Review of Aaron James’ “Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump”

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

If you are interested in knowing about assholes, [philosophy professor] Aaron James is your man. In the rather new and thin study of asshology, James has emerged as the leading voice. His Assholes: A Theory was a New York Times bestseller in 2012Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump is his more recent sequel …

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 asshology alone does not provide adequate tools for analyzing the unfittness 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 asshology can get us in political analysis of Trump or Trumpism, it fails to clearly enough consider 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 largely leaves aside the analysis of what in the United States has led 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 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 straightforward assholes like Ted Cruz, Dick Cheney and Newt 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 asshology. 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 the 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 too little about the well-being of many Americans and focuses on what is advantageous for a very small number of Americans because he is neither curious about the world around him nor informed about it. A study of asshology 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 too 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 (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Centuryand Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblat (How Democracies Die) 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:

  1. avoid the asshole if you can;
  2. accept that he probably won’t listen or change;
  3. affirm your worth by calling a wrong a wrong;
  4. hope for his best;
  5. laugh as much as possible;
  6. go easy on yourself;
  7. cooperate on your own terms;
  8. make small improvements, in order to increase your sense of efficacy;
  9. politely request to be treated as you prefer (because he might do it);
  10. mildly retaliate;
  11. take a public stand to uphold your or other people’s rights (e.g., refuse to shake his hand);
  12. 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 lives of service rather than just profit maximization, a general countering of the “greed is good,” capitalist system. The final two chapters of the book use 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.

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 asshology. He thus perhaps here does more than he intends or claims to do.

The analysis of Trump and Trumpisism with the tools of asshology is perhaps cathartic. It sheds some light. But 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.

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4 thoughts on “Review of Aaron James’ “Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump”

  1. “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.”

    Is Trump an asshole?:
    Is the Pope a Catholic? Does a bear shit in the woods?

    “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.”

    Bill Clinton as in a Greek Tragedy, became himself. Clinton emulated JFK:: and became similar to JFK in certain ways. Yet Clinton’s only real flaw (as a President) was his becoming over-confident. He thought he could brazen-out the Paula Jones lawsuit.. and lost the gamble.

    Obama is the diametric opposite of Trump, which is what makes the time we live in so surreal. To go from LBJ to Nixon was not–and I remember it well–very strange.
    To transfer from the poise of Obama to the assholeishness of Trump is what is truly shocking. It was not all that surprising that Trump won the election of 2016– Arnold Schwarzenegger winning the governorship of California was a harbinger of what was to come on a national scale.
    Schwarzenegger’s claim to fame was that he starred in gore-saturated Hollywood films. Trump’s presidency is merely a larger budget horror movie than The Terminator.
    So far.

    “and Newt Gingrich, perhaps the father of assholes in contemporary U.S. politics.”

    Gingrich was a techno-asshole, as well. He wanted to colonize space– undoubtedly with assholes much like himself.

  2. I enjoyed your analysis John.
    Re; previous comment: Trump is not a horror ‘movie’
    He is real life horror.

    What is most dangerous in so far as he’ll be able to institutionalise such real horror
    e.g. through appointing horror judges.

    Why don’t you Americans go out to the streets to have a mother of all national strikes and revolutions until the Trump’s presidency collapses?

  3. agree with everything you say Andris. Many Americans are appalled but 40% of the country is taken in by his fascism. If I didn’t have children and grandchildren I’d leave the country.

  4. “Re; previous comment: Trump is not a horror ‘movie’
    He is real life horror.”

    Your correction is correct.
    Again, the true horror of it IMO was not so much that Trump was elected, be it so horrifying. The horror was to go from Obama to Trump; a wrenching change. Say if Trump had succeeded Bush in 2009, the transition would not have seemed so shocking. And I’m still in a state of shock because after one and a half years, the transition is ongoing.

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