The Primal President
Donald Trump appealed to millions of Americans through sheer primal dominance. His bluster, his unpredictable and easily inflamed temperament, his agenda driven by extreme narcissism, and his story of (white) American warriors constantly fighting in a Hobbesian world of (racial and cultural) change made him appear as an alpha male, a force with which to be reckoned. But really, Trump’s psychological appeal that preys on those who lust for authoritarianism makes him the alpha male of the chimpanzee colony that is now the Republican Party.
Prestige Psychology and Statesmanship
In an ideal polity, humans embrace prestige psychology, a somewhat recent evolutionary gain that has prepared our brains to respect honor those with culturally valued skills. These skills usually contribute to a society’s well-being and are wielded for benevolence.
Prestigious individuals apply their talents not for self-aggrandizement, but to help others. Members of society respond by elevating these individuals to positions of leadership and revere; they seek to emulate these cherished individuals and to respect the prestigious leader’s proclivity to collaborate with other experts (prestigious themselves) and act with degrees of “magnanimity, generosity, forbearance, and dignity in their leadership roles.”
Today, we would call those individuals patricians, or statesmen. Such qualities can be attributed to some of our best presidents, including, namely, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, two men whose actions created and saved the Union while furthering liberty for all.
Donald Trump, of course, shuns statesmanship and his appeal did not draw on prestige psychology. He won because his rhetoric appealed to primal human psychology: Social dominance.
To understand Donald Trump’s appeal, we have to look at chimpanzees. Chimpanzee societies are dominated by a single top-chimp – the alpha. He earns his position through a mix of aggression, intimidation, and threat (which will often devolve into outright violence to squash insurrections and to completely assert social dominance through physical injuries). The alpha chimp also manages to forge coalitions of pragmatism, allying himself with other forces to maintain leadership or, once dethroned, instantly supporting the new alpha in order to keep some vestiges of power.
Humans often act in similar ways. Affinity for social dominance hails from from our ancient history – whereas prestige psychology developed around 100,000 years ago, social dominance became engrained some 5 to 7 million years ago. It’s this truly primal psychology that explains Trump’s appeal.
Trump’s intemperance and (mental) instability means he’s constantly at risk of exploding – he often does this while watching Fox News in the mornings or evenings. His looming aggression and stalking during the second presidential debate show an aggressive man lusting to pounce or charge his opponent. Early morning Twitter tirades insult opposition (often with violent undertones), vent, and relentlessly self-promote such that the uninformed are almost bullied into believing Trump’s competency.
Fear, too, permeates chimpanzee politics – and Trump’s success. Alpha chimps must instill in their potential challengers a sense of fear, a belief that any attempt to overthrow the existing regime would be futile, resulting in pain and even death. Trump uses fear in two ways: To solidify standing among his base and to bully other Republicans into acquiescence.
Trump portrays certain minorities as rapists (Mexicans) and terrorists (Muslims) who hope to destroy the American experiment and undermine Western civilization. By identifying entire groups – large groups, nonetheless – as existential threats to continued existence, he instils in his base a sense of fear. They obviously want to alleviate this fear and so flock to Trump because of his harsh rhetoric towards those groups. And, when irrationally scared, the ends always justify the means. That’s why people supported Trump even after his announcement that he would ban Muslims from entering the country and floated shutting down Mosques and establishing a Muslim database. Anything would be justified to make us safe.
With a solid base unwavering in their support, Trump can bully Republican lawmakers by the implicit (or explicit) threat of a primary challenge. Politicians are cautious creatures. They fear losing and will go to great lengths to avoid real challenges, even if it means compromising on principles (as with most Americans, politicians don’t understand statistics and thus greatly overestimate the probability of losing to a primary challenger). Trump can threaten to endorse and campaign for a rubber-stamp challenger and his base, so the argument goes, will follow him. To avoid that, Republican legislators, in fear of the chimpanzee base, rally behind the president.
This same alpha will also be willing to enter coalitions so long as they benefit himself. He views all relationships as transactional and will end any connection once it ceases to be useful. Hence why Donald Trump ran as a Republican despite having little in common with the party – he needed its resources.
Similarly, after spending months denigrating the RNC and his competitors, he gleefully accepted their endorsements and help; most notably, after claiming that Ted Cruz’s father had been a part of the JFK assassination, Trump accepted Cruz’s endorsement when Cruz ignored his own “vote your conscience” convention speech. It also explains why Trump abandoned Jeff Sessions after the latter’s recusal from the Russia probe: Sessions no longer had anything to offer Trump.
Trump’s appeal, in its primacy, relied on authoritarianism. As mentioned, Trump’s hostile rhetoric towards minorities created a good versus evil false choice in which members of the proposed in-group – (white, Christian) Americans adhering to traditional values – came into conflict with the out-group, bad people (Mexicans and Muslims) who wanted to end the American way of life.
At worst, authoritarianism results in the utter dehuminziation of the out-group. This is how violence and genocide happen. The out-group becomes a subhuman with no natural rights and which must, by all means, be destroyed.
As humans think about conflict with out-groups – whether naturally or at the prompting of a malicious actor – support for highly dominant, authoritarian leaders increases.
Authoritarian Personalities among Voters
Authoritarianism defines the alpha as well as his followers. The (right-wing) authoritarian personality – the best predictor of Trump’s electoral support – desires nationwide values that revolve around traditional norms, submission to (strong) authority figures to either embody or reinforce those norms, and virulent antipathy to those who dare challenge the existing social order.
Trump perfectly fits the needs of those with authoritarian personalities. His extraversion (social dominance, gregariousness, reward-seeking) and low levels of agreeableness (humility, altruism, care, empathy) cultivate a strongman image seemingly dedicated to a strict and traditional social order.
With no political philosophy, Trump acts out of pure narcissism. He wants, above all, to promote himself. This plays into the authoritarian dynamic as those looking for salvation and safety in an authoritarian figure feel vindicated in their choice when the leader believes himself to be a savior, that his “his superior intelligence, his charismatic dominance, his single-minded devotion to a grandiose self will triumph in the end.” That, of course, perfectly defines Trump, a man who constantly (and wrongly) brags about his intelligence.
Donald Trump is the primal president, a man whose support and ascent to power can best be understood by studying chimpanzee politics. He’s an authoritarian who seized the fascination of those with authoritarian personalities and expanded that solid base through fear, intimidation, and coalitions of practicality. His support does not come from political philosophy or long-held ideology. It’s not because of his prestige and skills or natural statesmanship. It’s because Donald Trump tapped the tribal dominance that we evolved millions of years ago but thought we had left behind after the Enlightenment and with the embrace of civil, democratic societies.