Throughout his life — in his overlapping business, TV and political careers — Donald Trump has attempted to portray himself as what is conventionally known as an “alpha male.” But now he has run into a buzz saw of criminal investigations and civil suits that threaten to reveal both the ludicrousness of his self-image and his failure to meet the traditional standards of leadership.
This does not diminish the seriousness of the threat he poses to American democracy.
As both a candidate and as president, Trump has repeatedly made grandiose claims. Perhaps the best recent example came during his speech at a March 25 campaign rally in Waco, Texas: “I am your warrior, I am your justice,” Trump told his supporters. “For those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”
Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, described one way of looking at Trump in an email:
Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern, sees Trump a bit differently, writing by email:
Trump’s bid for dominance has never, however, produced majority support. His unfavorable ratings remained consistently higher than his favorable ratings throughout his presidency and afterward, according to RealClearPolitics, and remain so to this day.
Let’s put this approach to the Trump phenomenon into a larger context, starting with the work of Amar Sarkar and Richard Wrangham, both of Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology. Sarkar and Wrangham are the authors of the March article “Evolutionary and Neuroendocrine Foundations of Human Aggression.”
“Socio-cognitive advances in the mid-Pleistocene (781,000 years to 126,000 years ago),” they write, “are hypothesized to have enabled lower-ranking males to form alliances that effectively controlled coercive alpha males.”
Sarkar and Wrangham are describing the crucial evolutionary role of coalition formation to overcome the power of “coercive alpha males.” So-called sub-elite males, according to Sarkar and Wrangham, had the ability to form coalitions in order to inflict “capital punishment and targeted conspiratorial killing” that would overcome “individuals who persistently or egregiously violate social norms.”
At that point, Sarkar and Wrangham observe that “a physically formidable coercive alpha male was nonetheless vulnerable to less formidable sub-elite males who possessed sufficient cognitive capacity to form an alliance to kill the alpha male.”
Christopher Boehm, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Southern California, contended in his 2001 book, “Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior,” that these prehistoric developments are actually tracing “the roots of democracy.”
Boehm’s main hypothesis is that “the collective weapon of the rank and file has been their ability to define their own social life in moral terms, and to back up their thoughts about political parity with pointed actions in the form of collectivized social sanctioning.”
Boehm goes on: “The ‘democratic’ origins I describe are not recent and historical, but evolutionary and ancient. They date well back in the Paleolithic era and were intimately involved with the development of human nature itself.”
In effect, Sarkar, Wrangham and Boehm are describing an early stage of what over time has become an essential ingredient of a civilized, ordered society: the acquisition by the state of police power and the legal use of force to enforce norms and laws.
In an email, Sarkar put it this way: “Humans appear to have inherited the capacity to coordinate with one another to enact violence.” While chimpanzees also demonstrate this capacity, according to Sarkar, “one factor that contributes to the uniqueness of human violence is the ability to use language, which allows individuals to freely share thoughts and intentions with one another and to form remarkably precise plans. This means that humans are able to engage in much higher levels of coordination in planning and performing aggression.”
In their article, Sarkar and Wrangham continue the argument:
This shift of authority and control away from abusive, domineering individual males to collective groups of less powerful men and women had substantial consequences for the composition of society, then and now:
The result: “Individual alpha males were thus replaced by alpha alliances of subelite males.”
In a separate 2019 article, Wrangham argues that
Where does all this fit in with the state of politics today?
The barrage of criminal investigations and civil suits against Trump is, in many respects, the sophisticated and complex way America’s democratic system of government has developed to constrain an ominous, and even somewhat delusional, deregulated “alpha-male wannabe”
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, describes Trump in an email as “a unique case. He is a narcissist. He is not hungry for power. He wants attention and praise. So he has some alpha male traits, certainly, but he is not prototypical.”
In his book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion,” Haidt cites Boehm while making the case that the early acquisition of weaponry played a crucial role in the democratization of authority within groups of humans:
Once early humans had developed spears, Haidt continues,
Over time, the aversion to bullying males developed into what Haidt calls “the Liberty/oppression moral foundation,” which, he proposes,
The liberty foundation, Haidt goes on to say,
Pinker argued by email that over the long haul,
But, Pinker cautioned,
Rose McDermott, a professor of international relations at Brown whose research has focused in part on the biological and genetic bases of political behavior, provided further explanation in an email: “Humans,” she wrote, “show self-domestication over time — they become more peaceful — and that may seem like it is not true in light of all the violence in the world, but relative to the death rates in earlier hunter gatherer kinds of nomadic communities, it is true.”
This process of self-domestication, she continued,
In the case of the former president, McDermott wrote:
Democratic norms, according to McDermott
As far as “coercive alpha males” go, Trump is a bully, as demonstrated by his treatment both of competitors for the nomination in 2016 and of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida now; he boasts of his predatory sexual activity; and he lacks empathy, as reflected in his policies separating the children of detained immigrants from their parents at the border.
As the same time, Trump has a long and detailed history of violating the fundamental obligations of a true leader. He is both unreliable and a liar, repeatedly failing to pay bills for services, products and construction; defrauding students who paid to learn about real estate; distorting the truth repeatedly and extensively, about everything from President Barack Obama’s place of birth to the size of his inauguration crowd all the way on through to the results of the 2020 election; promising to “drain the swamp” only to preside over an administration rife with self-dealing.
On top of all that, Trump is often simply preposterous, more a late-night TV subject of ridicule, lacking character and the observable qualities of a credible leader, crude more than calculating, a con artist, huckster and hustler.
Even so, there are a large number of people who are not persuaded by Wrangham’s line of thinking. John Horgan, a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology, where he serves as director of the Stevens Center for Science Writings emailed his response to my inquiry:
R. Brian Ferguson, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers, responded to my inquiry regarding the Sarkar-Wrangham paper by first acknowledging that
McAdams, the professor of psychology at Northwestern, does not share Horgan and Ferguson’s doubts about Wrangham. In an essay written in the first year of the Trump presidency, “The Appeal of the Primal Leader: Human Evolution and Donald J. Trump,” Ferguson argued along lines similar to Pinker’s that
Trump, McAdams continues, “harkens back to an older evolutionarily paradigm for achieving status in primate groups. It is the paradigm of brute dominance, an atavistic proclivity whose primal appeal never seems to fade.”
Why, McAdams asks, “did 63 million Americans elect a president of the United States who was repeatedly described during the campaign, by both Democrats and Republicans, as a serial liar, a sexual predator, a swindler, a narcissist and a bully?”
In addition, according to McAdams,
To some, Trump is less a cause than a symptom of the pervasive contemporary undermining of the American commitment to democratic values.
Kevin Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska, argued by email that there is no doubt that there has been a weakening of democratic norms and that this erosion
Smith pointed out that there are no “gender limits here (think of Marjorie Taylor Greene).” In addition, in Smith’s view, the issue goes to the heart of “the corroding of what’s considered beyond the behavioral pale.”
In a large heterogeneous republic like ours, Smith wrote, “it is not easy, it is not just a matter of having clear rules or laws, but establishing broad acceptance and respect for the process, something more in the realm of custom, tradition or folk intuition.” But “once established, those norms can help insulate democratic systems from what otherwise is a natural vulnerability to demagogues and tyrants.”
Those norms, Smith continued,
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