Friday, November 18, 2016

Trump - Alpha Male

In the early hours of Wednesday November 9, 2016, after a lengthy and remarkably vicious election campaign, Donald Trump was declared elected as the forty-fifth President of the United States.  It is not an exaggeration to say that this event shook the whole world.

 Trump broke all the previous rules for running for office.  He lied openly, he insulted and degraded women and ethnic minorities, he talked about building a wall to keep out Mexicans;  he talked about deporting millions of illegal immigrants; he called for  a total ban on the immigration of Muslims; he encouraged violence against demonstrators, and he encouraged the idea of jailing his opponent Hillary Clinton.  

Trump also broke technical rules: his winning campaign used less attack ads, it did not rely on pollsters, it had a drastically smaller ground campaign than the losing campaign,  and it spent a fraction of what the losing campaign spent.  

During the Republican Primaries, reporters described how Trump’s ability to dominate the debates was as if he deprived the other candidates of oxygen when it came time for them to speak.   Trump was also able to dominate the news media from the first day to the last, by churning out  incendiary quotes that fired up his base and outraged the rest of the world.  Some commentators spoke of his talent for relentless publicity, which they said was honed by years of his experience with his signature reality show - ‘The Apprentice’.

I was interested to see that Jane Goodall, who spent years observing chimpanzees in the wild, compared Trump’s campaign to the the way that a particular chimpanzee, she named Mike, had risen to become an alpha male.  Mike discovered that he could take empty oil-drums and bang them together to make an awful racket.  The resultant noise intimidated the entire troop, allowing him to assume the rank of alpha male.  Goodall felt that there was a remarkable similarity between the two campaigns.  

Many wild animals, especially mammals, and especially apes, our closest biological relatives,  have natural dominance hierarchies led by an alpha or most dominant male.  These hierarchies afford a measure of stability and order in animal societies because once rank is decided, with an alpha in the top position, there is less fighting and violence between group members.  Once installed, an alpha male can control others by bluff and posture without having to risk fighting, and this will work as long and until a challenger or group of challengers comes along that match or surpass him in strength.

In humans, it’s interesting to speculate about how strong the dominance hierarchy is.  There are hierarchies all around us, in the military, the police, government bureaucracies,  academia, in the medical sector, in corporations, and  in families.  But, except for gangs and organized crime,  human hierarchies avoid violence much more than apes.  In very few, if any  organizations that I’m aware of, do the contenders have to physically fight it out for the top position.

Nevertheless we are all aware on some level about what dominance is, and most of us fall into line when we are with someone who is more dominant.  The signs are there, but, in humans they are often subtle.  Unlike other animals, human dominance is mostly rule-governed,  by which I mean that in all societies there are strong rules condemning violence, rules against stealing, adultery,etc. and rules concerning attaining and maintaining roles and positions.    

I think that Jane Goodall is onto something with her comparison of Trump with Mike the alpha chimp.  Trump’s “pre-campaign”  was publicizing and amplifying the ‘Birther’ movement.  This was a group of Americans, a substantial subset of the Republican party, who questioned the official version of President Obama’s life history, often insinuating that he was born in Kenya.  

Two things happened out of this.  Trump’s Birther campaign successfully moved President Obama to publish his birth certificate.  And then President Obama mocked Trump during an annual press gathering, in Trump’s presence.  According to the CBS Documentary 60 Minutes, it was largely as a reaction to this slight that Donald Trump decided to run for President.  My thought is that Trump’s original decision to push Birtherism was really the first step in his campaign. ( First find your supporters, then challenge the rival for supremacy.)  

Trump’s followers celebrated the fact that he was “politically incorrect”,  The fact that evidence emerged that Trump sexually molested women over the years, which in an ordinary election, and with an ordinary candidate, would have permanently barred them from being President, had only a modest effect on Trump’s campaign.

 The whole campaign makes much more sense from the perspective of alpha male competition.  From the very beginnings of Barack Obama’s Presidency, the Republicans, who controlled both the Congress and the Senate, refused to acknowledge his legitimacy to fill the office of President.  Government was continually in gridlock because the  Republican majorities refused to cooperate.

 It is common knowledge that ranking Republicans set their supreme goal to that of ensuring that Obama would only be a one term President.  To that end they were willing to undermine and weaken Obama’s efforts to recover the U.S. economy from the economic meltdown that had preceded his election.  Their concept of “public service”  was plain and simple -  the destruction of the Obama Presidency.  

This concept may seem nihilistic to some of us, but to the Republican rank and file that comprised the Birther Movement, it makes all the sense in the world.  A black President was simply unacceptable, so to do everything in their power to undermine and thwart the Obama Administration was doing a public service for “White America”.   

It may be a plausible theory that the anger of white voters had to do with the high inequality in society brought on by globalization.  But if that is the case, why was the anger specifically brought on by Obama’s election?  Obama appeared to do all that he could to alleviate the damage of the 2008 financial catastrophe, a catastrophe that unfolded during his election campaign, during the last months of the Bush Presidency.   But Obama was thwarted on almost every turn by the Republicans in the House and Senate.  The Tea party, which surely represents angry white voters if anything does, rose to power after Obama’s election, during the midterms.

The behaviour of the Republican party in seeking to delegitimize Obama’s Presidency is the key to Trump’s election. The anger of uneducated whites is economic anger channeled together with racial anger that was stoked by relentless propaganda. 

 This past election campaign broke the rules in every way because it was about breaking the rules.  On a deep unconscious level, this was not a contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, it was a contest between Donald Trump and Barack Obama.  Just look at the immediate consequences:  the Republican party now has control of all three branches of government.  They now have the power to reverse every one of Obama’s signature achievements.  

Unfortunately there is a problem with giving an alpha male the keys to a political office.  Human politics differs from Chimpanzee Politics in one main way - human systems are  more rule-governed.  When we commit to a democratic system we expect our representatives to commit to standards of communicative validity.  Trump broke all the rules of communication;  he was often insincere, he lied constantly, often unconsciously;  he encouraged violence and hatred.

This is a man, who shows almost no commitment to rational discourse.  He didn’t have to in order to win over his enthusiastic supporters, and every time he showed his disrespect for minorities, his disrespect for the truth, and his disrespect for civilized conduct he won more support from white voters.

The government of the United States is a rule-governed system.  But rules can only work if they are followed.  If one half the population refuses to honour the rules then it becomes a system with only one rule:  “might makes right”   Donald’s sexual behaviour, his refusal to apologize, his refusal to admit he is ever wrong,  his risk-taking, his unpredictability,  his breaking the rules, his dominating the news media -   every one of these traits reinforced his status as alpha male.  

For an alpha male, it’s all about breaking the rules, because in their world there is only one rule:  “might makes right.”  Rules and morality are what make us human.  When we jettison these in favour of one “leader” we go back to the jungle. 


  1. Very thought provoking. Jane Goodall's work must have a lot of relevance to understanding human nature, since we are so biologically close to our ape ancestors. Thank you for this article.

  2. careful Charles Those who hurl pernicious invective often end up themselves covered in.... well I'm sure you know.

    1. You are mistaken. This is neither invective, nor pernicious. I am stating cold hard facts. I am pointing out a dangerous process that is underway.

    2. You may be stating facts, but for supporters of Trump, the hurling may be part and parcel of the process.

  3. Toward the home stretch of your article racism becomes the sole reason for the rise of right wing Trump support. What happened to the economic meltdown you mentioned that Obama inherited rather than created - surely those concerns factor in to the current Trump win.

    1. My point is, that Obama had no responsibility for the economic meltdown, nor for the inequality that exists in America, yet he got all the vitriol from the Tea Party and the rest of the Republicans. Why? Because he is the first Black President of the United States.

    2. that is true
      however, I think that economic concerns trump (lol) racial ones
      Obama won twice

    3. Obama is an exceptional President and a great and inspiring orator. He twice bested the Presidential field. But all along there was a significant group of racists out there who refused to accept the idea that a Coloured Person could become President, hence the Tea Party, the Birther Movement, and Trump's open racism.

  4. BTW this was my opinion before I ever spoke with Michael. After I read it, he told me about his criticism of your article and I agreed that there was a missing link between the first part of your article and the last part. The parallel drawn between chimp and human society is fascinating and right on.

    1. Note from L in reply to my comment: perhaps Trump's racism was one of the oil drums that he was banging so hard. He and his father wouldn't rent to black people so the younger Trump grew up with racism. But I think he mellowed somewhat over time and would not reject wealthy, prominent black people today.
      The real deep obsession with whiteness is not his disease. He's not the same as the White Nationalists. He is more "flexible". If he can gain something from black people he will use them. So, he used racism in his campaign because this alpha chimp knew how powerful it was within the American people. He used the strongest, deadliest weapon available.

    2. His flexibleness is a great asset for him, not so much for the rest of the planet. Like an alpha male, he will use this flexibility in the service of manipulation and control. He can prove me wrong, but I think the best analogy we have right now is Hitler. It is no coincidence that the neo-Nazis are having a resurgence now.

  5. I am not sure I agree that it was Trump vs Obama in this election. I think it was Trump vs. Clinton.
    Hillary didn't listen to the people. They were fed up with being lied to and misled. And when she was directly challenged she out shouted her detractors and barreled on as if they didn't matter.
    I will say here that Trump scared the crap out of me. He's a bully and a racist who doesn't like women. And all of those things Hillary took as validation for a win. I mean, who would vote for such a person?
    And when she lost what did she do? Did she come out and apologize and give a concession speech and wish the winner well? No. She pouted in her hotel and waited until the following day. Does that show leadership in the face of adversity? Does it show grace or respect for the people who voted for her? Not to me, it doesn’t. I was disappointed in her.
    The Clinton’s were broke when they left the Whitehouse in 2009. Any idea what they are worth today? $111,000,000 That’s after the $3 Million for Chelsea’s wedding. How do you suppose they came by all that money? Sure, they gives speeches and charge way too much for them, but that’s a lot of hot air. Have you heard of the documentary Clinton Cash? Tsk. Tsk. Hillary.
    The point I would like to make is that he wears his a$$holedness for all to see; she pretends she doesn’t have one.
    Trump said he’d, “lock her up!”.
    Well, already he’s backtracked on that. It was a very popular rallying cry at the time of the election, so why did he backtrack? I don’t know but I am guessing it has something to do with down the road when he and his family leave office…

  6. I think Clinton would have made a far better President, but that's water under the bridge now. Anyways, I'm not the only one who thinks that this was really about the Obama Presidency:

  7. This is an amazing piece of writing by Derek Black about the same issues:

  8. Here's a piece by Bill Moyers where more historians are making the same point: That Trump was running against Obama

  9. From the Moyers piece: Nell Painter: PAINTER:

    "I have said, more than once, that we would not have Trump without Obama. And that is, on the one hand, we have this current, this running current, of white supremacy — the assumption that nonwhite people are sort of over there and they’re inferior, they don’t work hard.

    Black people are not supposed to be powerful. What is the ultimate defiance of that assumption? The ultimate defiance is the president."

  10. Perhaps, and certainly there's racism at play in American politics. Not to say that Canadians are so much better, we haven't had to face the same challenges. However, I will make it my business to look up statistics on how states voted in the 2008 and 2012 elections. It's important to see the spread of votes according to race and income. It's my belief that a considerable number of whites voted for Obama because he campaigned on change. However he did precious little change when in the White House. Certainly he was obstructed by the ignorant cabal of Senators, the ones who wrote an open letter to the leaders of Iran. But was he trying to put through progressive legislation while being obstructed? No way, he didn't do what he could have to reign in the Wall Street people (the worst of the worst, much more harmful than those ignorant Senators). He was worried about his legacy, did not want to reinforce the stereotype of a wild eyed black man - he was human and fallible. He didn't do enough to change things. Maybe he would have been blocked but he didn't even try. It seems to me that he bent over backwards to not be divisive. They called him divisive anyway, for sure largely out of racism, but also out of the new identity politics where you castigate anyone not on your side. He could have saved himself the trouble. They didn't accept him anyway. I wish that he had done more for progressive values. In America this means not automatically assuming that if you work hard enough just about anyone can become a millionaire, that you need to maintain a free market so that people can compete in peace. In fact protectionism and monopolies dominate the American landscape, a fact which right wingers don't want to admit. So progressive values means socializing more areas of life, not less. And having to fight the right wingers all the way.