A Taxonomy of the Ass-Clown: On Donald Trump
Showman, Salesman, and Major Bullshitter
The Ass-Clown and the Asshole
Men who chase women are often intensely interested in How to Attract Hot Chicks. One tip, which some women themselves give, is to keep ’em guessing, to stay mysterious, then to be funny, then a little too cocky, and then nice, but not too nice. Most important, don’t let her pin you down, feel like she’s got your type (“he’s a player,” “nerdy guy,” “all he does is work”), since once she’s got you figured, she may decide she’s not interested in finding out a little more about you (e.g., on a date or in a further text).
The pickup artist risks looking too practiced. Then there’s no special compliment to a woman in the fact that he’s approached her. And maybe he’s too easily categorized: he only wants quick sex, which he’s used to getting, when she’d prefer a three-date courtship. If he’s too “smooth,” way too good at this, she’ll have discerned his type and may lose interest. There’s thus a certain advantage to being scrappy, being unpolished and not too practiced, as long as one is also funny and not too unkempt or completely broke. The scrappy guy, like the underdog, arouses our compassion and seems innocent or even likable, although often oblivious.
The pickup artist hustles for fun or sex, of course, but also for the way he feels about himself if a woman shows interest. His worth is affirmed in the eyes of the woman (perhaps whether or not he respects her beyond the adoration she gives him). Knowing how other men and women might think of him if they knew this—if they were seen together in public, for instance—his sense of self- worth is boosted or swollen.
Like any politician, Donald Trump’s quarry is the electorate, and he at least wants pretty much what Men Who Chase Hot Chicks want: to affirm his worth by being seen as powerful, the center of attention, as the man whose favor must be curried, so as to uphold his vision of himself as “great,” a “winner,” a “huge success.” He’s lucky not to have the smooth tactics of the pickup artist, since in an electorate used to The Rubio (slick, bogus, likable, but without substance), voters will take to a scrappy effort and forgive the rest, if they can find sufficient reason to keep up their interest. And Trump does effortlessly keep up people’s interest, by keeping ’em guessing, shocked, self-doubting, and amused.
It is tough being an asshole in ordinary life. Success in the eld takes considerable skill and social intelligence. The effective asshole often learns to work the gray areas of cooperation. If people feel disrespected and pipe up about it, perhaps they can’t quite pin down their objection, and with the asshole resistant to any open conversation about why his conduct was, or was not, acceptable, he fends off the challenge, proving to himself, yet again, that he has no compelling reason to listen. This is difficult to do reliably without being completely isolated. So the successful asshole often has further methods. He’ll 1) keep ’em guessing and uncertain about his type; and 2) offer some redeeming quality, by being funny, or smart, or beautiful, or wealthy. The mistreated person then isn’t resolutely revolted and perhaps becomes willing to forgive, or at least quickly forget.
There is no “real Trump” beneath the appearances in part because he keeps us guessing in just this fashion, alternating freely between ways of presenting himself, sometimes very quickly, even in midsentence. This leaves us without a firm sense of his person and so unable to resolve our reaction to him. Unsettled and uncertain, we are destabilized; and he is better able to do pretty much as he likes.
Success as an asshole or a pickup artist won’t necessarily cut it in the political arena. Politics requires a special kind of performance. The asshole politician may be a bad actor—offering only Ted Cruz’s smarmy performance, for example. For acting is its own form of art.
The showman, on the other hand, knows how to put on a good show for the enjoyment of his audience. P. T. Barnum knew the art of showmanship (“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time . . .”); he knew exactly how his productions were received by his audience (“The bigger the humbug, the better people will like it”); and he capitalized on creating a spectacle, drawing forth simple passions (“Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people”).
Trump is a showman, like Barnum, but he’s an ass-clown showman, a scrappy, often oblivious practitioner of the art. He’s not in it for the pure love of performance, like the dancer or the comedian; like the pickup artist, he requires the attention of his quarry, arising from his fierce need to appear superior in the eyes of others. This can be achieved (and may have to be) without self-knowledge. Dolly Parton said of herself, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” Trump would never make that comment; he’d never show such acute self-awareness.
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, someone who seeks an audience’s enjoyment while being slow to understand how it views him. As one definition puts it, this 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.”
Sitting there on the Michigan primary acceptance speech table, the meats were just beautiful. For the first time in world history, a victory was accepted with an infomercial, presenting a delicious, I mean really terrific, just beautiful array of “Trump steaks,” which were once sold at the Sharper Image; Trump water bottles; Trump wine; and Trump magazine (or actually a different magazine, with a different name, which you could flip through if wealth porn is what you’re into). He neglected to mention that some of the products weren’t especially successful. (For some reason steaks just didn’t sell at the Sharper Image.) But because his business acumen had been questioned, and because it’s a sore topic, like the fingers, we were meant to be reassured that he definitely was a businessman and totally knew what he was doing.
This is truly funny, but Trump doesn’t seem to see it. Does he see that his claim to be a businessman might invite the question of whether selling steaks for fifty dollars a pound at the Sharper Image (he even touted the high price) was a sound business proposition, and that many would find the business prospect, well, less than promising? Plus he was so serious. Oblivious and very serious. Behold the ass-clown, who is telling the joke but somehow not in on it.
This is of course not the knowing humor of the comedian, who sees us and is ahead of us, knowing where our minds will go before we ourselves get there, leading us into expectations, and then reversing or subverting them, leaving us surprised and delighted. It is closer to the pure comedy of vaudeville and slapstick, a man slipping on a banana, his baggy pants falling off as a car splashes him in the gutter. It is a simple moment and deeply relatable–like Homer Simpson. Homer wants beer. He likes beer. I like beer. I understand Homer. He is like me. I like Homer. It is simple. That is funny.
Trump is genuinely amusing, and we can all relate to feeling like an ass. This gives him much more leeway than, say, Ted Cruz, who inspires intense dislike. Even his conservative kin are impressively creative in their hatred:
Bob Dole: “Nobody likes him.”
John McCain [referring to Cruz and two of his colleagues]: “Wacko birds.”
McCain advisor: “[McCain] fucking hates Cruz. He’s just offended by his style.”
George W. Bush: “I just don’t like the guy.”
John Boehner: “Jackass”; “false prophet”; “Lucifer.”
Harvard Law School classmates: “A pompous asshole”; “We hadn’t left Manhattan before he asked my IQ [in a carpool].”
His Princeton roommate: A “Backpfeifengesicht” [a “face that should be slapped”]; “a nightmare of a human being”; “widely loathed. It’s his superpower.”
Donald Trump: “He’s a nasty guy. Nobody likes him. Nobody in Congress likes him. Nobody likes him anywhere once they get to know him.”
Ted Cruz: “If you want someone to grab a beer with, I may not be that guy.”
Trump in contrast is likable partly because he plainly does love his country, like he loves his water bottle business and TV show and magazine, which, for being associated with him, are the greatest. That is a way of loving, which is itself endearing. And if you love him, he will love you back, inviting you to bask in his glamorous lifestyle, as though you now have a rich friend who knows famous people and has a supermodel wife. He calls this “beautiful,” and he means it. It is, after all, a beautiful kind of reciprocity; we humans are lovers. This allows passion to fill in what reason leaves empty, and so things really can be so simple. Which makes the man relatable, as a fellow human, and even likable, for the moment. It need only be for the moment to dampen the disgust reflex for those offended by his assholery.
Even an ass-clown might have the comedian’s keen and quick intelligence, albeit with certain blind spots. Unlike the comedic genius, and like the mere ass, he suffers from his own lack of awareness of how he appears in the eyes of others. He sees how he appears well enough—well enough to play the buffoon, to monkey around, to engage us with surprising pretense—but still doesn’t quite pick up on what we all know about how we all see him. One reason he’s funny is that there’s so very much he isn’t getting.
Trump can thus honestly support the following transplendently simple narrative:
Crisis: America is losing
Villain: Our very stupid politicians
Resolution: Start winning again
Hero: Trump, because I’m a huge winner, and we’ll all win together
You ask, but why, how will we “start winning again”? Just by doing “big deals”? (With Putin?) What am I missing? Yet for the showman, the story doesn’t need any further detail if it feels sensical; it only has to ring as music in the ears of the audience.
There need be nothing cynical in telling such a story. The lead media advisor of both George W. Bush victories, Mark McKinnon, says he played just this story architecture to victory twice over. Was he a cynical manipulator, a Machiavellian dream weaver? No, because he himself believed the story. After he helped John McCain win the next GOP nomination, he chose not to work against Obama. Not because he shared Obama’s politics, which he doesn’t. Obama, he says, simply had the better story.
Trump often talks shit, which is to say, he makes unflattering comments about a person. He’s a prolific and colorful insulter (e.g., “loser,” “low energy” [said of poor Jeb Bush, incessantly], “little Marco” [who now may bear the epithet for life]). No less important, and perhaps equally insulting, he also often talks shit, which is to say, his speech product is messy and unrefined. It isn’t carefully crafted, with attentive (or any) concern for detail. It’s the very opposite of speechcraft, as part of statecraft. In his words, Trump experiences a certain laxity.
Trump is a particular sort of ass-clown showman. He’s a major bullshitter, in the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s definition: someone who speaks without regard for the truth. What he says is sometimes true. When it isn’t, he often cares not, since that wasn’t the point of his speaking in the first place. He’s not deliberately asserting what he knows to be false, hoping to get others to believe what he knows is not true. He often just doesn’t care, per se, about what is true and what is not. For the showman, all is pretense for entertainment rather than for deception, and, in the case of Trump, for elevating himself as the entertainer— and eventual Entertainer in Chief.
Being a bullshitter, or one who produces much bullshit, is essentially tied, in a speaker, with a certain state of mind. As philosopher G. A. Cohen explains, “The bull, conceptually speaking, wears the trousers: bullshit is bullshit because it was produced by a bullshitter, or, at any rate, by someone who was bullshitting at the time.” So Frankfurt gives the example of a Fourth of July orator who goes on bombastically about “our great and blessed country, whose Founding Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind.” This is “humbug” and/or bullshit. But the orator isn’t lying about what he thinks is true. As Frankfurt explains, “What makes the Fourth of July oration humbug is not fundamentally that the speaker regards his statement as false. Rather . . . the orator intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself. He’s not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history.”
Men in the white working class tend to practice the “bull session,” a gathering at which one or more of them hold forth about politics, the old days, or the failings of the president. As Frankfurt explains, “The participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without it being assumed that they are committed to what they say.” Here there’s no pretense of truth telling.
“The main point is to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion.” So each participant could walk away nodding, so as to compliment the performance, but needn’t have agreed with all or any of it. Maybe they really did agree, or maybe not. The point was just to reassure everyone that the proper authority still has its voice.
This authority performance isn’t completely different from the professor’s impromptu mini-lecture. A professor (such as myself) holds forth on a topic for longer than the ordinary flow of conversation permits, which others (e.g., my loved ones) must then sit through (“Oh man, here he goes again”). The goal of speaking is some sort of authoritative pronouncement on whether Wittgenstein’s so-called “private language argument” is, or is not, really an argument, or some such. This is irritating to those who did not sign up for a lecture. Yet the goal is truth telling and not bullshit. The professorial speaker is sincerely hoping to represent both the truth and what he or she really believes.
Which is not to say there aren’t real standards for a good or bad bull session performance. Merely spouting “hot air” won’t cut it; you’ve got to say something good and authoritative sounding about the president or the legislature or the old days. Trump is especially admirable in this respect (his fans proclaim, “I was just saying that same shit yesterday!”). He has an uncanny instinct for giving voice to the vox populi, or at least that of a sizable segment of the populus (at least leaving aside younger people). Indeed, the master bullshitter can be so good at bullshitting that, like the banker who invests in his own Ponzi scheme, he may well believe the shit he’s saying, at least for the moment. He’s so good that he eats it, with gusto and conviction, for the sake of dramatic performance. Trump is a master ass-clown entertainer because he seems oblivious to the difference between talking shit and talking carefully, with steady regard for the truth.
As in the Jackass series, this is a courageous kind of performance, and, for many, it shows the kind of bravado we need in government. Those politicians, as some put it, they think their shit don’t stink. But not Trump—he’s right there in it, neck deep, but still rich, golden brown, and pink faced and therefore not too good for us. He’s not a total bullshitter, because he really does think doing better “deals” would cure many of our problems. And if zero-sum bargaining mostly isn’t the solution, because policy for the general good isn’t much like real estate, he’s at least sincerely mistaken. Sure, he also bullshits like crazy, but it is his bullshit, and we all know this and so don’t feel we’re being had. Ultimately, he’s both courageous and relatable, and in his own way glamorous, at center stage of his own carnival. And so he gets richer (it’s his brand) while distinguishing himself as one of our great showmen. Even Kanye West, another enormous ass-clown/asshole entertainer, isn’t quite as good at it.
This can look like lying, as though Trump is the con man who shades the truth and then “gaslights” when called out. As journalist Nicole Hemmer explains, Trump is a toxic blend of Barnum and bully. If you’re a good mark, he’s your best friend. But if you catch on to the con, then he starts to gaslight. Ask him a question and he’ll lie without batting an eye. Call him a liar and he’ll declare himself “truthful to a fault.” Confront him with contradictory evidence and he’ll shrug and repeat the fib. Maybe he’ll change the subject. But he’ll never change the lie.
She nails the asshole tactics, which work by inducing self-doubt. Call him out, and he’ll double down on a false assertion or switch and deny he ever said differently, all with supreme confidence that weakens the cooperative person’s sense of credibility. Did I perhaps not hear correctly? Could he have meant something different? Maybe he’ll snap back quickly, upping the intensity, in order to intimidate with bluster. Yet the liar or con man knows what he’s saying isn’t true. Trump often isn’t that careful. The bullshitter doesn’t necessar- ily care about truth, about tracking it carefully. Trump isn’t necessarily good with facts (see: conspiracy theories, Obama’s place of birth, “celebrating” Muslims in Jersey City). To Bill O’Reilly, when asked about plainly false gures concerning blacks and homicides, he replied, “Bill, am I going to check every statistic?” And he plainly stated to Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, “All I know is what’s on the Internet.” Yet even there he latches on to the bad information. For his driving concern is not responding to reality but winning, in a winning performance.
Vladimir Putin, another master of multiple self- presentation, reportedly said, “I’m sure corruption in Chechnya is minimal.” When he announced this, I’m sure those in the room nodded and said, “Da, I guess the corruption in Chechnya is minimal.” Everyone in the room would thereafter avow this as true, with confident nodding, knowing that everyone else in the room would avow it as true, even if no one in fact believed it. There’s thus such a thing as collective bullshitting (a.k.a. ideology). At a bad comedy show, a heckler will sometimes feel the need to yell “You suck!” so as to disrupt the pretense that the jokes are of acceptable quality. Let it be known that we are NOT going to act as if we all think this might be funny when it just isn’t. The heckler might do this for love of comedy.
In the GOP collective bull session, Trump disrupted the party by being a truth teller. It was refreshing to hear truths stated plainly—about Iraq, progressive taxation, the problems of money corruption—despite “conservative” political correctness and groupthink, which won’t allow you to say things such as: “George W. Bush was president during 9/11.” For, if that were true, it would also be true that he did not “keep us safe” from terrorism. And, as they might say, “That’s not what we should be saying,” for reasons of power, quite aside from the truth of the matter.
Such a flagrant disregard for truth displays contempt for the citizenry of a republican democracy. But, as Putin suggests, it works nicely for power’s purposes. The impulse to destroy what displays contempt, to throw caution to the wind, explains why so many wish to take their chances on breaking up the Republican political establishment. To his supporters, Trump offers hope of either taking over the GOP or blowing it up for something better.
Not that Trump appears to care deeply about truth or love democracy. He merely took over the bull session and won the contest. Now he runs it, having proven his dominance.
This is the tough guy who skipped the war in Vietnam because of an alleged bone spur in his foot—the same ailment that didn’t stop Joe DiMaggio from playing a pretty good game of baseball. For a time, the GOP establishment really was scared of him, and it came late to challenge him for fear of his usual scathing Twitter retaliation, splashed through the media the next morning, probably with some colorful insult, which millions would be repeating with a chuckle. For Trump is an insult ace, no doubt about it. The quick, disproportional comeback, vague enough not to be easily answered (“low energy”) but nevertheless funny (“low energy”). But why do insults that stick count as a win with the GOP audience? How are he and his audience simpatico in their scorekeeping? According to linguist George Lakoff, the contest primes the “strict father model” of morality. In a world governed by personal responsibility and discipline, those who win deserve to win. But electoral competition is a contest. So “insults that stick are seen as victories—deserved victories.” “In strict conservative eyes, that makes him a formidable winning candidate who deserves to be a winning candidate.” Winners win—and so Donald Trump is a political winner.
3. CEO of Sharper Image Jerry Levin explained: “We literally sold almost no steaks”; it was a “bad business idea” and a mere “exercise in branding.” The Sharper Image made significant money only because people would enter the store having seen Trump’s picture posted (which Trump had insisted on) and buy other products.
7. Sarah Palin suffers from a comparable condition, though insofar as her speeches (e.g., her Trump endorsement) can be reconstructed as slam poetry, her ass-clownery may have something of a method.
8. Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 34.
9. G. A. Cohen, “Complete Bullshit,” in Finding Oneself in the Other (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), p. 97.
10. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, p. 17.
11. Ibid., p. 36.
12. On the depth of bullshit in academic life, see G. A. Cohen’s “Complete Bullshit.”
13. To pause for psychoanalysis: Could Trump’s obsession with money be tied to, or an expression of, a childhood fascination with playing with shit, the first thing a child produces? Sándor Ferenczi, Freud’s disciple, would say so.
14. See Aaron James, Assholes: A Theory, pp. 74–76.
16. That’s probably also true of the pathological liar, though he’s still trying to deceive people. The pathological bullshitter isn’t necessarily trying to get others to believe anything; he can know his audience understands the nature of his performance.
17. Putin is “the ultimate political performance artist” whose self-described main skill is “to get people—in this case the Russian people, his audience(s)—to see him as what they want him to be, not what he really is,” especially as “the ultimate Russian action man, capable of dealing with every eventuality.” This is according to Russia experts Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy in their excellent character study of Mr. Putin (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2015). Dr. Hill also happens to be a world-class asshole expert, having encountered a few during her time in government. She helped me immensely in writing Assholes: A Theory.
18. There’s also such a thing as “ideology” in world history, according to the Frankfurt School (no relation to Harry Frankfurt) and perhaps G. W. Hegel. This is collective bullshit of world-historical proportions, but more than mere bullshit, because it finally upends the power of those who produce it (e.g., liberal democracy is at first a rationalization of capitalism, but then overtakes it).
Excerpted from ASSHOLES: A THEORY OF DONALD TRUMP. Used with permission of Knopf Doubleday. Copyright © 2016 by Aaoron James.