In an interview on RNZ, foreign policy expert Van Jackson used a coarse term to describe US president. But it was neither a gaffe, nor emotionally motivated, he explains
If you do enough media interviews, you’re bound to gaffe. We sometimes say things when we’re on the spot that we later regret, or that we wished we had phrased better. My calling President Donald Trump a “flaming asshole” in a Sunday interview on Radio NZ is not one of those moments.
In the days since the interview — which was largely about North Korea policy — I’ve received three kinds of responses. The first, and most common reaction, has been “Good on ya!” backslapping. The second, “You’re an idiot … He’s a great man.” That needs no interpretation. And the third: “Manners, please!” Essentially a call for some invisible standard of propriety on a public platform. All three response types misconstrue the reasons for labelling Trump a “flaming asshole”.
One might assume I called Trump a “flaming asshole” for reasons of catharsis; the pundit version of screaming into a pillow. But my characterisation was neither a gaffe nor emotionally motivated. It was a purposeful analytical description. As a political scientist and policy wonk, I believe in observing and describing the world as accurately as possible, which demands clear definitions and standards of evidence.
Far from being simply an expressive term, an “asshole” is a category of person: someone who “systematically allows himself special advantages in cooperative life out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.” The definition predates the president by several years, deriving from Aaron James’s 2012 book Assholes: A Theory. During the US presidential campaign, James seized the moment with a follow-up book aptly titled Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump in which he adopts philosophical criteria ranging from Rousseau to Hobbes to make the case that Trump as a person is a categorical asshole. I’ve yet to see anyone publish a challenge to his central thesis.
I submit that presidents too can be assholes, even apart from their individual character. It just so happens that Trump is an asshole as an individual and as a president — hence my modifier “flaming”. What ideal-type evidence might we associate with an asshole president, and how does Trump measure up to those standards? I can think of several generic indicators of presidential assholery:
- Vilifying, through “othering” rhetoric and decision-making, anyone who might serve as a check on presidential power—whether judges, legislators, or the media.
- Extorting allies faced with desperate circumstances.
- Making self-aggrandizing statements at moments that call for political unity or demonstrations of leadership.
- Justifying national policy decisions with emotional criteria in lieu of causal justifications that related a decision to an anticipated outcome.
While not an exhaustive list, each of these indicators represent presidential enrichment—an expectation of individual privilege — at the expense of the nation. Consequently, they’re not so different from indicators of shifts toward illiberalism. Any cursory review of news headlines reveals that Trump’s presidency lights up all of these indicators, hence the label “flaming asshole.”
He’s declared the mainstream media an enemy of the people on many occasions. At the same time that America’s South Korean ally faces a grave military threat from a nuclear armed adversary on its northern border, he broached withdrawing from the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement in order to extract more favorable terms of trade for the United States. In a speech to the Boy Scouts of America, an organization that’s always aimed to be standard bearer of citizenship and leadership, Trump talked about his crowd size, vilified the media, and made veiled accusations of disloyalty toward members of his own cabinet. And he’s determined to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the precarious agreement that prevents Iran from becoming a nuclear power, without justification for how abandoning it will prevent nuclear proliferation or protect US interests.
But even if President Trump is a flaming asshole by any reasonable reading of the evidence, one might question the prudence of characterizing him as such in public commentary about policy issues. While this may come down to a question of judgment, I think in this case it was justified for at least three reasons.
First, in the specific context in which I used the phrase “flaming asshole”, it was the preface to me expressing partial agreement with Trump on a policy level. The radio host asked me if I agreed with Trump’s recent tweets about North Korea. Like any policy wonk, my answer was predictably nuanced, which could’ve turned off anyone listening who happened to be anti-Trump (which is most of the world, according to a recent Pew poll). So in this instance, acknowledging that Trump is a flaming asshole rhetorically offsets my partial agreement with him; it ensures that, to the listener, my occasional congruence of policy opinion with Trump does not constitute approval of anything else Trump says or does.
Second, it’s important not to normalise Trump’s destructive pattern of unrestrained rhetoric, threat-making, and erratic decisions. Failing to “police the boundaries of political discourse,” paraphrasing from late political sociologist Charles Tilly, has real-world consequences. A decision not to call Trump out for illiberal and self-aggrandizing behavior is a decision to excuse it, which risks inspiring copycat politicians. And even more important than calling Trump out on specific violations of normalcy is the need to identify that these instances are the cumulative attributes of a type of person—a flaming asshole, in this case. A failure to recognize that permits a cascade of similar bad behavior.
Third, I’m an American living in New Zealand at a time when the rest of the world is intensely curious about America’s political system and society. For many, I’m one of a very small pool of Americans with whom they interact and pose questions, and in some cases I’m the only Washington technocrat they’ll ever meet. Foreigners sometimes reduce the United States to the Trump administration, or to Trump himself. But America is bigger than the Nativist minority that voted for him. Even more than the average American, therefore, I feel the need to signal that the United States, and US opinion, is more eclectic than Trump and that most of us don’t share his views or values.
Virtually everything about Trump frustrates me. He beat a superiorly qualified candidate for the presidency; the technocrats’ choice. He lacks respect for experts of any kind, unless they wear a military uniform or have offshore accounts protecting their millions. And to put it in a hubristic but not inaccurate way, he takes for granted the “world America made.” He’s contemptuous of the internationalist traditions in US foreign policy that have helped prevent nuclear and great-power wars, among their other benefits.
Describing Trump as an asshole for these emotive reasons might make it a term of abuse. But that’s not why I did it, and the merits of labeling him a flaming asshole outweigh the risks that some might be turned off by my doing so. Lovers of liberalism and an idealised America need to define and reinforce the boundaries of acceptable behavior for its politics — indeed, for politics everywhere — even at the expense of political divisiveness. If that means calling an asshole an asshole, then so be it.
Van Jackson is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies. He hosts the podcast series Pacific Pundit. The views expressed here are his alone.