George H.W. Bush didn’t seem like an asshole. And Bob Dole, he also never struck me as an asshole. As nuts as this sounds, even George W. Bush — the gullible, gutless dimwit who turned a huge chunk of the world into a perpetual hell — isn’t 100 percent asshole (hey, compare his approach to immigration to that of the modern GOP).
But Donald Trump is king of the assholes. And Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Chris Christie and so many Republicans chasing the oval office are his royal court. This is unprecedented. This is a problem.
Growing up, I never thought of the GOP leaders as rude, tasteless, ugly pricks. Instead, they seemed like my dad: Men who loved their kids and country but felt troubled by the modern, liberal world. Pearl Jam hurt their ears, “The Simpsons” annoyed them and dirty, dope-smoking Bill Clinton embarrassed the office of the President. Compassionate conservatism has become a punchline. But the GOP leaders my dad loved at least tilted toward inclusion. The best example of this is Ronald Reagan and George Bush debating illegal immigration in 1980. Both seem human in a way that would repulse the Republican frontrunners but Bush really digs deep calling undocumented immigrants “really honorable, decent, family-loving people.”
But the GOP class of 2016 recoils at inclusion, civility, and thoughtfulness. Why? Because, you guessed it, they are a bunch of— But let me back up. Let me define my term so you understand what makes this group so different, so dangerous.
Contemporary philosopher Aaron James wrote a whole book defining and exploring assholedom. But I boil it down to this: Assholes ruin everything. You know the guy at the bar who twists every conversation into an argument then uses volume, endurance and obstinacy to dominate the argument then misinterprets his dominance as victory then slides a Jackson into the jukebox and puts Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie” on repeat? This guy’s an asshole. At the bar, he’s annoying. In the White House, he’s a monster. Ruining your evening sucks. Basing a political platform on fear mongering, scapegoating and petty grudges while running the world’s most influential nation leads to a global calamity.
Trump considers most Mexican immigrants criminals and believes Muslims are guilty until proven innocent. Christie may have been dumb enough to create an epic traffic jam just to get revenge on a minor political opponent. Carson thinks Satan planted the idea of evolution in Darwin’s head. Cruz wants to bomb an area the size of New Jersey, and its people, until they glow in the dark.
But even these massive moral and intellectual failures of the Republican front runners don’t matter as much as their assholedom.
How does being a massive dick beat being a bigot, warhawk and/or moron? Because assholes have no compassion, courage or flexibility. They stand for nothing beyond what they shouted two minutes ago. Creationists can have a come-to-Darwin moment. The ignorant can wise up. Racists can let love into their heart. I don’t have to dig up dramatic examples like Malcolm X or George Wallace (although those are good ones). Just look at the evolution of our modern liberal icons: Wellesley College’s Young Republicans Club elected Hillary Clinton president; Arianna Huffington supported noted-non-asshole Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. Often people learn, they evolve for the better.
Trump, Cruz and the rest show no indication they’ll change because they consider their personality flaws assets. And on some level they’re right. Recently the Atlantic wrote about why it pays to be a jerk, citing research studies demonstrating that being a bossy, impulsive, ignorant extrovert impresses people more than being smart. Basically Trump succeeds because he says he succeeds. Despite some smart thinkers’ best efforts to correct the Trump-ization of corporate culture (see Stanford professor Robert Sutton’s “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t”), CEOs continue to thrive by the maximum “often wrong, never in doubt.” But thankfully politics and business are different — just ask Ross Perot, Steve Forbes and Herman Cain.
The business world embraces these characters in ways the general public doesn’t. Few true jackasses have become political giants. That seems a little crazy so let me dial it back. Goldman Sachs, Halliburton, Koch Industries, Bank of America, Citigroup and their peers have recruited more a-holes than government has (a sad and impressive achievement). And let’s not conflate being tough with being a jerk. Lyndon Johnson had a thick, thorny hide but he pioneered the Great Society and started the War on Poverty. Johnson may have been a hardass but he wasn’t heartless.
(Usually) people get into politics because they believe they can make a difference. (Usually) people get into business to make money. And these personality differences are clearly on display during this campaign.
A perfect example the CEO/senator divide came when Islamophobes ranted at Trump and John McCain at respective town hall meetings. With a grand combination of cowardice and indifference, Trump let slide a man who remarked “We have a problem in this country, and it’s Muslims… When can we get rid of them?” From there he let things escalate to spying on mosques and barring muslims for entering the United States. Back in 2008, McCain faced a similar public confrontation when a woman said, “I don’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s an Arab.” McCain replied, “No ma’am, no ma’am. He’s a decent family man… I want to be president of the United States, and I don’t want Obama to be. But I have to tell you, I have to tell you, he is a decent person, and a person that you do not have to be scared as President of the United States.”
Trump’s credo is the asshole credo: self-celebration and self-preservation at every turn. He doesn’t deflate the jingoists because doing so wouldn’t bring him glory. McCain has a belief system — a sense of hope, respect and justice — that drove him into public service. He knew showing love for Obama would be unpopular (he was booed at his own town hall after his comments). But he felt compelled to defend his adversary.
It’s not surprising the relatively decent candidates, the John McCains and Bob Doles of the race, have struggled. Noted inoffensive dweeb (personally, if not politically) Jeb Bush has been crushed the big, brash, awful characters in the race — watch him tangle with Trump and you see he doesn’t even know how to be a modern asshole. John “If I’m president, I am going to once and for all try to reunite Pink Floyd” Kasich even has some coolness about him, but his inability to be mean, nasty and boorish has left him floundering in the polls. The message is clear: The more normal and tolerant you are, the less likely you are to win states.
While the current GOP crop appears to be expanding our tolerance of intolerable behavior, recent polling data indicates the majority of America see these jokers for the who they are. Trump has climbed as a Republican candidate but not with the public at large. He remains the most unfavorably viewed candidate (Democrat or Republican, current or over the past 30 years). In a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll from last year, 532 respondents used negative words to describe Trump and 151 used positive ones. Among the most commonly used were polite synonyms for asshole: idiot, buffoon, narcissistic, pompous, arrogant, nuts.
We should brace ourselves for some scary results in New Hampshire and the next set of victory speeches full of misogyny, xenophobia, confusion and truculent rhetoric. But we should also remember this is as civil as these bastards will ever be. Right now they actually want us to like them. If you thought the dicks on capitol hill gave Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards a hard time, imagine Trump or Cruz or Ben “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away” Carson integrating Richards, or any woman, or anyone with an opposing view. Imagine if their approach of boorish, dumb arrogance takes hold in the White House or comes to truly dominate congress.
Research shows assholes fail in the long run when they ruin everything for everyone. Being a prick doesn’t help you succeed if you don’t deliver continued results and eventually followers turn on you. This proves what we inherently know: the GOP gang will be awful leaders. Let’s hope America realizes this in time and doesn’t give them the chance.
Jed Gottlieb is the senior music & theater critic at the Boston Herald. Follow him on Twitter.