External Affairs

Donald Trump, Primate President

A rough measure of dominance in ground-living primate groups is which animal is the centre of attention. The leader is usually at the physical centre of the group and the others glance at him as often as every 20-30 seconds.

President-elect Donald Trump arrives for the inauguration ceremonies swearing him in as the 45th president of the United States on the West front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

President-elect Donald Trump arrives for the inauguration ceremonies swearing him in as the 45th president of the United States on the West front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

It should have been clear to any open-minded primatologist that the candidacy of Donald Trump had more to do with the turbulent liquidity of primate politics than the hard management of tough systems of power. His remarkable inaugural speech drastically enhances his isolation from all other primate/politicians in a manner difficult to comprehend using conventional tools of analysis. His political explosion has turned virtually the entire lordly once-confident commentariat into a glum and petulant knot.

For quick remedy, they should turn to the tightest analysis of what is an intensely elemental and biologically primitive process. The key piece of writing is from 1966. Its British author was an eccentrically brilliant University of Birmingham biological scientist, Michael M.R.A. Chance. The paper was called “Attention Structure and Primate Rank Orders”. It appeared in MAN:The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

The message of the analysis is that a rough measure of dominance in ground-living primate groups is which animal is the centre of attention. The leader is usually at the physical centre of the group and his subdominant fellows glance at him as often as every 20-30 seconds. He orients their collective action and stimulates them to forage, attack an enemy, protect group members – he’s the leader and they seem to feel good about him, if occasionally also resentful and rebellious. That’s all, and it’s enough.

That offers a realistic way to understand President Trump’s sashay to success. It had  – at the outset, and still – little or nothing to do with political philosophy, articulated moral principles, commitment to religion or science and even, startlingly, to political parties. Scholars will puzzle for years about how a loner troubadour managed to climb above two extraordinarily wealthy, adept, and historically rich American political parties with such seeming ease and without the bag of tricks politicians are supposed to carry into battle.

Trump was far more elemental and personal than that. Instead, he was operatic and theatrical and the central fact is that people like looking at Trump because he appears to many to provide a comforting, even stimulating, sense that he has the remedy for what ails them. What he said during the campaign may have been meaninglessly florid, proudly even fatuously egotistical, a-historical, brazenly contradictory or simply wrong, or immune to subtlety. Yet voters – enough voters – suspected that actual leadership may be in his room and in their future. They suspect Trump sees around corners, or at least will know quickly what to do when he makes the turn.

How did this happen?

In the primaries, Trump was unburdened by the scary, self-righteous, and mysterious religiosity of his lingering challengers. The United States is not ISIS and the naïve effort of his opponents to elide political competence and faith backfired while Trump slid along in the real world everyone lives in – this one. Certainly the inaugural contained disappointing if pro forma reference to a generalised divine insurance policy. However it appeared not to matter because everyone was having fun.

And in the election, his highly-experienced and gifted opponent laboured under a mixed-message: her triumphant entry into the Javits arena in New York to claim her victory was to have featured a fake-glass ceiling which would shatter. But she was running for the presidency and not only the women’s vote. The surprising 53% of white women who voted for Trump may have noticed this division in her dreams of power and contribution. And they cared that their husbands may not have worked for a decade and they wanted them out of the house. Who promised that most convincingly?

Oddly, Trump and his leadership style remind me of Kwame Nkrumah’s. Nkrumah was the first leader of a free African country and I was there in 1960 when Ghana became itself and no longer the British Gold Coast. He came to Government House from jail where he had been installed by the same colonial officers who now, suddenly, became his civil servants. I was doing my doctoral dissertation on the sociologist Max Weber’s classical theories of political legitimacy. These were either traditional (obvious), rational-legal (bureaucratic) or charismatic (swirly and elemental). Weber, the profound thinker, said of charisma (from the Greek concept of “grace”) that it was “only understandable with an imperceptible transition to the biological”. So Nkrumah became and was the electrifying leader instead of a member of the traditional ruling groups of his country – represented. for example, by Kofi Annan who was the U.N. secretary-general for some years.

Weber was right, well before Jane Goodall sent dispatches from her primate colony in Gombe in Africa, and then other scientists revealed the internal systems of primate communities.We saw revealed the intricate structure of these lively and animated communities and especially the dramas of political dominance among the ground-living apes (which by the way we are – you too).

The Harris Tweed professoriate, coastal-city journalists, and the self-satisfied we-get-a-bag-of-money-by-the-year experts may have considered Trump and his disdain for PoliSci 101 and conventional political analysis wholly beyond the pale. However, he triumphed at the same time as he seemed to many to be merely that American Icon, a Big Blonde Starlet. He lives big too, which is improbably reassuring, and he enjoys the massive head start in his new career as president of not being a politician at a time when politicians are scorned by the voters and now by their President too. His inaugural speech was unlike any other.

He thinks like a First Responder. Can he perform that way?

Lionel Tiger is a Canadian-born, American-based anthropologist. He is the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University and co-Research Director of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.