[co-authored with Scott Jacobsen]
There are a zillion reasons why Americans have elected the biggest bunch of jerks ever to hold national office – gerrymandering, Russian propaganda bots, meddling by the FBI, inept and money-driven news media, imperfect Democratic campaigning, jobs lost to outsourcing and automation, sexism, racism, the intentional dumbing-down of the Republican electorate by conservative think tanks and Fox News, and so on.
But it remains that 63 million voters elected a transparently dishonest and incompetent jackass – a classic asshole according to the definition from UC philosophy professor Aaron James in his book Assholes: A Theory: someone whose “sense of entitlement makes him immune to complaints from other people…The asshole thinks he's entitled to do things that he's not entitled to do. He does them defensively, and he's unwilling to listen to our arguments.”
Why did so many people vote for an asshole? Because people feel empowered. Powerless people band together to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their communities. And in joining together, they embrace fairness, respect, and shared sacrifice. Think of World War II – America’s and its allies’ greatest group effort.
Today’s social forces are very different from those of 75 years ago. We are catered-to – well-fed, entertained, empowered, with the world at our thumbtips. Whenever awake, we consume a feed of deliciously personalized information. We can broadcast our opinions anonymously and without consequence. Being an asshole is about getting stuff and getting away with stuff. Which we do.
Technology gives us the world and amplifies human impulses, for good and for ill. We have the same mental hardware as our ancestors 200,000-100,000 years ago. Our unenlightened selfishness, self-deception, and cognitive biases emerge more than ever before. We send bolts of contentious nonsense into the social media thought cloud—storms erupt.
People take offense. The intolerants’ intolerance is reinforced. The disgusted become the intolerant. We all drift down into the muck. Tweets can spark protests and reform or violence and hate.
Yet our non-political lives get better and better. Cell phones, food, Netflix, porno, and video games on demand. New forms of entertainment. AI assistants and navigational aids. We live easy, entertaining, superficial and distracted lives as never before. Few 21st-century North Americans would trade lives with a king or queen in 1679 (well, maybe for a few days). But our limitless desire for comfort and stuff makes life hollow.
Superhero movies are the masterworks and crowning myths of our overentitled age. Since 2012, one-quarter of the ten top-grossing films of the year have featured superheroes. They’re fantastically powerful but still all-too-human and spend much of their time and powers trying to fix messes that they themselves made. Superheroes are us – powerful but overly convinced of our competence and rightness and largely unwilling to question our own judgment.
With growing confidence in our individual power and righteousness, we elected our first jerk President. (He beat a candidate whose slogan was Stronger Together. But who wants to sacrifice and compromise to be stronger together when we’re so powerful on our own?) Not all 63 million Trump voters are jerks, but tens of millions are. How do we get them to quit being jerks or at least quit being overrepresented in politics?
Well, the sheer arrogant incompetence of the Trump administration may help. Two months in, his Presidency is shaping up to be the most embarrassing in history. But that’s just short-term. In the medium term – over the next few decades – the technology that now empowers us will eventually kick our asses, as power shifts to the somewhat creepy hybridized humans who establish the most intimate and productive relationships with thought-augmenting devices. And who mostly won’t have been Trump voters.
The Era of superempowerment and superentitlement makes us confident in and comfortable with our lazy opinions, encouraging belligerent ignorance and bigotries old and new. Climate change, when life begins, guns, whose lives matter…
It’s sweet not to have to learn anything new, to absorb the right attitudes about everything just by being a solid American. (You know the type – the true patriots with two American flag emojis in their Twitter handles – a breed that must eventually dwindle due to demographics and economics and science and the relentless future.)
Empowerment is good when the empowered are the ignored and the oppressed and less good when they’re the oppressors and backlashers and sellers of mugs for liberal cuck tears.
Empowerment means being able to pick your facts and “fact”-providers from the comfort of your information cocoon. We have (usually ignored) historic declines in crime, murders, and violence along with unjustified killings based on black skin and blue uniforms, and hysteria along both political aisles.
And with the world in what increasingly looks like turmoil and chaos (but really isn’t – thanks, 24-hour news cycle), the only safe spot seems to be within our warm circle of technological empowerment.