thus perhaps here does more than he intends or claims to do.
The analysis of Trump and Trumpisism with the tools of assholology is perhaps cathartic. It sheds some light. But in the end, the tools are just not strong enough. Trump is an asshole of course. But he’s so much more than that, that to criticize him from that perspective alone is an insult to assholes everywhere.