On Big Apes and Presidents

Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide - Hector A. Garcia 2019

On Big Apes and Presidents

The 2016 US presidential election stunned the world. After a meteoric rise through the Republican primaries, a reality TV show host, professional wrestling dabbler, and political novice with zero experience in public office upset former Democratic senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton to win the most politically muscular office in the world. Donald J. Trump's xenophobic and warmongering rhetoric on the road to the White House, and his subsequent election, strongly divided American society, set off a wave of protests in the United States and abroad, and drew searing international criticism.

Regardless of how Trump is viewed by history, his election serves as an illuminating case study of our political psychology. Clearly, a presidential election involves a large, convoluted flow of influences, like so many tributaries pouring into a twisted, torrential, and sometimes dirty river. A large swath of the Democratic electorate lost trust in Hillary Clinton during the primaries when leaked emails from top officials at the Democratic National Committee suggested that it may have colluded against Clinton's opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders.1 Similarly, credible evidence emerged that Russian hackers tried to influence the election in favor of Trump. There was the role of third-party candidates, such as Jill Stein, who shunted votes away from major party candidates, as well as the rural-leaning influence of the Electoral College, which went against the popular vote in 2016. But the most potent factor in Trump's victory was something far more primal. Human political psychology operates on a set of adaptations designed for ancestral environments in which powerful men protected the clan against outsiders, predators, and starvation. This ancient history continues to have a tremendous, largely subconscious influence over our present-day political stances. To be sure, it played a central role in 2016.

Before we explore how this history influenced Trump's win, let us consider the criticisms that have been raised of his qualifications for leader of the free world. Intellectuals, world leaders, and civilian spectators have offered an unusually candid litany of reproaches, far more extensive than the standard political commentary. To begin, many have criticized his level of sophistication. Gavin Newlands, a British member of Parliament (MP) with the Scottish National Party, said plainly, “Let's be clear, Donald Trump is an idiot. I have tried to find different, perhaps more parliamentary adjectives to describe him but none was clear enough. He is an idiot.” Similarly, former British prime minister David Cameron labeled Trump's rhetoric as “divisive, stupid, and wrong.” Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa said, “His discourse is so dumb, so basic,” while Gavin Robinson, British MP from Northern Ireland, said, “The person you are dealing with may be a successful businessman, but he's also a buffoon.” And we have Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo's blunt and exasperated exhortation: “Mr. Trump is so stupid, my God!”2

Others have opined on Trump's psychological stability. Former Mexican president Vicente Fox said, “This nation [the United States] is going to fail if it goes into the hands of a crazy guy.” Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten followed, “I think Donald Trump's views are just barking mad on some issues.”3 Many suggested Trump suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, citing the fact that he often talks about himself in the third person, that he actually bragged about his penis size during the presidential debates, and that he has a tendency to frame himself as the best at things: “There is nobody who has done so much for equality as I have,” “There is nobody more conservative than me,” “Nobody has ever had crowds like Trump has had,” “Nobody is better to people with disabilities than me,” “Nobody builds walls better than me,” “Nobody loves the Bible more than I do,” “Nobody would be tougher on ISIS than Donald Trump,” or “There's nobody that understands the horror of nuclear [sic] better than me.”4

Trump's behavior inspired Democratic representative Ted Liu from California to introduce legislation that would require a psychiatrist at the White House. This sentiment is not restricted to the Left. Charles Krauthammer, a conservative columnist who was a frequent panelist on Fox News, cited Trump's “pathological narcissism” as one reason for his disqualification as president.5 Notably, Krauthammer was not just a conservative mouthpiece but also a psychiatrist who contributed to the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the manual used to diagnose psychiatric conditions.

Compounding concerns over Trump's mental fitness were his foreign policy approaches, which to many came across as not only warlike but also wincingly simplistic. While campaigning, he outlined his solution to ISIS: “I would bomb the shit out of them. I would just bomb those suckers, and, that's right, I'd blow up the pipes, I'd blow up the refineries, I'd blow up every single inch, there would be nothing left…. It will be beautiful, and I'll take the oil.”6 He also promised that he would happily bring back torture (“I'd bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”) and that he would kill the families of suspected terrorists, defying the Geneva conventions.7

Trump's style of propaganda stoked fears across the globe, particularly among those who have studied the history of fascism, or come from a land that suffered under it. Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto warned, “That's the way Mussolini arrived and the way Hitler arrived.” Former minister of Sweden Carl Bilt cautioned, “If Donald Trump was to end up as president of the United States, I think we better head for the bunkers.” Elmar Brok, German member of the European Parliament and chair of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, said, “He is not predictable and this unpredictability is a danger.”8 During Trump's inauguration, Pope Francis chimed in to observe, “Hitler didn't steal the power, his people voted for him, and then he destroyed his people.”9

Moreover, Trump's behavior seems directly at odds with the ethical positions of many of the Christian conservatives who voted for him. Trump has changed stances on abortion and fumbled with Bible passages, as when during his convocation address to Liberty University he called Second Corinthians “Two Corinthians.”10 Further, he has been married three times and was caught on audio, boasting that he tried to have sex with a married woman (“I tried to fuck her, and she was married”) and that because of his fame he could do anything to the women he meets, including “grab them by the pussy.”11 He has thus violated cherished values held by the conservative Right in America, particularly among Evangelicals, such as sexual restraint, devotion to marriage, and religion.

The point of all this is that Trump seems a monumentally unlikely conservative presidential candidate. Yet he was elected by slightly under half of the US voting population (he narrowly lost the popular vote, but won the Electoral College). Despite everything covered above, which is the condensed version, Donald Trump exuded a mesmerizing, magnetic pull that drew in a stunningly large swath of the American electorate, including Evangelical Christians who should by all reason have been appalled by his personal life and shaky grasp of their religion. Trump's election has dumbfounded rational minds on both sides of the political spectrum. His appeal, however, does not reside on the plane of the rational; it resides on the primordial plains of Africa, where human leadership preferences were formed by the brutalities of daily living.