One of the defining trends of our age is the widespread worship of assholes. This is one of our collective legacies, something for which we will all be remembered, regardless of whether or not you ever worshiped an asshole.
The crude anatomical definition aside, an asshole is simply someone unkind. Inconsiderate. It’s not that complicated. The meathead who blares their music at the gym? The co-worker who takes credit for someone else’s work? The social media bully who makes fun of people’s appearances? Assholes. There is little kindness in our culture. That may change one day. But currently, this asshole reigns.
American men have always been fascinated by assholes in pop culture, from pro wrestling heels like Rowdy Roddy Piper to smart-asses like any Bill Murray movie character in the ’80s. But times have changed, as they are wont to do, and now, men look up to actual, real-life assholes with alarming affection and loyalty. Once upon a time, the asshole was a lovable rogue at best and a rude, friendless jerk not to be trusted at worst. Now, they are celebrities.
And there are plenty of assholes to choose from, starting with former President Donald Trump, who combines two classic American asshole varieties into one — the country club asshole and the reality TV asshole. To be fair, the entire political spectrum, from right to left, is lousy with assholes. We, the people, have chosen a government by, and for, assholes. Loud, thoughtless ones.
Trump is, of course, not the only alpha asshole. There was a time when billionaire Elon Musk was celebrated as a genius, but now he’s known chiefly for tweeting insults and paranoid brain farts like one of the more insane Caesars. According to Walter Isaacson’s recent, high-profile biography, Musk is a robotic, ketamine-addicted corporate creep who isn’t content being the richest man in the world; he must also be an edgy meme lord.
In Isaacson’s tome, Musk comes off as an imperious, pitiless executive. He doesn’t seem like someone you’d want to work for, but fans adore this about him. They believe only an asshole could create an all-electric truck or launch a private rocket into space.
The brilliant but short-tempered boss is a popular flavor of asshole because it speaks directly to American myths about rugged individuality and capitalism’s winner-take-all lone-wolf ethos. The success of civilization can largely be attributed to humanity’s ability to collaborate. Yet, we prefer to pretend that modernity’s miracles and bounties directly result from some asshole screaming at incompetent subordinates while laying off thousands of hard-working, low-level employees.
This flourishing of assholes in our culture is a full-on, society-wide pandemic, and men are the most vulnerable to the contagion.
These aren’t the only examples, either. Assholes are everywhere. Rush hour is nothing but. I recently seethed while a man scrolled on his phone during an IMAX screening of the Talking Heads concert movie Stop Making Sense. Who knows? You may be an asshole. I may be an asshole. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, you know? This young century is teeming with petty, mean-spirited, small-minded slobs who all seem to be having a good time, making them even more infuriating.
This flourishing of assholes in our culture is a full-on, society-wide pandemic, and men are the most vulnerable to the contagion. Assholes are seductive. They seem fearless, and so many men are defined by their fears.
In his famous 2018 essay in The Atlantic, “The Cruelty is the Point,” writer Adam Serwer laments the rise of sadism in right-wing politics, which he suggests is a sort of antidote to “the loneliness and atomization of modern life.” In the piece, Serwer wrestles with a new breed of vicious Republicans who long to belong to an intimate community of like-minded assholes
Serwer tries to empathize with the crowds who cheered on Trump’s nastiest ravings, and his conclusions offer succinct explanations to people who couldn’t understand why so many Americans had abandoned courtesy and graciousness. The essay has become a sacred text that explains American conservatism’s embrace of prejudice as its primary political strategy.
But I’ve never agreed with Serwer’s core thesis, it’s too simplistic and not quite… human enough. It’s too tidy. Bad people don’t think they’re bad. No one thinks they’re cruel. Everyone’s a victim, especially those who aren’t victims of anything except being confronted, on occasion, with other different, inconvenient realities. For instance, assholes lose their minds when you tell them some people have it worse off than they do.
Cruelty is not the point. Cruelty is a perk, the frosting on a cake made out of hate. It’s a prize, like the kinds that used to sit at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jack caramel popcorn. It is a beloved pop song sung by assholes everywhere. Cruelty connects.
The asshole has replaced the “strong, silent type” as the masculine ideal. Assholes are thin-skinned. They confuse self-righteousness with courage.
Being an asshole is the point. Being an asshole feels good, like scratching poison ivy blisters. Assholes can do whatever they want, whenever they want. To be an asshole is to be unshackled from concepts like honor, fair play, and duty. To the asshole, honor, fair play, and duty are hopelessly corny, old-fashioned goody-goody bunk.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that teens and young men are besotted by all the assholes jockeying for their attention and begging them to smash the subscribe button. These assholes swagger. They swash and buckle. They’re the new rock stars who give off pure, 100% IDGAF vibes.
Now, there have always been assholes. But they’ve never been as slavishly praised and revered. Countless men idolize famous ones, and the question is why? Why are men so drawn to assholes in the first place, and why is this moment in time so asshole-rich, and why has our society produced so many men who are so eager to roll over and show their bellies to the most selfish, the most thin-skinned and petulant people alive?
That’s a lot of questions.
One answer is men are more insecure than ever. Are men facing more competition from other groups? Yes. Are the vast majority of CEOs, senators, judges, Hollywood hotshots, etc., still men? Yes. But there’s this dim awareness that male hegemony, if not waning, is weakening: Men are less educated than women, men die by suicide more frequently, and a growing caste of white American men feel they are doing worse financially than previous generations. This is terrifying to some. These kinds of grim, poor-men stories are told and retold on social media, and there are endless assholes with microphones who are more than happy to exploit fears and resentments for fun and profit.
Acting like an asshole is an ineffective coping mechanism. It is a performance that, momentarily at least, helps many manage their manifold anxieties.
And these fears also bridge generations: Gen X dads and Gen Z streamers worry about a future where they’ll have to work harder for less. Dudes in their 40s and 20s were never told that they might not achieve the American dream, no matter how hard they worked. Instead of directly addressing these anxieties, many have found solace in obnoxious podcasters and politicians willing to tell them nothing is their fault. Blame women. Blame the woke, whoever that is exactly. Blame those who try to improve the world at all.
Another explanation for the surge in the popularity of assholes is even simpler: they are alluring. They are confident. Assholes never apologize; empathy is a sign of weakness. Assholes are proud of their prejudices. They are defiant. Uncompromising. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that quite a few shy, awkward dudes yearn to be assholes.
The asshole has replaced the “strong, silent type” as the masculine ideal. Assholes are sensitive, but exclusively to their own feelings. They confuse self-righteousness with courage. Assholes heckle and sneer and sit there like nihilist gurus, wagging their fingers and judging anyone they think can’t stick up for themselves. An asshole is a bully who thinks they’re charming.
Life during peak asshole is exhausting unless you’re an asshole, and it’s great.
The problem with pointing out that assholes are assholes is it makes the person pointing them out come off as an asshole, and, reader, I have had my moments. I’d be lying if I tried to pretend I have lived a consistently virtuous life. I have been an asshole before, a thoughtless prick who has only cared about himself. Maturity took care of some of that, sobriety the rest. And even then, I can still be a snide, self-centered jerk.
But acting like an asshole is an ineffective coping mechanism. It is a performance that, momentarily at least, helps many manage their manifold anxieties. Assholes are almost always people who are scared and nervous, and so they go on the offense. The asshole is a little bit like the octopus, who squirts clouds of ink when frightened. Only instead of ink, they spray invective.
No one thinks they’re cruel. Everyone’s a victim, especially those who aren’t victims of anything except being confronted, on occasion, with other different, inconvenient realities.
There was a time I was proud of being an asshole. I thought it was cool to look down on others and act like I wasn’t accountable for my f*ck-ups. I thought that was how men dealt with their emotions. I spent years terrified of rejection. I was alone and depressed, and instead of going to therapy, I pushed friends and family away, intensifying my isolation. The irony was lost on me at the time.
Being an asshole is a choice, like being kind. But it’s hard to be kind. Assholes have it pretty good. They live safe lives, and largely risk nothing. The kind risk it all. They are constantly opening themselves up to ridicule. To be kind is to be vulnerable, which isn’t fun. Kindness can be scary, but you should be kind anyway. You should try, at least.
Kindness is quiet but not silent. The kindhearted are not the life of the party. But kindness is not soft. Kindness soldiers on. Kindness is knowing sometimes you must do what you don’t want to because of love. You have to show up because of love. You have to make sacrifices because of love. Kindness is being gentle and patient even when the odds are against you. Life is full of loss; it’s one of the very few things guaranteed. There will be darkness and suffering, and kindness — even small acts — is one of the only ways to endure it all.
Will our kids judge us for being so spineless? Or will they pity our crippling insecurities? Maybe they’ll curse us for wasting so much time torturing each other on social media for sport.
It’s funny, but the kindest people I know are bold. They love fiercely.
I want to do better. I try to be kind to others, but I don’t always succeed. I should reach out to my friends more often. And offline, too. When I’m struggling, I need to remind myself that I can’t live this life alone. I must keep telling myself I’m not the only person to feel like I do. It is brave to open your heart. Corny, sure. But still brave. Same with going to therapy. Working on yourself is brave.
I think about the future. I worry. Will our kids judge us for being so spineless? Or will they pity our crippling insecurities? Maybe they’ll curse us for wasting so much time torturing each other on social media for sport. They might conclude that being an asshole was the best you and I could do, that it was easier than working together to solve the world’s problems. Our problems will be their problems, and maybe that is our legacy.
There’s a famous quip often attributed to former British Prime Minister and renowned asshole Winston Churchill: “Americans will always do the right thing only after they have tried everything else.” He may have said this or not. It sounds like something Churchill would say. But I wonder if this cynical observation can be applied to American men at this moment in history. We will always do the right thing, but we’re content with being assholes for now.