Matthew Meyer on a book that charts the rise of the American asshole.
Almost everyone now knows that Donald Trump is an asshole. Much to his credit, Aaron James pointed this out in Assholes: A Theory (Anchor Books 2012) well before Trump took center stage in American politics. In his new book, James sets out to develop this idea in greater detail. According to the back cover, the book does not ask whether Trump is an asshole. This much is assumed. Instead, it raises the further question: What sort of asshole is Trump? As such, the book is presented as a contribution to what the author calls “assholeology”.
Readers will quickly learn that the book covers much more than this. Only the introduction and the first chapter are, properly speaking, exercises in assholeology. Even the first chapter, “The Ass-Clown and Asshole”, is more about offering a general theory of Trump’s person than a strict examination of his assholery, and the final three chapters not only ask whether having an asshole like Trump for president is a “sound proposition”, they also point to the larger problem of what James calls “asshole political capitalism”.
James begins the work by recapping the definition of the asshole he developed in his first book. On this view, the asshole has three essential features: First, he – James notes that assholes are mostly men – “allows himself special advantages in social relationships in a systematic way”; second, he is “motivated by an entrenched (and mistaken) sense of entitlement”; and third, he is “immunized against the complaints of other people”. Although James presents these as three separate yet equal features of the asshole, the entrenched sense of entitlement seems to be the causal mechanism behind the asshole’s systematic privileging of himself as well as his immunity to the criticisms of others. So understood, an asshole might simply be someone with an entrenched sense of entitlement.
James claims that Trump is – like Ted Cruz – an asshole in this sense, but “being an ass-clown is Trump’s distinctive style of assholery”. According to James, the ass-clown “is someone who seeks an audience’s attention and enjoyment while being slow to understand how it views him”. Much like a man who chases women to flatter his own ego, Trump chases the electorate “to affirm his worth by being seen as powerful, the center of attention”. To win the affections of this lover, Trump must become a showman. Like a clown, he seeks to entertain, but like an ass, Trump fails to understand that he is the clown. For these reasons, James classifies Trump as an ass-clown.
Although there are good reasons for thinking that Trump is an asshole so defined, two aspects of James’ analysis seem to conflict with this generally agreed upon premise. First, despite the common term “ass”, ass-clowns and assholes appear to be distinct and mutually exclusive types. Whereas the asshole’s immunity to criticism implies that he has little concern for the opinion of others, the ass-clown seeks the affection of others and so seems to lack the asshole’s innate sense that he is something special. Second, James eventually backpedals on his promise – implicit in the title – to offer “a theory of Donald Trump”. Because Trump is so many things – showman, bullshitter, racist, sexist, civically oblivious, authoritarian, demagogue – James concludes that there is no “real” Trump. But if there is no “real” Trump, Trump cannot really be an asshole. In contrast, the various aspects of Trump’s person that James identifies seem to be explained by a single fact: he really is an asshole!
Chapter two, “A Force for Good?”, raises the question of whether an asshole like Trump is really good for our democracy, and James presents the interesting thesis that many value Trump as an über-asshole capable of managing all the other assholes – like Ted Cruz and Chris Christie – that inhabit the political sphere. Nevertheless, James proceeds to claim in chapter three, “The Strongman”, that an asshole president “will only further unravel the soft fabric of cooperation upon which our experiment is premised”, and he devotes the final chapter, “Saving the Marriage”, to exploring ways that we might rescue our democracy from the proliferation of assholes.
There is much in James’ work that will interest the philosophically inclined reader, and he should be applauded for bringing philosophical theories to bear directly on contemporary issues. However, readers may question some of the specific moves James makes along the way. For instance, he often appeals to Hobbes and Rousseau to unpack a number of his ideas but in ways that do not always fit his argument. On the one hand, James claims that the aforementioned “strategy of asshole management” can be traced back to Hobbes. However, there seems to be an important difference between a proto-fascist über-asshole and Hobbes’ absolute sovereign: whereas the former rises to power by crushing opposition and promising benefits to a certain in-group of supporters at the expense of others, the latter is largely established through a consensual and mutual transfer of rights for the benefit of all.
On the other hand, James’ claim that the asshole suffers from an inflamed sense of Rousseau’s amour-propre seems to be misguided. Whereas amour-propre instils in us a burning desire to appear well and be regarded as superior in the eyes of others, the asshole, again, is not particularly concerned with how others regard him. This is because he recognises himself as superior and treats others accordingly. If anyone suffers from amour-propre in James’ analysis, it seems to be the non-asshole who resents the way in which the asshole refuses to recognise him or her as a person worthy of equal respect.
In the end, there is much to be said for a central thesis that runs throughout the final chapters of James’ work: the ethos of capitalism breeds a culture of assholes that, in turn, threatens the moral and social fabric essential to a healthy democracy and a well-functioning economy. Nevertheless, Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump is a work written quickly for a popular audience in response to current events, and so the aforementioned thesis deserves more serious reflection than this book provides. Although James covers some of this ground in his first book and I encourage interested readers to consult it, the history of philosophy may have more to say about the asshole than James’ writings thus far suggest. Critical treatments of asshole-like psychologies by Plato – the tyrant of Republic IX – and Aristotle – improper self-love in the Nicomachean Ethics – as well as arguably more positive assessments by Hume – “Greatness of Mind” in A Treatise of Human Nature – and Nietzsche – the “nobles” of the first essay of On the Genealogy of Morality – immediately come to mind, and we would do well to turn to these resources in thinking about assholes more generally and the ever-increasing threat that one particular asshole poses to our democracy.
The rise of the American asshole is a serious issue, and we should not only thank James for drawing our attention to it, but also hope that his most recent work stimulates further conversation among both philosophers and the broader public alike.
MATTHEW MEYER IS ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SCRANTON. HE IS THE AUTHOR OF THE RECENTLY PUBLISHED READING NIETZSCHE THROUGH THE ANCIENTS (DE GRUYTER).