What Does it Take to be an Asshole?

One Professor Explores His Theory on Donald Trump

By Summer Wong

As a passionate follower of politics, when I learned a philosophy professor on campus had written an entire book on the theory behind Donald Trump’s success, I immediately became intrigued. It was interesting understanding how Professor James integrates politics to concepts that affect our daily lives, such as “asshole management,” as he calls it. Since no one is immune to the asshole, we might as well know how to deal with them, especially in this crazy election season.

Everyone has dealt with their share of assholes, whether it is the person who has absolutely no filter, or the person who insists on raining on everybody’s parade. Maybe it’s the guy who told me the other day that he’d never trust a woman with his health. It might even be the person in Brandywine Commons who skips the mile-long line to get the single hamburger lying on the counter. However, to Professor Aaron James, a professor of ethics and political philosophy at UC Irvine, the definition is not entirely black and white.  

“The asshole is the guy who systematically helps himself to special advantages in cooperative life, out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people,” Professor James says.

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Graphic courtesy of Ashley Ono

For James, the assholes are the individuals who cut in line without an emergency, the unhandicapped people who park in the handicapped spaces, and the men and women who scream on the phone in the middle of a public area. Their sense of entitlement to certain privileges allows them justify their actions. In a collective society that requires its members to act cooperatively with each other, assholes disturb the peace by deciding to act according to their own rules without respect for the people around them.

Assholes: A Theory, Professor’s James’ first book, outlines what it means to be an asshole, illustrating the many types of assholes that exist as well as issues with asshole management, while also connecting it to what he identifies as “asshole capitalist” social systems, a system in which individuals like Donald Trump are able to shamelessly say and do whatever it takes to win.

Understanding assholes helps us devise methods of dealing with them and the tough predicaments they put us through. Applying asshole management skills could be beneficial, since a lot of social, economic, and political problems stem from dealing with individuals like Donald Trump. The book sheds light on the human social condition in an era of rampant egos and a political system that has grown out of control. Professor James integrates the key concepts in his book in his political philosophy classes as a supplement to his course readings. Assholes: the Theory of Donald Trump is the next book in the series and applies this concept specifically to Donald Trump’s seemingly unfounded political success in the 2016 presidential elections.

“The best argument in his favor is that he’ll bring order to our corrupt political system.  I respect this argument – roughly that of the great philosopher Thomas Hobbes.  But I think Trump will in fact bring disorder, and that his election would create profound risks for the delicate cooperation that preserves our democratic republic.  The book tries to make that argument.”

James first had the idea for the theory while surfing. One day, he observed a guy blatantly break the rules of right-of-way. Thereafter, James  became a repository of asshole knowledge by accident during a stint at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, at Stanford University. He later wrote the first book because it seemed like both an interesting challenge and a potential service to people who also feel slighted by assholes.

“I would never have guessed I’d eventually write a book about Trump.  His stunning rise in politics did fit into the framework of the earlier book nicely.  It also raises problems that I didn’t address before, about our political system, the degree to which we forgive assholes who we think will be a force for good, and the foundations of authority in a republican democracy.  The book develops those themes further.”

The subject offers a way of connecting  real philosophy with novel proposals, but written for and with people of the general public in mind, without the usual academic preoccupations and pretenses.  This, for Professor James, is fun, and hopefully of service.