By Aaron James
Cable news has created an entirely new breed of blowhards — and the style has infected banking and even the arts.
The following is an excerpt from “Assholes: A Theory” by Aaron James. Reprinted with permission from Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc.
Assholes largely share a thick sense of moral entitlement. Just as hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue, late 19th and early 20th century businessmen like Cecil Rhodes, Albert Beveridge and John D. Rockefeller all felt a need to invoke entitlement on a cosmic scale, in effect sensing that something might be majorly amiss. In stark contrast with the grandiose reasoning of the era of colonialism, the asshole in more recent modern life often requires little or no pretext of larger cause for the special privileges he feels entitled to enjoy.
He will usually have some sort of rationalization ready at hand — he is not the psychopath who rejects moral concepts altogether — but the rationalizations are becoming ever thinner, ever more difficult to identify. This newer, purer style of asshole often just presumes he should enjoy special privileges in social life as a matter of course and so requires little by way of reason for taking them as the opportunity arises.
The older style of asshole is comparatively easy to sort into types, according to their different thick entitlements. To the extent we can identify a definite moral outlook and confidently reject it as wrong, we can even take comfort in our sense of clarity about how the asshole goes awry. The newer style of asshole is more disquieting because he is harder to pin down. His thinned-out and shifting rationalizations won’t necessarily settle into any particular sustained moral perspective that we can confidently identify and challenge as wrong.
Instead, his sense of entitlement is mainly identifiable in functional terms, as the stable disposition to come up with some such rationalizations or other, as the situation requires. Because the newer breed of asshole is harder to pin down, we will pay even greater attention to the details of our exemplars, if only to illustrate that there is indeed a newer, thinner, and purer asshole style. (And, again, where you don’t share my moral and political opinions, you might think of different examples of the same general type.)
Earlier assholes presented examples of self-aggrandizement in the name of a larger moral cause. The newer style of self-aggrandizing asshole needs little or no such pretext.
Donald Trump plainly likes being on the air. He is convincingly portrayed as an asshole in the documentary “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?” (answer: Trump, as one man’s greed and ego brought down a whole sports league). Lately, however, Trump has become something closer to a media buffoon—except that he does not seem to be joking. Like Falwell, Trump believes there is something important in his appearing and reappearing in the news and on TV, without betraying any sense that a lot of us have a hard time seeing what that important something would be.
In Trump’s defense, it may be said that he is merely an “ass-clown” or, still more charitably, an elder master of the attention-getting game now played daily by the Facebook youth. He may in that regard seem a role model, an accomplished media entrepreneur, and while this isn’t quite a public service, it is at least the kind of thing modern society loves. In a culture of narcissism, you don’t need any special reason to lay claim to the attention of others; you simply get attention as you can, as anyone else of course would (“if you don’t flaunt it, you don’t got it,” to reverse a familiar saying).
On the other hand, if we find our current zeitgeist mistaken, on the grounds that laying claim to the attention of others does require good enough reasons — whether for the sake of modesty or just for the sake of not adding to the deafening contemporary media noise machine — then we can view narcissistic attention seeking as a way of acting like an asshole. Our narcissistic age thus might help explain why assholes seem to be everywhere of late.