The new documentary “Assholes: A Theory” examines the assholing of America, a nation ruled by the biggest asshole of them all: Donald J. Trump.
As U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) famously opined on Justified, “You run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. You run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.” Yet in a 2020 America on the precipice of a monumental presidential election, it seems that assholes are not only everywhere you turn—in newspapers, on cable TV, at political rallies and protests, and all over social media—but that they, and their behavior, has been normalized. It’s this “rising tide of assholery” that’s the focus of director John Walker’s Assholes: A Theory, which adapts philosophy professor Aaron James’ 2012 non-fiction book into a documentary aimed at both precisely defining the term “asshole,” and investigating how those who fit that bill have increasingly come to dominate key spheres of modern public life.
Donald Trump isn’t seen or mentioned once by name in Assholes: A Theory. Nonetheless, his specter looms large over Walker’s film (in theaters Oct. 30, and on VOD Nov. 6), whether during conversations about corrupt Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi—the forerunner of the media-manipulating populist-criminal-strongman trend that’s recently swept through Western nations—or passages discussing Facebook, Twitter and Google’s prioritization of profit over their responsibility to safeguard democracy from hate speech and disinformation. Without once bringing him up, Walker makes clear that Trump is the embodiment of this problem, given that his election to the highest office—and subsequent flouting of rules and standards of common decency—has made it appear acceptable, and in fact rewarding, to act in the worst possible manner as a means of achieving one’s selfish ends. He is, the film silently contends, the apex of American assholery.