Friday, November 18, 2016
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.