A Note on the Political Circus

In a column last month I discussed Aaron James’s Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump with no expectation of writing about the book again, despite my nagging awareness of having neglected an interesting distinction the author makes. But in working through the articles accumulating in my reading queue, I noticed this morning that the specific aspect of assholery in question has recently been identified, if not labeled, at Talking Points Memo.

The occasion, as almost goes without saying, was Trump’s cross-country grievance marathon in the matter of Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe winner, who he not only gave demeaning nicknames but also made a special point of humiliating about her weight on television some twenty years ago. Such behavior is entirely typical of him, which was Clinton’s point in mentioning it during the debate. And Trump’s refusal to apologize — or to express the slightest embarrassment about it — rounds out his exemplary status, per James’s definition, as an asshole: someone “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.” James gives as instances of the asshole someone who nonchalantly and without apology cuts in line or lights up a cigar in an elevator. In either case, the asshole remains “unmoved when people indignantly glare or complain.”

I’m not sure “immunity” is the best word for what James has in mind, since he goes on to note that the asshole “will often feel indignant when questions about his conduct are raised,” because “from his point of view … he is not getting the respect he deserves.” That, of course, is just what Trump spent much of last week doing. At TPM, Josh Marshall wrote:

“By Wednesday night, in his appearance on O’Reilly, he started the show off with a lengthy monologue attacking Machado. Far from mistreating her, he said, he’d saved her job; he’d given her the opportunity to lose weight (yes, this is a fair characterization of his words). And this was the thanks he got!”

He then quotes evidence from the transcript, though nobody who’s been paying attention would doubt his paraphrase. So on to the paragraph where Marshall verges on the insight available from asshole studies. Trump’s indignation amounted, as Marshall puts it, to

“what we might term ‘stand-up narcissism’, a demonstration of a personality defect so profound and total that it becomes comedic in a way that makes a decent run at transcending its own awfulness. His self-regard and conscienceless-ness is so total that it is beyond him to realize that his ‘a good deed never goes unpunished’ lament doesn’t make him look like a chauvinist asshole so much as a clownish version of a chauvinist asshole. It so perfectly mirrors Trump’s self-immolation with the Khans that it’s hard to believe the Clinton staffers who planned this could have imagined it would work so well.”
(Marshall is probably wrong on that last point, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if it turns out the Clinton people had a pool for bets on how many times @realDonaldTrump would tweet about it.)
The reference to Trump’s seeming inability to understand “that his ‘a good deed never goes unpunished’ lament doesn’t make him look like a chauvinist asshole so much as a clownish version of a chauvinist asshole” converges with James’s discussion of another character-type:the ass-clown, “who seeks an audience’s attention and enjoyment while being slow to understand how it views him.” Elaborating:
“The ass, among types of persons, is slow to understanding. Perhaps he’s dull, stubborn, entrenched in his position, or just plain stupid. The clown, by contrast, seeks to entertain an audience with playful pretending or comedic exaggeration, with sharp sensitivity to what others find amusing or delightful or shocking. Putting these two types together, there is such a person as an ass-clown….As one definition puts it, [the ass-clown] is a person who is ‘inept or ill-behaved to the point of being found laughable by others’ or ‘who uses his/ her nature as an ass to bring humor to others, buts [sic] ends up being the butt of the joke.’”
Similarity in nomenclature notwithstanding, the difference between asshole and ass-clown is considerable. James clarifies it by contrasting how they would behave at a party — the social and not the political sort. An ass-clown might dance on a table with his pants on his head; the asshole would pick a fight or pee on the couch, possibly both. I take it party-goers would be amused precisely by how hard the ass-clown is trying to be entertaining while missing the mark, while feeling contempt or anger, at best, towards the asshole. As examples from a different sort of party, James identifies Newt Gingrich as a political asshole, while Sarah Palin is, arguably, an ass-clown.
The Republican presidential nominee is something else again, and James’s taxonomy has to be modified:
“The asshole/ass-clown uses his ass-clown powers for asshole purposes. He soils or sours or degrades the party for reasons of his own entitlement (e.g., being entitled to the absolute center of attention, on account of being rich, or beautiful— in case there’s a difference). He stages an entertaining spectacle, dancing on a table with his pants on his head, and then urinates on the carpet when people aren’t paying enough attention to him.”
Sounds about right.

New Year’s Resolution (Belated)

After writing my weekly column and responding to whatever the hard-working and eagle-eyed editors have queried about, I seldom think about it again, and within a few days just barely remember what I said. It is largely a matter of needing to get the brain oriented to whatever is next in the queue, though narrowing mental bandwidth is probably a factor as well. (Six of one and a half dozen of the other.) In consequence, I have been lackadaisical at best about “pushing” the work, i.e. meeting the obligation to wrangle attention for it by any social-mediated means necessary.

In consequence, the column reaches a readership much smaller than the one imagined while writing it. This is frustrating to realize, as is the fact it’s really my own fault. The trouble with self-promotion is that you can’t count on anyone doing it for you. Neglect becomes habit, and habits tend to build up more momentum than one’s better judgment.

Over the years, a handful of online publications have asked to reprint one column or another. Among them have been Arts & Opinion, Red Wedge, and Socialist Worker, while my influence on the federal judiciary reached its all-time peak with a recent issue of Postconviction Remedies Note: A Quarterly Review of Federal Postconviction Review Issues. Certain very minimal stipulations are made (if you’d like to reprint something, don’t hesitate to ask) but in general I’m inclined to give permission.

Counter-Statement has, at present, an audience in roughly the high one digit — so this announcement is made almost as if to the void. But you’ve got to start somewhere. My long-nurtured aversion to writing for free has become a fetter on the forces of production, and it seems like time to break up a certain number of habits.

And with that now resolved… Here’s a reprint of my piece on Terry Eagleton’s most recent book.

 

The Tedium is the Message

The months ahead are going to be a strain. Everything about Trump is already much too familiar. The candidate’s voice — with its boundless confidence, ignorance, and self-celebration — is practically inescapable. I hear it when reading his words on the page, along with the sound of my teeth grinding.

It’s possible to refuse to listen, or to read the news, of course, but only at the cost of deliberately avoiding reality. And deliberately avoiding reality is exactly the problem: The regressive force of Trump’s candidacy derives from his ability to get others to join him in a Walter Mitty fantasy where all problems have already been effectively solved by his “excellent brain” (which is, after all, uncontaminated by second-hand information or first-hand experience).

Authoritarianism, even reactionary authoritarianism, usually exhibits a certain level of dynamism. And so it is with Trump, if only because the mob energy his speeches generate also recharges the candidate’s own batteries. The content of his message is another matter: the candidate’s brain, however excellent, is no perpetual motion machine. Having labored to bring forth “the wall” and “the ban,” it seems to have retired to a golf course last year and remains there, recovering from exhaustion. No new thought ever burdens the audience at one of his rallies. On the rare occasion he says something not already bellowed into the public arena repeatedly, it tends to be either a blatant lie on some familiar theme or a snarl of derision at whoever has called him on a previous, no less blatant lie. He sticks to what he knows.

Won’t his following tire of it eventually? That’s the only possible grounds for hope, and it’s slim. (Pointing out that giving Trump executive power is like handing a loaded handgun to a preschooler won’t do it; he draws the kind of people who believe school shootings will end once the kindergarteners are armed.) Nor has the situation become numbing over time. The only prospect more grim than that of enduring five more months of it is the nightmarish realization that he could win.

Begin, Again

4af5f027048535.5604fb6ed3020Saturday morning and I’m at Caffe Medici on the Drag, the spot that would be my de facto office if I lived in Austin. Not a vacation — I’ve been doing research at the library and will need to shift gears before long to work on my column for next week. At the moment, though, it seems like an occasion to do something with Counter-Statement, which I set up a couple of months ago and have left to the gnawing of the digital mice ever since. Still no routine with Quick Study, but at least there have been a few posts there over the same period.

Then again, the almost complete absence of an audience has its advantages. Apart from the column, I’ve done very little work for publication over the past few years, though public speaking has taken up a bit of the slack. I’ve been as negligent as ever in promoting the column. In short, my sense of being involved in an essentially public activity has, if not necessarily declined, at any rate mutated. With the column and when at the podium, I have a reasonably clear sense of who’s paying attention, with the corresponding rewards of paycheck and applause. But otherwise, it’s been writing for the drawer (notebooks on reading, mostly) and for ghosts, since a number of readers who were important to me are now departed.

This is not a complaint, just a reckoning with circumstances that serve, only too readily, to rationalize hesitation and uncertainty about how to continue. (For “to continue,” read “to start again,” since it always comes down to that.) But the difference between reticence and sloth is partly one of degree, and anyway, “On s’engage et puis… on voit.”

 

 

 

A Contribution to the Critique of the Disillusioned Perspective

“The disillusioned perspective distinguishes continually between faith and reality, between life as we want it to be and life as it actually is — for it is faith that joins us together with our undertakings and with the world, faith that accords them value. Without faith, no value. That’s why so many people find the disillusioned perspective so provoking: It lacks faith, sees only the phenomenon itself, while faith, which in a sense is always also illusion, for most people is the very point, the profoundest meaning. To the disillusioned, morals, for instance, are not so much a question of right or wrong as of fear. But try telling that to the moral individual.”

Karl Ive Knausgård, review of Michel Houellebecq, Submission

The (Original) War on Christmas

Let’s not permit the sideshow in Tennessee — where, pretty much on cue, politicians have been waxing indignant over the call for “inclusive holiday celebrations” at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville — distract us from the real war on Christmas: the one nobody at Fox News wants discussed.

Continue reading “The (Original) War on Christmas”