Human beings are primates, and as such we are still subject to all sorts of behaviours that are so ingrained in our thinking that we barely notice. Sometimes, however, these deep-seated behavioural patterns come to the fore and we become very predictable animals.
As the United States leads up to the 2016 election, Donald Trump’s effect on the electoral process is described by many as having been de-stabilising. The Republican Party looks rudderless and whereas certain patterns held true for all of Trump’s predecessors, he seems to have broken free from the rules. In previous campaigns, support for a candidate would have evaporated if they had shown deep disrespect for the parents of a soldier killed in the line of duty, if they had shown disregard for the news media, if they had attacked groups on the grounds of race, or been shown to have changed their views or position in the course of a campaign. Not so for Trump. At times his support has seemed perverse.
The fact that Donald Trump has been able to break out of these behavioural norms shows both his current strength and his probable weakness.
Like most men in charge of corporations large or small, Donald Trump’s behaviour places a lot of importance on status. This is not simple ‘social status’ that is in part defined by material status symbols (although those are clearly important to him), this is more the group status that may be observed among other primates.
The work of Jane Goodall showed us some basic behaviours that hold true for a variety of primates. The alpha male in most groups maintains his position through his ability physically threaten and coerce others in the group, his domineering relationship to the females of the group as well as his ability to maintain relationships in a more positive sense (that’s a crude summary which is subject to many nuances, but suits the purpose here).
Seen in this light, Donald Trump is not hard to understand. He is not maintaining his position in the polls through the strengths of his arguments or by his policies (they are barely coherent), but, much more simply, through presenting himself as a domineering and high-status individual. Some sections of the American electorate, it seems, are content to respond to that claim alone. What he says becomes largely irrelevant, so long as it fits with his claim to alpha-male status (post-truth politics is less about the demise of reasoned arguments and verifiable facts and more about the rise of status-based politics).
So the more that Trump succeeds, the more confident he gets, the more plausible his high-status claim becomes. The patterns are clear to observe. Without being physically imposing (although he is not small), Trump is able to present a sense of menace and threat. He does this in his conventions by setting the attendees on protesters and by threatening outsiders such as Mexicans and Muslims. He does this specifically with reference to his current rival by tactics such as hinting at ways in which Hilary Clinton might be subjected to the violence of ‘Second Amendment People’, or by invoking the potential violation of her privacy by Russian cyber-espionage agents. These methods display basic primate status-garnering behaviour. The irrational nature of their content is irrelevant. His supports recognise the claim to status. Trump has the advantage here, of building on an existing platform of status, already established through the fantasy world of his reality-tv shows. He has displayed to the group his ability to dominate females through a series of trophy wives and (almost comically) through purchasing the rights to Miss Universe. Trump claims status and the electorate responds.
Seen in this light, the democratic attack on his misogyny may prove to be a double edged sword. In a thinking society, Trump’s attitude towards women is appalling. That alone should disqualify him from any leadership position, let alone leadership of the most powerful nation on Earth. But Trump’s followers are not responding to reason; they are responding to his claim to status and being surrounded by women is a status claim, whether it is achieved by reputable means or not. On a similar level, Trump’s association with Vladimir Putin is association with a man who projects his own status. It is doubtful whether Trump has considered Russia’s political position or foreign policy — he appears to be responding to someone who he believes has a similar attitude towards power. Attacking the logic of these positions does not undermine them.
If these patterns hold true, it means that a Trump presidency would be just about as dangerous as it is possible to imagine. If he achieves the ultimate status position, there will be little in Trump’s mind that will bar his path. Legality, convention, protocol, even the constitution will be surmountable barriers. With an un-thought awareness that status is all that matters, Trump will not allow anything to undermine his position and he will be irrationally opposed to anything that gets in his way (without actually having a specific destination). He will, like many demagogues before him, feel his way forward. Every time another potential alpha male attempts to challenge him, he will seek to first test them, and then to dominate. The military, the judiciary, Congress and the House of Representatives will all meet the same un-reasoned response. Politicians of many hues will be frustrated beyond all suffering because their attempts to reason with their president will never create a predictable response. He won’t respond to reason. He will only respond to status.
The worst aspect of this mentality is the cohesive sense of threat required to maintain it. Meaning is defined in context and in differentiation with something else and the differentiation can become very ugly. For Trump to maintain his authority he will seek to identify opponents and outsiders. He will mix, confuse and confound the two groups so that they become an abstract singularity (it will be something like, ‘liberals’ or ‘foreigners’, or maybe his greatest disdain will be reserved for ‘liberal foreigners’). Anyone who opposes him will be described as being a member of the outcast group and anyone in the outcast group will be seen as, necessarily, an opponent, not just of Trump, but of his entire group — the United States of America.
But while this horrifying outcome is a grotesque possibility, there is still hope that he might be utterly defeated. He has risen on status alone, and status alone may yet see his collapse. In the first televised presidential debate, Donald Trump showed signs of deferring to ‘Secretary Clinton’. As a man driven by status, his response is predictable when he meets someone of genuine status higher than his own. He will behave respectfully. This was very clear to observe in the first televised debate. When addressing Hilary Clinton directly, Trump was respectful. To resort to calling her ‘Clinton’ again, he had to look away and ignore her.
If the Democrats can use this predictable side to his behaviour, he is sunk. I fervently hope that Hilary will display her authority, her experience and, most of all, her status in the next two debates. The more that Trump is forced to refer to her respectfully (as ‘Secretary Clinton’, for example) the more he will accept her authority and display his acceptance of her authority. If she builds on that by metaphorically forcing him to be respectful, his claim to highest status will meet an obvious end.
It is the most positive outcome we can hope for and it ought to be reasonably easy to achieve. If events turn out this way, it will seem as if Trump’s support will wither for no apparent reason. Journalists will write about American voters ‘coming to their senses’. They won’t have done, they’ll just have withdrawn their support for an alpha male challenger who failed to make the grade. The inherent flaw in American politics will remain, but the worst consequences of that flaw will have been averted. Let’s hope.