This philosopher explained Donald Trump before Trump ever became president.

Not only before he became president, but even before he had won the Republican nomination, in fact. Nevertheless, the explanation still holds today.

The philosopher in question is Professor Aaron James, head of the philosophy department at UC Irvine. The short 2016 book in which he explains Donald Trump is Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump, which is very different from Scott Hershovitz’s pop philosophy book I reviewed a week and a half ago: this one is much more narrowly focused and not as entertaining, even though it was Scott Hershovitz who recommended James’s book.

I too recommend it—with reservations. You have to be prepared for an approach that’s almost as much academic as it is popular. Also, as this was written before Trump was nominated, you have to be prepared for a compare-and-contrast with Ted Cruz if you can stomach it.

You may wonder about the provocative title of the book. Apparently the similarities and differences between an asshole and an ass-clown form a philosophical thread in James’s work. Nowhere in this book, unfortunately, does he provide pithy, quotable definitions of these two terms, so you’ll just have to read the book to figure out the distinction. Hint: Trump is both.

Perhaps Trump’s most obvious characteristic is his fondness for lying, or for “a flagrant disregard of truth,” in James’s words:

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… Not that Trump appears to care deeply about truth or love democracy.

Of course Trump has many other character defects. In particular, one wonders why those defects didn’t disqualify him from winning the support of evangelicals. James quotes one evangelical, Arnold McClure, on this topic:

Mr. Trump’s posturing, his crassness, his rudeness, his simplistic descriptions of international issues, his demeanor—we see it all. And yet we have decided to vote for him. We know we are all deficient and sinful, and only God’s grace can heal us. We have faith that Mr. Trump will “seek the Lord” when confronted by the awesome duties of leading the great country in history.

And how well did that work out for you, we have to ask?

Finally, after so much complaining, we need to think about what the solution is. Although James doesn’t quote the familiar line—the one that says that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem—that idea is clearly in his mind. Here are a couple of excerpts from James’s solutions to the Donald Trump problem:

We need many new rules…. We could rank candidates, instead of choosing just one, so that candidates can’t afford to write off voters who won’t put them first. We could draw legislative districts by nonpartisan panels of retired judges, to prevent gerrymandering by whoever happened to win the last election. We could elect the president by popular vote rather than the Electoral College….

We can resolve, here and now, to stop yelling and find more creative ways of being heard in the larger conversation. We can decide to think and speak differently, with no whiff of righteous presumption, and offer clear arguments for good-faith consideration.

Good ideas, all of them.



Categories: Books, Teaching & Learning