The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Donald Trump: the poo-throwing simian alpha male candidate

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In 2000, I was watching a debate between presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore. Both candidates were spouting an inane combination of nonsense and platitudes, and I found myself wondering what the point of the exercise was.

Instead of turning it off, though, I was inspired to instead turn the volume down. Watching the debate without sound was very instructive. I could see how each candidates’ body language was designed to make him look strong, confident, defiant–in short, like a leader.

Undoubtedly influenced by a recent interest in evolutionary psychology, I realized that a significant purpose of the debate for each candidate to try to establish that he was the alpha male. In much the same way that two male gorillas might battle for the allegiance of their band, the candidates were doing the human equivalent of beating their chests and throwing poo at each other.

Of course, that’s not all there is to politics, as many voters take a more cerebral approach to it. But the undecided voters who are the prime target for Fall presidential candidates tend to be the least-informed, least issue-oriented voters, so the alpha male competition is especially if largely unconsciously important to them.

Watching candidates through the lens of evolutionary psychology has shaped my understanding of politics ever since. It also, oddly enough, made me feel better about the world. If we are just one step above other simians, and our politics reflects that, instead of bemoaning how idiotic our politics is, I could marvel at the fact that despite its inherent idiocy, humans have managed to build civilizations, have culture, art and cool (and very useful) technology, and more or less live peacefully with each other most of the time. In other words, we’re doing a lot better than one might predict from our simian nature.

That brings us to Donald Trump. Trump’s campaign strikes me as unique in modern American presidential politics; while all candidates try to position themselves as the alpha male as part of their campaigns, Trump’s campaign seem almost exclusively to be about that positioning. Whether it’s insulting other candidates, expressing contempt for immigrants, talking about losers, promising to get tough with ISIS or China, or throwing protesters out of his rallies, his entire campaign, free as it is from almost any policy specifics, is almost entirely about electing a strong leader, i.e., an alpha male.

While I have little faith in politics, I still find this depressing. It seemed possible that the Republican candidates would rally around constitutional fidelity, especially limits on executive power and respect for the separation of powers, as a unifying theme. After all, the political climate included widespread Republican anger, and broader public concern, about President Obama’s dubious exercises of executive authority, and some prominent GOP candidates had made constitutionalism a significant part of their political persona. (I hoped my own book, rather than serving as simply a critique of the Obama administration, would in its own small way contribute to educating voters about the Constitution, and serve as something of a template of what a future Republican president shouldn’t do. Ted Cruz wrote the Foreword, and may turn out to be the Trump alternative, so perhaps all is not yet lost.)

The Constitution was designed to prevent a Trump-like president from emerging. The president is rather weak with regard to domestic affairs, with all legislative power vesting in Congress, and the president limited to vetoing legislation he opposes, and using his bully pulpit to advocate for his priorities. But in a political culture where a president can circumvent the separation of powers to the applause of his supporters by essentially arguing that “Congressional Republicans are a bunch of bozos, and that somehow gives me more power,” following a president who claimed virtually unlimited power over military and foreign affairs, our political culture’s inoculation against authoritarian populists is not surprisingly waning. (Recall that on the Democratic side, some pundits who should know better defend Hillary Clinton on the grounds that she won’t let the rule of law interfere with her priorities).

Trump, in essence, is the anti-constitutional candidate. He engages in the human equivalent of chest-pounding and poo throwing, an appeal to our lower natures rather than to the higher principles of our republic. Trump hasn’t expressed the slightest interest in the Constitution, nor is there any reason to believe he has any. He surely has no interest in constitutional limitations on executive power. What use has the pure alpha male candidate for limiting his own authority as president?

Republican voters ultimately have a choice: poo-throwing simian alpha male, or at least some semblance of fidelity to American constitutional principles. I’m not the least bit confident in the outcome.