Around Washington, to be sure, the notion of the alpha male -- a term arising from the study of animal social hierarchies -- has never been far from reach. But with the political ascendance of Donald Trump, the comparison to dominance in the wild arises with startling frequency, and the analogy is drawn by friend and foe alike.
“He is the alpha male who says exactly what is on his mind,” Trump South Carolina co-chairman Ed McMullen explained to Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson.
“His celebrity ‘brand’ is an alpha-male fantasy of wealth and power,” Slate columnist Jacob Weisberg opined earlier.
His own distinctive broodings hint at an alpha outlook.
"Man is the most vicious of all animals," Trump told People magazine, "and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat. You just can't let people make a sucker out of you."
De Waal and other biologists have made the Trump-alpha comparison, though whether it is an apt analogy may be a matter of debate. On the one hand, they say, the candidate has mastered the bluster that characterizes alpha male displays, which involve an aura of intimidation. Among the apes, the alpha's hair even stands on end to magnify their physical size.
“His model of political posturing has echoes of what I saw in the wild in six years in Tanzania studying the Gombe chimpanzees,” Christopher Boehm, a professor of biology and anthropology, wrote recently in New Scientist.
But some primatologists also describe the role of the alpha male as being more complicated than mere bluster. To maintain power, the alpha male often must build coalitions of other apes, both male and female.
Given the comparisons between Trump and the alpha male, we took the opportunity to chat with de Waal, who was visiting Washington to deliver a lecture for the Smithsonian Associates while promoting his new book, "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?"
In our conversation, de Waal likened the presidential campaigners to the apes he has studied his entire career. He also noted with some fascination the possibility of a Trump vs. Clinton matchup because, he says, a contest between a male and a female is much different than one between two males, at least in the chimpanzee world.
The idea of the alpha male is often used to understand our politics. Does it shed any light on Washington? Is it an apt metaphor?
In a way it is, and in a way it isn’t. The reason we talk about chimpanzee politics is because you don’t become alpha male by being the biggest and the strongest. Sometimes the smallest male can become the alpha male. That’s because they need coalition partners. They need to keep them happy. They need to get their support so that they’re willing to take risks for them. They need female support also in a group of chimpanzees.
You become alpha male by dispensing favors and making friends. You need to be physically strong, but it is a very complex role. That is why I speak of politics rather than a pecking order as you have in chickens.
How much is Trump really like an alpha male?
In that sense, I’m not sure Trump is doing so great - I mean in [terms of] making friends and getting them on his side so that they’re willing to take risks for him, I’m not sure.
But in the sense of blustering and bluffing, which is a very big part of it also, he’s excellent. In that sense, he acts like an alpha male. There’s a lot of intimidation going on between males, usually, in chimpanzees. Who’s the most daring, who’s the most willing to take risks and all of that.
For example, I was struck by how he treated Romney. Romney came out against him at some point, and the next day, instead of defending himself, he said "Romney came to me begging for money and if I had told him to fall on his knees, he would have done that." And so he immediately created this beautiful image of Romney, of him standing there with Romney on his knees. Even though this never happened, he was creating the image, and I thought this was brilliant.
Is he any more an alpha male than our recent presidents: Obama, Bush, Clinton?
In all these others, I think we were looking more for the content of their ideas. With Trump, we have sort of dispensed with that. In that sense, it gets closer to chimpanzee politics because I don’t think chimpanzees talk about the content of ideas when they’re vying for power.
It’s why I feel you need to turn off the sound when you look at a presidential debate. You turn off the sound so you don’t get all that linguistic information, which is distracting. You look at the body language. With the Republican primaries, you didn’t need to do that. The content was not there. They were all insulting each other, they were making up nicknames for each other, and so the content was zero. You didn’t need to turn off the sound to see the primatology going on there.
Is it necessarily bad for a leader to exhibit alpha male behavior?
I don’t think it’s bad, but it needs to be combined with bridge-building and coalition-building. Otherwise it gets out of control, and it becomes a monster. Or it fails, in the more likely scenario, it fails because there is a lack of cooperation.
The misunderstanding that people have about the dominance of an alpha male is that it is him imposing his will on others. But that only works if the others are willing to have his will imposed on them. Dominance is like a two-way street. If a large segment of the public does not accept [the dominance], it is going to fail.
Does primatology say anything about female behavior in elections?
What I find intriguing at the moment is that we’re most likely going to get a contest between a male and a female candidate, which we’ve never had.
The blustering that was going on between men is very accepted. It’s very common that men make rude jokes and slap each other on the back and they say mean things to each other. We all accept that. That’s part of the game.
But that doesn’t work the same with a woman — and with chimpanzees also. Males may have a fight with a female. That happens. But the blustering and the bluffing is not a big part of that because the [males] are bigger, anyway. It’s not an effect they’re seeking.
At the Arnhem (Netherlands) zoo, we had one called Mama, who just died at the age of 59 three weeks ago... She was the head female. She had a very big impact on male politics. She had this combination of physical strength — though never stronger than a male — and she was also the counselor-in-chief and friends with everyone. She was a very central figure. Males would not try to intimidate her. The whole group of females might go after them if they would try to do that.
That is an aspect that I find intriguing — the female solidarity. Females have a lot of competitions going [among one another]. But when it comes to male violence , they all draw the same line. They will all go after a male who is too intimidating or tries to force a female into sex.
That’s the thing that’s really going to interest me in the next phase of the election. You are going to have a female candidate with whom the tactics that may work with men are not going to work. If it gets too rough, there is going to be massive female solidarity. I think that’s already happening.