You Can’t See Your Own A—hole: A Theory of American Electoral Politics

I was discussing with friends the bulletproof allure the Republican nominee holds for some people — no matter what he says, who he insults, or how vacuous his proposals.

There are media and economic and anti-establishment aspects to it, my friends argued in turn. I am sure they are correct to some degree, but I think it’s also a lot simpler:

You can’t see your own a–hole.

While this is literally true for nearly all of us, in a figurative sense it requires some explaining.

By the term ‘a–hole’, I have in mind a very specific kind of person, one who is largely indifferent to what other people think of them. Following Aaron James, an a–hole is a person whose “sense of entitlement makes him immune to complaints from other people”.

Contrary to what moms and elementary school teachers might tell us, what people think of us is very important to who we are. In fact, some sociologists go so far as to say that the ‘self’ as an individual is a myth, but rather only exists in how we relate to other people.

That we care what people think of us is part of something called — by sociologists, again — “entrainment”: an emotional connection we make with the people around us, almost by instinct.

Especially in conflict situations, entrainment can make it hard for us to act, and makes us anxious and agitated as we anticipate the fear and anger of the other person. However, entrainment can sometimes make it easier to act in conflict — say if friends are egging us on.

Like all human capacities, entrainment varies somewhat from person to person, whether due to nature or nurture. People excessively subject to entrainment tend to be doormats or sycophants.

People insufficiently subject to entrainment are a–holes. They don’t — and maybe can’t — care what other people think. The driver who cuts you off on the highway: a–hole. The lady chatting loudly on his cellphone in the restaurant: a–hole. The guy who manspreads on the subway: a–hole.

American electoral politics is natural selection for a–holes. The whole landscape of our electoral system — adversarial, partisan, relentlessly conflict-driven, and all this especially on TV — weeds out everyone else. Cable politics shows would not be possible without the drama a–holes bring to the table. Most every Congressor you can name is an a–hole — and odds are, you can only name them because they were on TV.

In any case, you don’t get to the top tier of American politics without being some kind of a–hole. So Trump is an a–hole, as were most of his rivals. Bernie Sanders is kind of an a–hole. Hillary Clinton is an a–hole — although arguably she was made into an a–hole by our political process, rather than being one from the start.

That leaves us — the voters — left to choose among a–holes. But here’s where entrainment bites us in the, well…a–: once we choose an a–hole, that a–hole is our a–hole.

And you can’t see your own a–hole.

That is to say: our instinct for entrainment gives us an emotional connection to our a–hole, which impairs our ability to see where we might disagree with them or be put off by their behavior.

It does not matter whether others’ criticisms of our a–hole are apt or not; we become blind, at least partially, to the a–hole we have made our own. And that is more true when our friends are also for the same a–hole, in effect egging us on.

This is why it is so difficult to convince other people — whichever side you are on — to vote for some other a–hole. They can see your a–hole just fine, thanks.

I don’t have a solution to this problem, but I think it’s important to understand it clearly. And for the record, I have no dog in this fight: I am not voting for any of the a–holes in the Presidential race.

The next time you wonder why some politician enjoys unflagging support, just remember: his supporters can’t see their own a–hole.

And then ask yourself: can you?

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