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:
Imagine early hominid life as a tense balance of power between alpha males (and an ally or two) and the larger set of males who are shut out of power. Then arm everyone with spears. The balance of power is likely to shift when physical strength no longer decides the outcome of every fight. That’s essentially what happened, Boehm suggests, as our ancestors developed better weapons for hunting and butchering.
Once early humans had developed spears, Haidt continues,
anyone could kill a bullying alpha male. And if you add the ability to communicate with language and note that every human society uses language to gossip about moral violations, then it becomes easy to see how early humans developed the ability to unite in order to shame, ostracize or kill anyone whose behavior threatened or simply annoyed the rest of the group.
Over time, the aversion to bullying males developed into what Haidt calls “the liberty/oppression moral foundation,” which, he proposes,
evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of living in small groups with individuals who would, if given the chance, dominate, bully and constrain others. Anything that suggests the aggressive, controlling behavior of an alpha male (or female) can trigger this form of righteous anger, which is sometimes called reactance.
The liberty foundation, Haidt goes on to say,
supports the moral matrix of revolutionaries and “freedom fighters” everywhere. The American Declaration of Independence is a long enumeration of “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of absolute tyranny over these states.” The document begins with the claim that “all men are created equal” and ends with a stirring pledge of unity: “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
Pinker argued by email that over the long haul,
history has seen the invention of increasingly complex systems that limit the power of the leader, such as coalitions (as per Sarkar and Wrangham), power-sharing or turn-taking agreements, parliaments, constitutions and rule-governed bureaucracies. Our leader is called a president because he merely presides over the government, rather than ruling over it.
But, Pinker cautioned,
we’re always in danger of slipping back into the dynamic of dominance. In democracies, voters, on average, favor the taller candidate and often crave a strong leader. Presidents and prime ministers, for their part, often arrogate more power than the constitution allows. The system of laws that constrains the leader’s power is often tested to its limits, and in countries that are not democracies, their only hope may be what Sarkar and Wrangham call an “alpha coalition,” namely the coup plotters that many of us hope might someday depose Putin.
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,
happens as groups of beta and gamma males (the less strong ones) work together to unseat alphas who exploit the community. They might ostracize him (the alpha male), but mostly they assassinate him. What that means is that slowly over time you get more egalitarian dynamics (such as the birth of democracy).
In the case of the former president, McDermott wrote:
Trump is a poster child for a coercive alpha male, and frankly I have been surprised that more Republicans don’t try to take him on directly. I think part of it is that other potential Republican leaders are so narcissistic that they cannot band together in the kind of coalition that historically would have brought down a leader like this in one way or another. This depends on coalitional dynamics: men working together in cooperation, not against each other.
Democratic norms, according to McDermott,
are one way the country has tried to constrain the negative effects of Trump through things like rule of law and elections. (Biden won in 2020.) But they have not been as strong as many would like or hope for, and I agree that this is partly (although not entirely) related to increasing polarization (i.e., the inability to form strong united coalitional bonds).
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; Trump 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.
At the same time, Trump has a long and detailed history of violating the fundamental obligations of a true leader. He is 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.