Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump is philosopher Aaron James’ recent addition to what I can only hope may become an expanding interdisciplinary locus of academia: Trump Theory. One can easily imagine a section of one’s bookshelf crammed with the works of linguists, psychologists, feminists, historians, and clown instructors who have focused their various pet theories on this particularly bountiful case study. It is the timely follow-up to James’ bestselling Assholes: A Theory, which I must confess to having not read (but feel comfortable recommending nonetheless). With that book, a sort of field guide to assholes and their various taxonomies and environments, James proclaimed himself to be at the very forefront of assholeology (his word, not mine). Now he is using his position of prominence in this burgeoning field to focus not on Asshole Theory in general, but rather on locating the singular human anus that is Donald Trump, and the strength he derives from being said human anus, within the taxonomical framework of James’ foundational text. Of course, as James freely admits, The Donald’s unholy power comes from more than just his assholiness, but James explains, with gentle humor and depressing insight, the necessary lift this odious, callow blowhard derives from being the ineluctable quintessence of a solid gold asshole.
What, you may ask, exactly is an asshole? How does it differ from a jerk, a dickweed, or an ass-hat? Like any responsible philosopher, James begins by defining terms. According to James, an asshole must meet three criteria:
“He allows himself special advantages in social relationships, and does so systematically;”
“He’s motivated by an entrenched (and mistaken) sense of entitlement;”
“He’s immunized against the complaints of other people.”
Beyond this description, James spends no effort attempting to prove that Trump is, in fact, an asshole. He accepts this as a sort of first principle and moves on to figuring out which category of asshole best encompasses The Donald. In case you were wondering, Trump exhibits aspects of multiple asshole phenotypes, but “Trump’s distinctive style of assholery” is primarily that of an ass-clown. This is defined as someone who enjoys being the center of attention, but somehow isn’t in on how he or she is being viewed – basically, a clown who isn’t in on the joke he’s telling. Being an ass-clown does not necessarily an asshole make. This is illustrated with the following example. When finding himself ignored at a party, a run-of-the-mill ass-clown might put his pants on his head and dance on the table. An asshole/ass-clown (like Trump), when faced with a similar situation, pees on the couch.
I happen to think Trump is more in on the joke than James gives him credit for, but I also admit that it’s impossible to know exactly what goes on in the mind beneath that “hair.” Still, it’s difficult not to speculate, and James certainly falls into this trap himself, as when he proclaims that there is no “real Trump.” This seems to me to be a completely unknowable assertion. James elaborates:
There is no “real” Trump, in my view. I’m suggesting a thin theory of a man: he’s a showman, a cut-down master, an ass-clown, civically oblivious, a racist, a xenophobe, a partial ignoramus, an authoritarian, a demagogue, a threat to the Republic, and an asshole all at once.
To be fair, James is setting up the important point that Asshole Theory can only explain a sliver of the Trump phenomenon. “Being an asshole, per se, might not even be his worst flaw…but, however we weigh his vices, his multiplicity explains his success and his enormity as an asshole.” Still, James is on sturdier ground when he discusses Trump’s behavior, than when he attempts to psychoanalyze.
A similar problem sneaks into James’s on-the-whole excellent section about Trump as bullshitter. When James says, “He’s not a total bullshitter, because he really does think doing better ‘deals’ would cure many of our problems,” one has to wonder how he could know this. This caveat aside, most of James’ discussion of Trump as bullshitter and Trump as showman is excellent. For example, there’s a great section on how Trump draws one in by being a best friend to any who buy his bullshit, and then starts gaslighting the second one stops. Another standout is his discussion of collective bullshitting versus ideology, which raises a number of interesting questions about whether or not Trump is more or less dangerous than the more articulate bullshitting demagogues to whom he is often compared (Mussolini, Putin, etc.).
A funny thing happened as I read this book; I found myself starting to feel real pity for the ass-clowns of the world. James picks up on this, explaining how Trump’s ass-clownedness acts as a mitigating factor to his assholery, making it more appealing than that of Ted Cruz (whom James uses as a frequent point of contrast). I recalled how endearingly pathetic I found the tape of Trump acting as his own braggadocious publicist. According to James, “We—most of us—really like an ass-clown.”
The biggest flaw in this book is its timing. By not waiting until the conclusion of Trump’s hijacking of American politics, James not only misses the opportunity to discuss any of the vicissitudes of the election that occur after he concluded writing (there are already many), he loses the chance to analyze the essential corollary to Trump’s rise: his fall. He also can only speculate about the cultural impact of this titanic asshole. James is surely aware of this, and his decision to publish now (likely for marketing reasons) may well put him slightly inside his own delineation of a bullshitter.
This may explain why the book goes off the rails a little in its final third, as it attempts to draw its larger conclusions. After a cursory discussion of what James calls “Asshole Capitalism,” a concept he presumably spent more time on in his previous book, but here serves primarily to contradict James’s earlier assertion that Trump lacks a coherent ideology, James goes into a decidedly tangential discussion of how to implement humane globalism. Maybe this is just a strategically placed plug for his book on the subject, Fairness in Practice.
James then goes into a lengthy discourse on the relative merits of an asshole society versus a cooperative society. He structures the discussion as a contrast between Hobbes and Rousseau. Not surprisingly, he comes down on the side of Rousseau. He even finds a silver lining:
By being the clown, as only an ass-clown/asshole would, [Trump] showed up U.S. politics as the circus it had already become. That’s something of a social contribution. Yet only an asshole would have made it, and then only inadvertently.
Will Trump’s lasting impact be a rapprochement between U.S. factions and a return to civility within the American body politic? Aaron James dares to dream, and maybe we all should.
One last point to recommend this book: its size. At 4½ by 6½ inches, it can fit nicely on even the most cluttered of coffee tables. The white book jacket fetchingly features Trump’s jack-o’-lantern head as the “o” in Assholes, making the subject clear from across the room. Also, at 127 miniature pages, it is readable in one lazy afternoon (which is how I ingested it). It can even fit in a generously-proportioned stocking, assuming we still care about Trump after the election (which I feel confident we will).