It's Not That Trump Is an Alpha Male...

...It's That He's So Little Else

Embed from Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images


True to their primate heritage, people are easily seduced by confident, charismatic leaders, especially males... Cults form around such leaders.

-- E. O. Wilson, in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

A cultish following has propelled Donald Trump to the Republican nomination. Whether it can get him to the presidency remains to be seen. But if it does, what substance would he bring to the office, beyond his narcissistic appeal? Is that really enough to make a president? And what exactly is that appeal?

Clues From Our Primate Cousins

Narcissistic behavior in humans bears a striking resemblance to the behavior of dominant males among our social primate cousins, like the alpha chimpanzee or silverback gorilla. The comparison came up in a discussion of my previous post, Trump's Narcissism Is a Feature, Not a Bug, wherein I tried to make the case that narcissism can be understood as a product of human evolution and sociobiology. That narcissism may have contributed to the reproductive success of our distant ancestors does not, of course, mean that it's a fun thing to live with. It may be seductive to Trump's followers. It may help cult leaders get more copies of their genes into the next generation. But with respect to personal integrity, stable marriages, and the happiness of friends and family, narcissism is disastrous, and extreme narcissism extremely so. This is why psychiatrists call the most extreme form a personality disorder.

Still it is fascinating and great fun to see traces of ape-like behavior in ourselves, as you easily can in a delightful documentary from National Geographic (see below). We know from anatomy and genetics that we have much in common with our ape cousins, and yet the video is nonetheless surprising. We see dominance emerge and grow in the way a handshake is offered, in the depth and volume of a voice, in bodily posture and stride, and even in the way scrap paper is discarded. I liked this clever show enough to watch it twice, and yet it left me with the uneasy feeling that something important had been left out.

We Are More Than Apes

I first noticed it about 13 minutes into the video, during the segment that showed an actor deliberately invading the personal spaces of other people in a shopping mall. Like a space-hogging alpha chimp, he would rudely plunk himself down against his seated victim so as to compel either confrontation or retreat, and each one meekly retreated. But what was missing, I thought, was some additional narration pointing out that the reaction was not only ape-like, but also distinctly human. No one picked a fight with the strange, bench-hogging person, and why should they? They were not part of a small clan of chimps whose cooperation, and therefore survival, depended on knowing their place in a dominance hierarchy. They were just resting after shopping for luxury goods in an air-conditioned mall, a tiny part of the most prosperous and complex society the Earth has ever seen. In other contexts, like crowded elevators, they would fully expect and easily tolerate a comparable loss of personal space. Normally a subtle and complex system of manners governs our behavior and keeps most of us at ease, most of the time, in our densely populated cities. The alpha bench-hogger may have been avoided more for his strange lack of human manners than for his dominance as an ape.

Primatologist Frans de Waal asks us to imagine what would happen if the citizens of New York City instantly changed into chimpanzees. The result, he is sure, would be a bloodbath. Chimps are far too aggressive and territorial to accept the numbers and densities that humans tolerate. Sociobiologist Sarah Hrdy makes that same point by conjuring the image of apes on a plane. Humans are, in a sense, self-domesticated apes. Although we are capable of terrible violence, biological evolution has shaped our human nature for greater tolerance and understanding of one another, mainly in the service of more elaborate social cooperation. Cultural evolution builds on this innate foundation, making societies that enshrine human rights in their founding documents, create universities, and put men on the moon.

The Double-Edged Sword

And so one New Yorker in particular seems unusual for his atavistic behavior. Should Donald Trump win in November, he would not be the first narcissistic alpha male to be president. The narcissistic package includes the ambition and charisma that can help win elections. With a good education, prior governmental experience, sober temperament, and an understanding of national and global problems, a narcissist can be a successful president. A recent study by a team of psychologists, historians and biographers found that U.S. presidents were more narcissistic on average than the population at large. At the top of the list was Lyndon Johnson, with Franklin Roosevelt not far behind in fourth place. Johnson was a bully and Roosevelt a philanderer, but between them they enacted the most sweeping legislative programs of the twentieth century.

Overall, however, the study found that grandiose narcissism in a president is a double-edged sword. Although greater narcissism was associated with positive qualities -- like public persuasiveness, crisis management, agenda setting, and initiating legislation -- it was also linked with hunger for power, unethical behavior, impeachment resolutions or proceedings, and greater risk-taking. That last one could be good or bad, depending on how the gamble turns out, but bad bets are more likely from a thin-skinned president who doesn't know the meaning of the term "nuclear triad." What's different about Trump is his profound ignorance, inexperience, lack of realistic proposals, and blindness to his own limitations. What's astonishing is how far he has come entirely on the charismatic appeal of his blustery narcissism -- and how little else he would have to offer as president.

John C. Wathey is a computational biologist whose research interests include evolutionary algorithms, protein folding, and the biology of nervous systems. Learn more about his work at watheyresearch.com.

Here's the National Geographic documentary on human alpha males: