Category Archives: Politics – Trump & Republicans

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, 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 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) 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:

  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 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 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.

Why Do Conservatives Tolerate Trump?

German soldiers parading through Lübeck in the days leading up to World War I.

© Darrell Arnold– (Reprinted with Permission)

Oh, the times they have a’ changed, but not for the good. As Jonathon Freedland has noted in an opinion piece in the Guardian, the recording released in late July by Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, speaking to Trump about the need to pay hush money to Karen McDougal, would have likely been enough to undo any recent presidency, including Clinton’s. It implicates the president not only in the sordid affair but in possible campaign finance breeches. Yet, the fact is that hardcore Trump supporters are simply unswayed by traditional moral argument. The “moral realm” they inhabit is one in which any act by Trump, however brazen, is justifiable as long as it keeps Democrats out of office — because the greatest moral threat to the country, in their view, comes not from the daily lies, the sexually predatory behavior or even the threat to our global political alliances of the president but from Democratic policies.

Some of them see this great threat to consist in the Democratic Party’s cultural policies, which support gay marriage and abortion, promote equal pay for women, and support diversity in education and the workplace and a more generous immigration policy. Each of these policies is thought to threaten traditional ways of life.

But the hostility extends toward social programs to alleviate the poor, to provide medical care for all, to increase debt relief for students, and to regulate corporations. Insofar as these are connected with tax increases, much of Trump’s base rejects them — even if those tax increases are only for the wealthiest Americans. In the positive light in which Trump supporters see this, their own policy choices reflect the value of self-reliance. Everyone is to take care of themselves. Policies that require solidarity are to be rejected — even if when we look around the world we see that they pay off in higher life expectancies, greater literacy rates, lower infant mortality rates and a host of other quality of life issues.

Much of this is tied to a hyper-masculinity. The cultural policies outlined threaten the dominance of white males in America. The fiscal policies noted require empathy and point to a sense of community responsibility, both of which are rejected by the hyper-masculine, who live in a world where each takes care of himself, and there is no acknowledgement of the social character of the self, but an illusion is cultivated that each of us is self-made, not a product of our own decisions against the backdrop of cultural and social forces that were not of our choosing.

So Trump can do what he wills. He will suffer no repercussions from his staunch base because that base has a quasi-religious ideological entrenchment. When it comes down to it, many of them will chalk up the political dispute to cultural values. Of primary importance to many of them is a cultural war, in which they see themselves as the preserver of traditional values and, as startlingly mad as it may seem, view Trump as the champion of these values. Because Trump at times talks with respect about traditions they value (even while invoking prejudice and sexism), is willing to make promises about them that he cannot keep and fights against a world that makes his base feel uneasy, his greatest sins are forgivable. The Democrats, by contrast, threaten Trump’s base with an openness to new cultural mores and with the support of policies that require, as Obama put it, quoting scripture, that we acknowledge that we are each our brothers (and sisters) keeper.

It does not appear that this will change. In fact, the more frightened the Trump supporters become, and the more who join them in the fear, the less open these voters will be to policies that reflect openness and challenge us to social solidarity.

For now, we find ourselves in a strange, topsy-turvy world where a base strongly supports the least moral president in our lifetime at least in part for reasons that many of them find morally imperative.

How Democracies Die: Trump and American Democracy

Trump’s long-term effect on American democracy: How worried should we be?

Retired mathematics professor Doug Mudar penned the above-named essay Monday on his blog “The Weekly Sift.” Its careful analysis reflects a well-ordered mind schooled by the rigors of earning a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Chicago. Mudar begins with a partial list of just a few of the many things that are concerning about the current regime.

To say the above is banana republic stuff and that Trump is authoritarian and undemocratic is an understatement. Still, the government hasn’t totally collapsed and much of it is fighting back. So how worried should we be? Will we get over Trump or are authoritarianism and dictatorship near? As Mudar notes we don’t need to speculate as the research on this question has been done by Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their new book How Democracies Die.

One of the key findings of this research is that laws, constitutions, and political institutions aren’t enough to protect against autocrats. Instead, democracies only survive if certain norms are respected—for example not denying supreme court nominations a hearing, misusing the filibuster,  shutting down the government or threatening the world economy with debt ceiling brinkmanship. As Mudar puts it:

The Constitution never says that the President can’t order the FBI to investigate the candidate he just defeated, that he can’t tell big whopping lies on a regular basis, or that he has to give the public enough information to judge whether or not he is corrupt. Those aren’t rules, they’re just good practices.

While a list of the norms that Trump violates would fill volumes, Levitsky and Ziblatt point to two essential norms:

  • mutual toleration, “the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals”
  • forbearance, “the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives”

Without these restraints, mutual cooperation if you will, the tit for tat will continue. Mudar offers a poignant example of where this could lead:

The 12th Amendment specifies that the sealed votes of the Electoral College are sent to the President of the Senate, who counts them “in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives.” What if the President of the Senate, with the connivance of majorities in both houses, simply miscounted the votes and proclaimed someone else to be president?

There’s no provision for dealing with that scenario — and with innumerable similar situations — because the Founders never anticipated that our political leaders would go that far. And they wouldn’t. Or would they?

Next Mudar considers that the old model of democratic breakdown, the coup, has been replaced by a newer model. You maintain the outward appearance of democracy but attack voting rights, political rivals, journalists, and media that doesn’t spout the party line. To better explain all this Levitsky and Ziblatt use a soccer analogy to show how an elected president becomes an autocrat:

  • Capture the referees. In other words, get your people in charge of the judiciary, law enforcement, and intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies. Anyone who used to be a neutral arbiter must become your partisan. You can do this in the judiciary, for example, by expanding the size of the Supreme Court and appointing your people to the new positions (as Roosevelt tried to do), or by impeaching judges who rule against you (as the Republican-controlled legislature is trying to do in Pennsylvania). (In North Carolina, the gerrymandered Republican majority in the legislature has done court-packing in reverse: It shrunk the size of the State Court of Appeals to prevent the new Democratic governor from filling the open seats.)
  • Sideline star players on the other side. “Opposition politicians, business leaders who finance the opposition, major media outlets, and … religious or other cultural figures” are “sidelined, hobbled, or bribed into throwing the game.” With the referees already in your pocket, the carrots of government contracts and positions, or the sticks of ruinous regulations, taxes, and prosecutions can hollow out the institutions that otherwise might channel public opinion against you.
  • Rewrite the rules in your favor. We were already seeing a lot of rule-rewriting on the state level prior to Trump: Gerrymandering and voter suppression have locked in large Republican majorities in states (like North Carolina) where the voters are more-or-less evenly split between the parties. In last November’s election in Virginia, Democratic candidates for the House of Delegates won the popular vote 53%-44%, but Republicans maintained a 51-49 majority. Combining a biased legal system with a lifetime ban on felon voting (as in Florida, where the Sentencing Project estimates that 20% of adult blacks can’t vote) can sideline a large chunk of the opposition electorate. In countries like Russia, field-tilting rules make it difficult for new parties to form, for genuine opposition candidates to get on the ballot, or for opposition voices to get their message out.

Once all this has transpired an autocrat can act with impunity without secret police and gulags. Of course, this takes time and while he is corrupting some referees others are standing up to oppose him. We might also get lucky that the aspiring dictator isn’t very talented or adept at taking control—as is the case with Trump. Hopefully, Trump will leave peacefully and we will enact new measures to protect ourselves in the future— forcing candidates to release their tax returns, divest from their companies, etc.

Mudar also gives a warning about a dystopian future:

So far, democracy has been protected by two main forces: The so-called “Deep State” (i.e., career government officials who are more committed to the missions of their organizations than to the orders they receive from the White House) and Trump’s overall unpopularity.

So, for example, career prosecutors — even if they are Republicans — have not been willing to sacrifice their integrity by manufacturing a case against Hillary Clinton, or ignoring evidence against Trump himself, just because he tweets that they should. Career EPA officials are refusing to become pawns of the fossil fuel industry no matter how much Scott Pruitt wants them to. Career economists at the Treasury didn’t concoct a bogus tax-cuts-pay-themselves analysis just because Steve Mnunchin promised they would.

That’s the Deep State in action: It’s not a conspiracy masterminded by some shadowy cabal. It’s the professional integrity of people who believe that their jobs mean more than just a paycheck or their bosses’ approval …

That’s both its strength and its weakness. You can’t kill the Deep State just by finding its leader and bribing, threatening, or imprisoning him or her. But conversely, it has no sense of strategy. It is made up of individuals, and individuals can be worn down. The Deep State has held its own for a little over a year, but can it hold for four years or eight?

But what if Trump got to replace one or two of the liberals on the Supreme Court or his popularity increased? It’s easy to imagine democracy crumbling altogether if:

the economy stays strong, the country avoids any new shooting wars or trade wars, and Trump’s victims — immigrants, Muslims, LGBT people, etc. — remain isolated. Much of the country then starts to say, “What was all that alarmism about?” When Jim Comey or Andrew McCabe winds up in jail, it seems like a one-off case rather than an assault on law enforcement.

Mudar thinks this will all come to a head in 2018. The outcome will depend on many factors including whether Democrats stay united against Trump, regain power despite gerrymandering and start to reestablish democratic norms. It also depends on whether Republicans will come to understand what is at stake and join the resistance or at least not oppose it. Mudar concludes with a chilling warning:

Long term, both parties need to figure out how to strengthen the norms of forbearance and tolerance, which were in trouble long before Trump arrived on the scene. Unless we can re-establish them, getting past Trump will not solve our problems. His failure, if it happens, might simply be a training example for new and better demagogues.

Trump is an Existential Threat

German soldiers parading through Lübeck in the days leading up to World War I.

Here are a few more pieces warning us about our (quite possible) forthcoming doom.

In “Trump is an existential threat — but we can’t give in to pessimism,” Conor Lynch writes that “Donald Trump could fulfill all the most dire prophecies of 20th-century theory.” But he asks us to reject the pessimism of most Frankfurt school theorists and embrace the cautious optimism and socialism of Albert Einstein, Eric Fromm, and Noam Chomsky.

But it is hard to turn our backs on pessimism. As Lynch writes:

the survival of the human race remains very much in doubt. Indeed, one has as much — if not more — reason to be pessimistic about the future of humanity in 2018 as critical theorists did in the 1940s. This is especially true when considering the current state of affairs in America, where the most powerful man in the country seems intent on accelerating humanity’s collective suicide. Donald Trump possesses all of the worst qualities found in humans — greed, ignorance, stupidity, arrogance, impulsiveness, myopic self-interest — and these characteristics have unfortunately flourished in our contemporary society. (The president is, in many ways, a reflection of our consumer capitalist culture.)

In this light consider Trump’s recent boast that his nuclear button was bigger than North Korea’s. In response

John Mecklin, editor-in-chief of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which is known for its “Doomsday Clock,” observed that Trump’s tweets about North Korea are “an existential threat to humanity,” and could “increase the probability that North Korea will misinterpret normal military exercises as an attack and respond with force,” leading to worldwide thermonuclear war and “the end of the human experiment.”

But even if we escape an apocalypse brought about by this unstable man and his minions there is still plenty to fear.

If the president’s insane and impulsive tweeting doesn’t lead to the end of the human experiment, his right-wing policies will certainly help get us there — especially his environmental policies, which will exacerbate the man-made crisis of climate change. Last year, Noam Chomsky called Trump’s Republican Party “the most dangerous organization in world history,” noting that there has never been an organization in human history that is “dedicated, with such commitment, to the destruction of organized human life on Earth.”

Still, Lynch asks us to remain optimistic since only that helps provide the impetus to act to save the world. If we don’t reject pessimism, Lynch argues “the “Doomsday Clock” — currently the closest it has been to midnight since the 1950s — will continue ticking until it is too late.”

And David Frum writes in the Atlantic that this is mostly the fault of the Republicans who enable Trump. In “Donald Trump Goes Full Fredo,” he notes that Trump’s character was well-known before his ascent to power:

Who and what Donald Trump is has been known to everyone and anyone who cared to know for years and decades. Before he was president, he was the country’s leading racist conspiracy theorist. Before he was the country’s leading racist conspiracy theorist, he was a celebrity gameshow host. Before he was a celebrity gameshow host, he was the multi-bankrupt least trusted name in real estate. Before he was the multi-bankrupt least trusted name in real estate, he was the protege of Roy Cohn’s repeatedly accused of ties to organized crime. From the start, Donald Trump was a man of many secrets, but no mysteries. Inscribed indelibly on the public record were the reasons for responsible people to do everything in their power to bar him from the presidency.

But none of this stops those who hope to use him:

What sustains Trump now is the support of people who know what he is, but back him anyway. Republican political elites who know him for what he is, but who back him because they believe they can control and use him; conservative media elites who sense what he is, but who delight in the cultural wars he provokes; rank-and-file conservatives who care more about their grievances and hatreds than the governance of the country …

Michael Wolff has done a crucial service, showing more intimately than any reporter yet the true nature of the man at the center of the American system. But without the complicity of other power-holders, Trump would drop from his central position like a tooth from a rotten gum. What we need to do now is widen the camera angle beyond Fredo Trump to the hard-faced men and women over his shoulders. Those are the people who put Trump where he is, and keep him there, corrupting the institutions of American democracy and troubling the peace and security of the world.

I wish I could do something to change all this, but I cannot. For those who do have the power to stop all this madness, I hope they have the necessary courage.