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A**holes: A Theory of Donald Trump

John Peeler: Trump is a particular type of asshole: an ass-clown, who “seeks an audience’s enjoyment while being slow to understand how it views him.” Indeed, given his exaggerated or inflamed need to be superior, he is a flaming asshole.

Aaron James, Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of California at Irvine is the author of the 2012 best-seller, Assholes: A Theory. This new volume was precipitated, as he puts it, by a “philosophical emergency.”

Donald Trump Asshole

A**holes: A Theory of Donald Trump—John Peeler

The emergency is Trump; this book is an exercise in applied philosophy based on the earlier, more abstract analysis. He doesn’t ask whether Trump is an asshole: on that there is already consensus. “Indeed, to many of his supporters, this may be his primary selling point.”

“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.”History’s great assholes, including Napoleon, Cecil Rhodes, and Dick Cheney, often had a “thick sense of moral grandiosity,” while Trump produces only thin rationalizations of his sense of entitlement (e.g., “I’m a winner, you’re a loser”).

Trump is a particular type of asshole: an ass-clown, who “seeks an audience’s enjoyment while being slow to understand how it views him.” Indeed, given his exaggerated or inflamed need to be superior, he is a flaming asshole.

Trump is a particular type of asshole: an ass-clown, who “seeks an audience’s enjoyment while being slow to understand how it views him.” Indeed, given his exaggerated or inflamed need to be superior, he is a flaming asshole.

As with all serious philosophical argument, James’ summary of his theory of Trump merits close reading because of the complexity of the subject:

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There is no “real” Trump, in my view. I’m suggesting a thin theory of the man: he’s a showman, a cutdown master, an ass-clown, civically oblivious, a sexist, a racist, a xenophobe, a partial ignoramus, an authoritarian, a demagogue, a threat to the Republic, and an asshole all at once. Being an asshole, per se, might not even be his worst flaw. Maybe, in a world suffused with bullshit, it’s hard to get through without being an asshole to some extent. Trump’s worst flaw could lie in his sexism, his racism, his naked self-servingness, or his destructive potential. But however we weigh his vices, his multiplicity explains his success and his enormity as an asshole.

Trump has been popular as an asshole because he has articulated popular grievances against what James calls asshole capitalism, where political connections let some get rich while others are left behind. Who better to get a handle on the abuses of asshole capitalism than the Asshole in Chief?

Penetrating as James’ probe of assholes is, his thrust about how we can get back to a virtuous republic is flabby. He essentially equates Rousseau’s Social Contract with the ideal of American democracy. But Rousseau flatly rejected both representation and limited government, which are fundamental to modern democracy. Rousseau depended on a citizenry dedicated exclusively to the common good, and that citizenry was to have absolute authority. Anyone who sought their own private good (that is, assholes) could be “forced to be free.” And if all citizens, instead of seeking the common good, were assholes, then Rousseau falls back on the all-powerful Legislator to impose the common good, against the common will. But Rousseau didn’t consider that the Legislator could be an asshole too.

If we consult James Madison in The Federalist, American democracy was founded on two quite different propositions: first, that anyone can be an asshole, and second, that therefore we need checks and balances among the assholes to keep them from doing too much damage. So maybe Trump’s followers have clamped onto something.

Notwithstanding this less-than-solid conclusion, this short volume is a major contribution to assholeology, and points the way to deeper penetration of the subject. Recommended for all adult readers, whatever their level of assholism.

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John Peeler

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