“In packs of wolves the dominant animal walks erect and “proud,” stiff-legged, deliberately paced, with head, tail, and ears up, and stares freely and casually at others … In troops of rhesus monkeys, the alpha male of the troop is remarkably similar in mannerisms to a dominant wolf ….
“My point is the following. Behavioral scientists from another planet would notice immediately the semiotic resemblance between animal submissive behavior on the one hand and human obeisance to religious and civil authority on the other … And they would conclude, correctly, that in baseline social behavior, not just in anatomy, Homo sapiens has only recently diverged in evolution from nonhuman primate stock.”
Mainstream leadership experts and political experts never predicted the success of Donald Trump to date in the 2016 presidential election season. Then, when he showed strength in polls at precisely the moments they predicted he would implode, they (well, we, I suppose) grasped to find explanations—but most of those explanations have been hampered by the wishful thinking that tosses in some expectation that the Donald will soon be rejected by the sensible citizens of the greatest nation on the planet.
But skepticism and disbelief are now turning to horror and threats to move to Canada.
Let’s not get into Donald Trump’s actual policies—which are more sophisticated than the caricature of them would suggest and which represent a fascinating stew of liberal and conservative values. Let’s get at the two key issues:
• Most of the leadership gurus tell you that high-impact leaders have emotional intelligence and that, well, such leaders are just nice, trustworthy, wise and stable people. Trump reminds us that too often this is not the case.
What Trump does prove is the observation of evolutionary psychologists that humans worship the projection of authority in much the way that animals do.
Let’s dial back the anti-Trump hysteria for a moment and consider what Machiavelli coolly observed centuries ago: “Many have imagined republics and principalities which have never been seen or known to exist in reality, for how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done will rather bring about his ruin than his preservation.”
This is why most leadership advice is useless in the clutch. Don’t get me wrong: Some of the wisdom that you read by a Warren Bennis (my longtime mentor) or Max De Pree or Bill George can make you a better person; but it just can’t explain how SOBs have such a gift for getting into the C-suite.
Go back to sociobiologist E. O. Wilson’s observations of the dominant wolf within a pack: “In the presence of rivals, the dominant animal bristles its pelt while curling its lips to show teeth, and it takes first choice in food and space.”
Then look at his depiction of a dominant rhesus monkey: “He keeps his head and tail up, walks in a deliberate, ‘regal’ manner while casually staring at others. He climbs nearby objects to maintain height above his rivals. When challenged he stares hard at the opponent with mouth open— signaling aggression, not surprise— and sometimes slaps the ground with open palms to signal his readiness to attack.”
Works in the jungles of televised debates too, doesn’t it? And it explains why the arguments of Trump’s Republican rivals haven’t much mattered; why the collective condemnation of conservative thinkers in National Review didn’t matter; and why the accusations of dictatorship and racism haven’t yet mattered.
It’s telling that Wilson has been pilloried on many college campuses. Steven Pinker has written of the targeting of Wilson, his colleague, by scholars with a “Utopian Vision” that has arise in recent decades. That vision is characterized by a fierce contesting of much of what seems to be inherent within the human organism.
“And onto this battlefield strode an innocent E. O. Wilson, Pinker wrote in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. “The ideas from evolutionary biology and behavioral genetics that became public in the 1970s could not have been more of an insult to those with the Utopian Vision.”
“That vision,” Pinker said, “was, after all, based on the Blank Slate (no permanent human nature), theNoble Savage (no selfish or evil instincts), and the Ghost in the Machine (an unfettered ‘we’ that can choose better social arrangements).”
The point of acknowledging the thorny aspects of human nature and our similarities to the animal world isn’t to make us grow fatalistic, or to suggest that we cannot hope to govern ourselves and our world more sensibly. I believe it’s our highest duty as human beings.
But I also believe that our ability to do so is impaired by when we don’t look with absolute honesty at the unconscious forces and peculiar motivations that draw our fellow citizens to idols and icons. After all, condemning these fellow citizens as rubes and fools really won’t bring about a better society.
Trump is, in that way, is giving us a lesson of incredible power.