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.