Human Nature

Anthropologist Says Donald Trump and Alpha Chimp Play the Same Political Game

Every lasting chimpanzee alpha male is an expert in intuitive politics

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David Sloan Wilson interview with Christopher Boehm

UPDATE Below »

Donald Trump has been compared to an ape in an unlikely place—the pages of New Scientist magazine. The author of the commentary is Christopher Boehm, whose books Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior and Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism and Shame go a long way toward defining the difference between (highly) cooperative human society and (largely) uncooperative primate societies. Here’s an email conversation that I had with Chris to expand upon his analysis of Donald Trump as acting like an alpha male chimpanzee. 

DSW: In your essay in New Scientist, you compare Donald Trump to an alpha male chimpanzee. A lot of people would like to call Trump an ape, but you are speaking with some authority and New Scientist wouldn’t publish something that was merely name-calling. What is the serious point that you are making with your comparison?

CB: Every lasting chimpanzee alpha male is an expert in intuitive politics, for with these apes leadership competition is constant and not limited to contests every four years. Political competition is a field in which Trump is an intuitive genius. He has worked with the theater of conflict not only in his television series The Apprentice, but also in his foray into the raucous world of professional wrestling shows. Trump obviously got on well with these people. In the New Scientist article I drew a parallel between Trump and a Gombe chimpanzee named Mike, who suddenly became alpha male because he incorporated new elements of intimidation into his alpha-male displays. Trump has innovated similarly, and his orthodoxly-political opponents have had no good answer.

DSW: A little more about you, please. I know who you are but a broader audience needs to know.

CB: I’m a cultural anthropologist interested in political behavior, who was trained in ethology by Jane Goodall and spent six year going to Africa to study conflict resolution among wild chimpanzees. What is interesting about these apes, is that when third parties intervene in conflicts, they do so by exerting raw power. If two subordinates are fighting, the alpha male will erect all of his hair and charge toward the fighters and they will fearfully disengage to escape him. As Frans de Waal has shown us, watching chimpanzees is a great way to learn about human political behavior.

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DSW: More than almost anyone else, you have helped to define the difference between chimp society and small-scale human society. Could you please briefly describe your “reverse dominance” hypothesis?

CB: This hypothesis likens the rebellions of chimpanzee subordinates who band together to attack and sometimes exile or kill high-ranking males they don’t like to the extreme egalitarianism of mobile hunter-gatherers or independent tribesmen. The political dynamics are basic to the operation of modern democracies: a dislike of being subordinated and bossed around.

DSW: Right! Against that background, the social dynamics of the Republican primary race, and the whole nation for that matter, strikes me as increasingly chimp-like, dominated by disruptive within-group competition, which can’t be good for collective interests. What do you think of that assessment?

CB: That’s the name of American politics: infighting to name a candidate and then, at least strongly in theory, coalesce behind that candidate. For chimpanzees that would involve considerable sophistication, but one parallel is that although chimpanzees are constantly skirmishing to gain power, when they go on patrol against an enemy group of neighbors, they never seem to quarrel. That is about the only collective interest these apes show, except when they collaborate in mobbing a predator like a large python or leopard.

DSW: Right, and there is a parallel with large human societies uniting against a common enemy, but that’s not a workable solution in the modern age and common threats such as climate change don’t seem to be doing the trick yet. Your commentary in New Scientist ends on a curious note. If Trump becomes president, you ask if he will be “as aggressive in getting things accomplished for the people who elected him, as he has been in trying to become the alpha male of an entire planet.” Chimps who become alpha don’t change their ways and work for the good of their groups. They continue to intimidate everyone for as long as they can. Why should anyone expect Trump to change his ways? Isn’t it more likely to be a case of “once an alpha chimp male, always an alpha chimp male?”

CB: You’re unfairly stereotyping chimps, and possibly Trump, as well. Alpha males keep other chimpanzees from hurting each other in fights as I said before, and de Waal’s work suggests that this is actually appreciated. With Trump it remains to be seen how much he has the public interest at heart, but if he gets power, it is perfectly possible that he will try to make himself into a respected president. The base he looks to for support and his efforts to cater to that base turn people off, if they are left of the extreme right, but I suggest that you wait and see what Trump does when he has to go for the political center, once he has the nomination in hand. This is obviously a person of great political flexibility, and it is difficult to identify the real Trump, who has recently dealt in bigotry and starred as a nasty autocrat in the Apprentice, and also made a foray into the world of professional wrestling, but at the same time opposed the Iraq War, and appears to be for a single-payer medical program for the country. Trump has moved from pro-choice to pro-life, but he could always change back. An interesting question, in the days to come, is how far he can go in catering to the political center without his Tea Party support eroding; however, his support comes from others who like him personally and are fed up with the system of institutionalized bribery that is America. Obama talked about dealing with the lobbies but never tried to do so; Trump merely says he isn’t beholden but hasn’t suggested he’d want to dismantle the system; Clinton is in bed with lobbies, and Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who says he’d do something about it, but I expect that would require a national referendum. What we are left with, is that Trump would appear to be lobby-free, and that he is so flexible that it is difficult to imagine where he’s heading until he starts specifying a few things.

DSW: These are good points and I agree with you that the centrist alternatives to Trump aren’t very appealing either when they are beholden to special interests. It seems to me that we’re circling around a central point. What makes small-scale human societies different and more cooperative than chimp societies is social control—the ability to suppress disruptive self-serving behaviors in all their forms. That’s your reverse dominance hypothesis. The need for social control is scale-independent. Large-scale societies need them as much as small-scale societies, although the mechanisms of social control might well need to differ with scale. The question isn’t limited to what Trump (or anyone else) will do on his own volition. The question is also what will happen to keep Trump (or anyone else) in line if he decides to deviate from the common good, and how someone like Trump is likely to respond to efforts at social control. Isn’t a good hunter-gatherer self-effacing?

CB: Trump is all but obsessed with the opinion of others, in that he watches the polls so carefully. He’s interested in power and winning, but he obviously thrives on being liked–by some–at the same time that he is detested by many. My own guess is that we’re looking at a crapshoot here. There are definitely fears that the charismatic dictator type of despot many see in Trump will lead America into a Hell of bigotry. My own inclination is to see Trump as a rich son of a rich man who also likes to hang out on construction sites and joke with the hard hats, and that he is extremely interested in power, which in fact characterizes any but he most idealistic of presidential candidates. Right now his ticket is to appeal to white male non-college people, and to capitalize on the disgust many others feel about their government. He might surprise us when he has to turn to the political center, and as an astute politician he probably will do this since his object is to win. The good news is that he graduated from Wharton and he understands what it would take to be a respected president. That is a gyroscope that, with desire for a good reputation, could make him useful to a presently cowering country as a man who is not owned by lobbies. You suggested that morality makes the difference, and you are correct. Trump is a flamboyant nonconformist and he has used this to excellent political effect. He is clearly obsessed not only with his own potency but with power. But he shows every sign of being a normal human being, as opposed to a psychopath, and I’d suggest that we are in for some more surprises along the way. Hopefully they will not be unpleasant.

DSW: Your perspective is certainly refreshing! Let’s check back with each other as the developments unfold.

2016 February 1

UPDATE 9/25/16

Editor’s Note: We checked back with Christopher. Below is his latest analysis and prediction before Monday’s Presidential Debate.

To an anthropologist who studies both tribal humans and wild chimpanzees, Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy is a fresh, intriguing, and to many unsettling development in American politics. Trump’s innovations have “worked” from the get go. To start with, his focus was on gaining free public attention that would drive the polls in his favor, and his extensive ego-centered experience with the media provided him with the necessary background. He set statistical records in out-competing his rivals. Trump also took a page from his primate ancestors: he established dominance by turning American political etiquette upside down.

Trump followed the same general campaign strategy that the formerly-independent John McCain did in competing with Bush the Younger: Trump catered to the highly religious, gun-loving, and otherwise right-wing minority that is viewed as being essential to capturing the Republican base. This man who was once in favor of women’s choice and basically opposed the second Iraq War started his presidential bid when he flamboyantly led the Birther Movement as an attack on the legitimacy of America’s first Black president, and more recently, in using street language tinged with ethnic prejudice, he consolidated his hold on the herd of conservative Republicans who would stick with him no matter what, and drive up his polls in ways unprecedented in election history. Politically incorrect misogyny and xenophobia were part of the blend, but he transformed the xenophobic element into a rational political program, oriented to addressing national job loss due to globalization based on inopportune trade deals. He thereby broadened his base to include many working Americans who are economically disaffected.

He innovated radically, in the matter of setting aside normal political etiquette and directing sometimes rather insightful but highly impolite and politically incorrect barbs at his competitors the minute they attacked him. With no compunction he characterized the Bush heir-apparent as low energy and Ted Cruz as a pious liar, and it was this behavior that I likened nine months ago to the Gombe chimpanzee alpha male Mike, who innovated in his own way. The low-ranking Mike confiscated some oil drums from Jane Goodall’s camp at Gombe National Park, where I worked for six years, and incorporated them into his routine intimidation displays. As a result, a politically impotent male of not very significant rank rose to be alpha male, due to the novelty of a deafening noise the oil drums made. The other males were in shock, and the same can be said of Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and others. It will be interesting to see if a supposedly more “presidential” Trump attacks Hillary Clinton similarly in the upcoming debate.

I predicted at the beginning that Trump would win the Republican nomination, and to the eventual surprise of virtually every media expert this is exactly what took place. I also predicted that he would see the need to widen his base of support, and change his messages accordingly. After he had decimated most of his opponents, his wife and children were urging him to be “more presidential,” but he remained adamant that what he was doing was working. In fact presidentiality was exactly what his campaign needed—and needed badly in spite of Hillary Clinton’s having such a tarnished reputation in many quarters.

What I did not predict was that Trump’s love of making controversial, media-attracting attacks, combined with his fragile yet combative ego, would present serious obstacles to broadening his message. After the Republican convention finished, he launched a politically-suicidal and conspicuous ethnic attack on an Islamic critic who suggested that he read the American Constitution, and this habitual “winner” saw a humiliating loss looming in his future.

Personality matters aside, Trump’s dilemma is that his base is so far to the political right, and that he has pandered to their prejudices so openly and so definitively that he has boxed himself in. If he softens his position sufficiently to appease the centrist independents he needs, his vehemently right-wing voting base may erode in spite of the enormous crowds he draws.

After several managerial shakeups, the Trump campaign is now on track with a long-term advisor of Trump’s guiding him in the direction of “presidentiality,” and meekly he has already given as much of an “apology” as he is capable of with respect to Birtherism, which consisted of merely admitting that President Obama was born in the USA. This man who always feels he is right also provided a more direct, generic apology for causing people pain—without specifying that he had insulted a family who lost a son in combat. In making these difficult adjustments, Trump faces the likelihood that independents will not believe he is sincere, while his base will think their strong man is going soft. That is the dilemma that defines the upcoming debate.

Adversaries see this big-ego rigidity as a weakness, and Hillary Clinton can be expected to try and prod him into maladaptive responses. Now that his managers seem have him under control, Trump’s preparation for the debate will surely be predicated on avoiding utterances suggestive of bigotry, trying to patch up things with Blacks and Hispanics, and by attacking Clinton’s positions on trade and foreign policy—all at the same time that he tries to keep his disenfranchised, economically long-suffering, working-class base happy with his turning away from the hyperbolic professional wrestling idiom, to speak more like a presidential candidate.

In the debate I predict a mixture of attempted presidentiality the same old hard-hat manners. Trump is likely to be direct and scornful in calling Clinton dishonest, emphasizing the mistrust theme that resonates even with solid Democratic voters. I predict that Clinton will attempt to bait Trump into exhibiting too much of his alpha-male personality, which includes never admitting he is wrong and never regretting his political gaffes. In that context, Clinton has the chance to show that she can stand up to someone many consider to be a bully.

American politics is theater, and Trump is an adept media actor, good at spontaneous speaking but prone to be a loose cannon policy-wise and not prepared to do the hard work of becoming an informed expert on national and international affairs. The well-informed Clinton is embedded in a political machine that is oriented to win, and her carefully-stated policies change accordingly, as took place when she took over Bernie Sanders’ program of reducing student indebtedness. She does this quite efficiently—but it partly backfires because so many potential voters don’t feel she is genuine.

Americans are used to seeing heated political debates with the winner predictably changing in the direction of the Washington status quo after winning. For this reason “The Same Old Merry-Go-Round” has been applied often to politics in Washington, with its now entrenched habit of institutionalized bribery through lobbying. The candidate who would have addressed this basic problem with American democracy politics was Bernie Sanders, while Elizabeth Warren was waiting in the wings. It seems unlikely that either Clinton or Trump will address this problem in the upcoming debate, since Clinton is firmly embedded in this unhappy system, and since Trump has played the game adroitly as a businessman who knows how to spread his money around and subtly purchase influence. Although Trump is his own kind of political outsider, unlike Warren and Sanders he has merely criticized the lobbying system, not suggested that it should be criminalized out of existence. Probably the only realistic way to address this malignancy in the American political system will be to pass a national referendum outlawing lobbying, with realistic and heavy penalties. And in essentially ignoring this issue, Trump passed up on a chance to pick up disaffected younger voters who were feeling the Bern.

The stakes in this American election are high in terms of civil liberties, because of the Supreme Court and its future for the next several decades. Clinton may well challenge Trump on women’s rights to make their own abortion decisions, and Trump, once in favor of choice, has stated in an interview that the woman should be punished. Trump is strong on law and order, and in using the professional wrestling idiom he repeatedly suggests that he is not adverse to a little bit of violence. However, one fails to see any real link between Trump and a Hitler with his antidemocratic Brown Shirts. In fact the checks and balances system in America works so well that the legislative branch has created an appalling gridlock for the past eight years by deliberately thwarting America’s first Black president. It is difficult to see a dictator emerging from such a system.

We may expect some bitter debate in the sphere of foreign policy. The rest of the world is watching, and treaties, alliances, and Isis are likely topics in this first debate. While Trump has made some scary pronouncements, in fact he may be less prone to foreign military adventures than Clinton, who he will fault for the Iraq War and for what took place in Libya, with the rise of Isis. Clinton will try to make him be specific about defeating Isis and he is likely to stumble there, even though now he has the advantage of confidential national security briefings. Clinton will likely attack him for an apparent willingness to break off treaties, but in fact Trump’s main concern has been that America not be short-changed financially in its alliances, and in his businessman’s approach he has failed to see the need for careful diplomatic language—politically correct language—when discussing the nuclear situation in a dangerous world that has failed to stop proliferation.

This subject seems likely to loom large in the upcoming debate, but it must be kept in mind that no matter what a candidate says in campaigning, once she or he is in office advisors will prevent undue innovation in foreign policy. With Bush the Second the advice was tragically dangerous for America’s standing in the world and for a destabilized Middle East, and to their shame the Democrats went along with this disastrous attempt at nation building. Trump actually shares Obama’s position on the war, and Obama beat Clinton. This may well be the most conspicuous controversy in the debate on Monday.

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