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Why Do We Idolize Jerks?

The new book "Ascent of the A-Word" traces our love affair with “iconic assholes” like Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg and others.

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Still, nobody would argue that being an asshole is essential to business success. The books on leadership that line the business sections of Barnes & Noble offer career models to suit every personality type. One can take one’s cues from successful leaders ranging from Bismarck and Golda Meir to Nelson Mandela and the apostle Paul, not to mention Generals Lee, Grant, Custer, and Attila the Hun. With that choice before them, the managers who make for the shelf that holds books on Patton and Jobs aren’t settling on assholism as a career expedient, they’re looking to justify their predilection for it. Few people become assholes reluctantly.

In any event, few of the people who bought Isaacson’s biography were looking for tips on becoming masters of the universe or pretexts for rationalizing their own arrogance. And the stories Isaacson tells about Jobs’ assholism are different from the ones that hagiographic biographers tell about Patton. They often demonstrate a capacity for irrationality, spitefulness, and petulance that had little to do with any psychological jujitsu: firing a manager in front of an auditorium of people; short-changing Steve Wozniak on a bonus in the early days of their partnership; taking credit for the ideas of others; screaming, crying, and threatening when the color of the vans ordered at NeXT didn’t match the shade of white of the manufacturing facility; and launching savagely into anyone who aroused his displeasure. (I know of one person who says he quit his high-level job at Apple because he got tired of wiping Jobs’ spittle off his glasses.) True, the Patton of historical fact was by most accounts even worse: a full-blown prick, sadist, and suck-up detested by both his superiors and his subordinates. But most of that has been left out of the story that made Patton an epitome of brilliant leadership, whereas Jobs’ pathological behavior is an essential element in his myth.

So it says something that Jobs’ assholism hasn’t been retouched for public consumption the way Patton’s was. That has a lot to do with the anti-heroic temper of the times; we demand all the dirt, especially on our heroes. But it also suggests a different idea of what makes these asshole achievers compelling, even to those with no interest in emulating them. Jobs’ tantrums and rants don’t evoke the resolute toughness of a Leader of Men so much as the temperament that we associate with creative genius. He styled himself as an artist rather than a businessman, the turtlenecked begetter of the cool exuded by the company’s iStuff. That was a credible posture in an age in which people found it natural to compare the launch of the iPhone to the previous generation’s Woodstock, and it seemed to license the prodigal shittiness that goes with being a Bernini, a Picasso or a Pound — or, for that matter, a Robert Plant. One reviewer of the Isaacson book compared reading it to “going backstage at a Led Zeppelin concert in the seventies and seeing your heroes wasted, and babbling like babies, surrounded by bimbos.” Indeed, Jobs was a rock star, in a sense that Bill Gates couldn’t possibly be, not just because he was idolized, but because he was one of those people like Jim Morrison, Kanye West and the Metallica guys, whose behavior as flaming assholes is taken as evidence of being exceptional enough to be able to get away with it.

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Donald Trump comes closer than anyone else to being the archetype of the species; crossing genres, he exemplifies all the  ways an asshole can capture our attention. He’s in a different league from Patton or Jobs, whose assholism is perceived relative to their other achievements — they’d be remembered even if they had been even-tempered and self-effacing, though perhaps not the subjects of a best-selling biography or an Oscar-winning biopic, whereas Trump would have no more claim on our attention than Harold Hamm, Charles Ergen, Dannine Avara or most of the other hundred-odd Americans who have more money than he does.