Donald Trump

Can Primatology Explain the Gender Component of Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton?

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Given Donald Trump’s propensity for barreling headfirst into established social and political norms, it’s understandable why so many journalists — myself included — have called up primatologists to try to better understand what’s going on. On Friday, the Washington Post’s Wonkblog featured an article by Peter Whoriskey in which he spoke with Frans de Waal, a famous primatologist (whom Melissa Dahl also spoke with recently), about Trump.

It’s an interesting article, but the most noteworthy — and complicated — part has to do with gender. At one point, Whoriskey asks, “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.

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.

De Waal’s response is interesting in part because it runs counter to a common understanding of Hillary Clinton: that because she’s female, she has to deal with stuff a lot of men don’t have to deal with. In this view, she has everything from the tone of her voice to her integrity to her level of warmth scrutinized in a way that an “equivalent” male wouldn’t. And if you poke around anti-Hillary corners of the internet, there’s really no way to come away with a sense that anyone is going “easy” on her because she’s a woman. Plenty of the time, of course, it’s women themselves who are being harsh toward her.

Now, is there a chance women will see how Clinton is treated by Trump and ads in debates and rally around her? Sure — Trump is so unpopular with women that it wouldn’t be shocking, anyway. But there will naturally be huge variation to the response: Some women will support Trump, others will argue that Clinton shouldn’t be treated any differently from a male candidate, and so on. So to me, this question is a useful reminder of the limits of drawing these sorts of comparisons. We can learn plenty about our own species from other primates’ behavior, of course, but when we interpret our own behavior, everything gets filtered through a complex web of culture that defeats simple human-to-chimp comparisons.

Can Primatology Explain Trump vs. Clinton?