The Alpha-Trump Dilemma

From a primatologist’s point of view, Trump is more like “a bully chimp” than an alpha.

Vintage Illustration; Library of Congress.

The pacing, the lurking, the looming.

You could feel the full weight of The Full Donald as he moved and lingered behind Hillary Clinton in their last debate. The on-stage behavior so unusual even for our absurdist political theater that Trump was likened to a “silver back gorilla,” a biological reference to the leaders of wild gorilla troops.

Trump has not only been physically taunting; nearly every question he fielded in the debate had a streak of violence to it, spinning his retorts like verbal nunchuks, looking to spike and shake her into a scuff.

Trump’s hyper-aggressive display, supported by his reputation to seek and mate with a variety of females (another silver back trait), has been so heavy that before tonight’s final debate I reached out to Dr. Frans de Waal, a leading primatoligist at Emory University, and the author of Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes, for insight into Trump’s tactics.

“This is a display of male dominance, no doubt,” Waal said of Trump’s pacing during the second debates and all-around bravado. “He’s standing tall, speaking in a low, anatomical voice.”

After spending a career monitoring the behavior of gorillas in the wild, Waal is not surprised by Trump’s incessant attacks on Bill Clinton.

“Trump attacking other males like Bill Clinton is perfectly fine,” he said, referring to the time honored tradition of males battling each other for power and prestige. “This could be why he’s attracting more men, because he’s appealing to male values of dominance and territory.”

What’s unusual — from the primate perspective — is Trump’s attack on a female.

“This is a new dilemma,” Waal says. “Male apes don’t attack female apes. They protect them. And when they do fight, they have different rituals for that, but it’s not an attack per se.”

The emergence of a female like Hillary Clinton in the contest — again, from the primate perspective — changes the rules of engagement and rules of nature that have been in place for centuries.

“What Trump faces are new rules of ritualization that he was not used to,” Waal said.

Unlike many who consider Trump an alpha, Waal isn’t so sure.

“He’s more like a bully chimp, and we see the emergence of these from time to time,” he said. These bully chimps, he says, “use a lot of wild physical intimidation and physical strength, and they are able to attract support among chimps that are impressed, but they are generally removed after a period of time and considered a good bit of trouble.”

Bully chimps are different than Alpha chimps, Waal said.

“There’s a misperception that Alpha chimps are these loud and overly aggressive chimps but that’s not really true,” he said. “Generally, Alpha chimps are the most popular, and these are chimps that tend to share their food the most, show empathy and consolation behavior.”

Trump is now so known for his attacks that Waal believes the candidate maybe fenced in to his relentless bravura. It’s too late to change course, even if he’s capable.

“The old fighting rules interfere,” he said, referring to the chimp code of not attacking females. “He can jump high or low but I don’t think it’s going to go over.”