Donald Trump’s detractors often find his success mystifying. How, they wonder, could America have elected a candidate who made lewd remarks about women, mocked a disabled reporter and said he’d like to punch a protester in the face?
Even President Trump’s most devoted fans acknowledge that his personal style can be abrasive and rude.
Philosopher Aaron James says there’s a word for people like that: "a--hole." But while James is almost certainly not the first person (and unlikely to be the last) to use such language about the president, he doesn’t mean it the way you think.
In 2012, James, who teaches at the University of California, Irvine, developed a widely read, rational political philosophy of a--holes. His new companion volume, “Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump,” places the president firmly in the typology. But rather than viewing his behavior as a liability, James says “a--holery is a big part of Donald Trump’s appeal,” perhaps even a key reason he was elected.
Could being an a--hole also make President Trump politically effective?
Why do you call President Trump an a--hole?
Because he fits the theory perfectly. He takes special advantages right and left, he violates social norms and expectations on a weekly or daily basis, and he produces pretty thin rationalizations on the fly in a defensive way. He’s unwilling to listen to objections and feels indignant and that they're unfair.
How has this personality style contributed to his success?
He frames everything as a domination game, a contest for status and victory. And he's become extremely good at winning these status contests.
He successfully tops his opponents by breaking all kinds of conversational rules, using insults, posturing, deception, lying or "BS-ing," gaslighting, destabilizing the confidence of the other person, or even switching personas. These are all tactics for winning a social exchange, and he’s become very successful at using them in an entertaining way.
Isn’t this part of his appeal? That he's politically incorrect and will say things establishment politicians never would?
Some of his supporters might disagree that he’s an a-word, but I think that’s definitely part of his appeal. A lot of people think that in these dire circumstances, when we have a society that's in decline or when the idea of America is slipping away from us, and when we have a political system that's chock-full of a-words competing against each other, then what we really need is a top dog a--hole.
An alpha a--hole?
An alpha a--hole, to bring order to the chaos. People who feel like their prominence or authority in the culture is slipping away, feel that Trump is restoring the old order. [His behavior] is a power move, a display of dominance and a rejection of accountability, and that's the point of it. It makes him attractive to those supporters because it affirms what they see as their rightful authority.
Are you saying there are benefits to being an a--hole?
In life, a certain number of a-words do get ahead this way. It can work to get rich or get power. It's actually a pretty difficult thing to do, it takes a very special set of social skills and a certain kind of shamelessness that most people can't muster.
What about in politics?
It can work under certain circumstances. Richard Nixon explained that his brash tactics were partly responsible for his rise to power. He said that he felt he didn't have anything to lose, so he could take risks and do things that seemed unacceptable. And then it kept paying off, so that’s how he won the presidency. But then he kept on doing it while he was in office. He said it was sort of fascinating, almost titillating, to keep walking the line and to see how close he could get without falling over. Of course, things eventually fell apart for Nixon, but in temperament, he was amazingly similar to Trump.
Is it possible that President Trump could use some of his controversial personal qualities for the greater good?
The a--hole can be a cause for good. Steve Jobs was an a-word but we love his contributions — his gadgets — and forgive him for his flaws. When this happens, it's usually just by luck, because circumstances are in alignment and the a-holery happens to work out. But the things that Trump’s supporters hope for could, theoretically, pan out.
Does it have to be luck? You have a chapter on a--hole management, a concept derived from Thomas Hobbes?
Hobbes thinks you just have to accept the a-word sovereign, for the sake of order, and that there’s nothing you can do to hold him or her accountable. But in a more democratic society, you need institutions or techniques for a-word management. A--holes are part of the human social condition. You can’t eliminate them. The problem is keeping the a-word population at bay, through education, so it doesn't explode out of control. That’s the big risk: Now that being an a-word seems to work, kids and families are getting the message that this is how to get ahead in life.
Forget civility and cooperation and playing by the rules; just figure out how to evade the rules and get away with it. It’s the “greed is good” style of capitalism. There’s a real risk of civility and cooperative ethos losing out, and I don’t think there’s an easy way to solve that problem.
You use the analogy of saving a marriage to describe how Americans on both sides of the aisle might approach a Trump presidency?
Yeah, I was thinking about a basic problem that's behind the rise of Trump, which is the prominence of contempt in our society. The right sees the left as smug and constantly self-correcting, superior and self-righteous; the left sees the right as displaying contempt for minorities and immigrants, or for reason or facts. And so there's this feeling of contempt all around, along with the willingness to voice it in a way that’ll please your tribe. Once our democratic norms have devolved to the extent they have, there’s no simple fix. It comes down to the hearts and minds of each individual citizen, to get over the contempt we feel for people not part of our tribe.
And how well would you say you’re doing at that, given that you’ve just published a book calling the president an a--hole?
I feel like I bent over backward in the book to show respect for Trump supporters, if only by giving the best possible intellectual justification I could for their views. I also dedicate the book to my fiancee's family, which has Trump supporters, and I end it with a dialogue I had with her father — who is a Trump supporter — this respectful dialogue we had about Trump’s merits.
What does your Trump-supporting family think of your book?
Oh, they love it! They're happy with it, there's no problem there.
This conversation was originally published by To the Best of Our Knowledge. It has been condensed from the radio version and edited for clarity.