A Primatologist Explains the Gentler Donald Trump

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

On Thursday night, the nation saw a new, calmer, more civil Donald Trump during the GOP debate. The same man who had insulted Megyn Kelly in an extremely crude manner, who had seemed to derive so much enjoyment out of bullying a hapless Jeb Bush, was now … slightly dignified? It was a marked switch, and it dominated the headlines this morning.

How to explain it? Because Trump defies most forms of normal or traditional political comparison and analysis, I spoke with someone who has taken a broader approach to understanding the bombastic candidate and his appeal: the primatologist Dr. Christopher Boehm, a professor and a director of the USC Jane Goodall Research Center. And he thinks that chimps can offer a useful framework for explaining both the angry and less angry varieties of Trump. In fact, viewing Trump through this lens reveals not that Trump is simply an angry buffoon (though he can be that), but that he actually understands, perhaps intuitively, the strategy that will lead him to become the GOP’s “alpha” — that is, nominee. And it’s a more nuanced strategy than one might expect. “He is fairly delicate in his use of power, even though it doesn’t look that way,” said Boehm. “But compared to an alpha-male chimp it looks that way.”

It wasn’t nuanced in the earlier days of the campaign, of course. Boehm explained last month in New Scientist that Trump’s “model of political posturing has echoes of what I saw in the wild in six years in Tanzania studying the Gombe chimpanzees.” That’s because chimps, like certain other primates, have elaborate rituals of dominance and submission, as well as hierarchies that are toppled fairly frequently. Much like in a primary campaign, just because you’re sitting on top one moment doesn’t mean you will be the next.

Male chimps who are seeking to establish or maintain their role as the alpha often engage in ostentatiously threatening behavior. Their hair will stand erect, and they’ll charge around ripping out tree stumps and causing other forms of general mayhem. Most of their fellow male chimps — those who aren’t bruising for a fight, at least — will react by scrambling to the top of the nearest tree, out of harm’s way, and perhaps screaming down the chimp equivalent of impotent insults. “An alpha male does that intimidation display two or three times a day, and it is preemptive dominance,” Boehm told Science of Us. “The whole point is to [intimidate] these guys who you know are aligned against you and biding your time and want your job — and so you go and put them down a couple times a day and that sort of keeps things from developing.”

Of course, humans aren’t chimps — we’ve developed social norms so that we can channel our dominance impulses into witty remarks and so forth. So part of the reason the rest of the GOP field, well, scrambled up trees was that Trump had engaged in such shocking violations of political norms they didn’t quite know how to respond. Boehm wrote last month that Trump reminded him of Mike, an ambitious male who had come up with an “innovative” way to scare the crap out of his competitors for top chimp: “He took some oil drums from the camp of primatologist Jane Goodall and incorporated them into his aggressive displays, noisily terrifying his peers. Mike became alpha.” Trump has been rattling oil drums across the nation for months now, and it has worked.

So isn’t this new, gentler turn rather un-chimp-like? Not necessarily. Boehm pointed out that while they do enjoy their demonstrative I-am-the-boss rampages, alpha chimps actually have two different ways of maintaining power. One is the bat-shit-crazy approach (my words, not his) — those near-constant displays alluding to the threat of violence. The other is the good-guy (his term) approach: groom other chimps, break up fights, and show yourself to be a benevolent ruler. (Boehm said there isn’t any data he’s aware of suggesting one approach or the other leads to longer reigns in the alpha slot.)

Before the debate, I had told Boehm I couldn’t imagine an alpha-Trump — either as the Republican nominee or, gulp, president — taking anything other than the bat-shit-crazy approach. It just doesn’t really seem like it’s in his nature to not aggressively go after his rivals and enemies, to not bound around the forest tearing out tree stumps.

Boehm responded that I wasn’t giving the Donald enough credit, and he turned out to be prescient: “I think Trump, when the time comes, will know to make the transition” toward the good-guy approach, he said. While Boehm anticipates Trump will still be somewhat aggressive toward Cruz, Boehm said he thinks Trump realizes that, from here on out, he can tone it down a little. Free of any immediate GOP threats to his alpha status, he doesn’t need to knock around any oil drums anymore.

A Primatologist Explains the Gentler Donald Trump