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Understanding Primates – and Donald Trump

A psychological (and European) perspective on the U.S. presidential elections

Nowhere are the cultural differences between Europe and the United States more visible than during leadership elections. While Europeans prefer authentic leaders like a Merkel or a Jeremy Corbyn the average American voter prefers a leader highly proficient at show business. In the tradition of Hollywood stars like Reagan and Schwarzenegger, businessman and television personality Donald Trump is making a bid to be president of the United States. How does "The Donald" measure up on the yardstick of leadership? What explains his popularity—and could he win the White House?

You have been Trumped

In the language of science, leadership refers to the influence one person has on another to achieve a common objective. Does Trump have leadership qualities? It's difficult to answer the question without access to the man himself or psychological test scores. Based on his media appearances in debates and interviews, Trump shares at least one characteristic of leadership with some former U.S. presidents such as John F. Kennedy or Bill Clinton, and that is narcissism.

Narcissistic leaders are distinguished from the rest by an overriding desire for status and power. They want to be adored, think they are always right and want show everyone how successful they are. Narcissistic leaders cannot be kept from the limelight. One question psychologists often ask leaders to measure their narcissism is: "Do you want to be admired by others?" Narcissistic leaders enjoy attention the same way you and I enjoy a glass of wine—and they have an above average interest in the opposite sex. Research shows that this can lead them to couple their dominant positions to a licentious sex life. Trump's preference for young models and the organization of the Miss Universe contest is significant in this regard.


But Trump also has something that distinguishes him from other leaders that, according to textbooks, would immediately disqualify him from a political career. He seems a narcissistic bully. He seeks to achieve his goals not by convincing others, but by intimidating them. He insults Mexican immigrants by depicting them as criminals and rapists. He refers to women as "fat pigs" or "sluts." He bullies his political rivals. In the Republican debates he belittles his opponents by dismissing them as idlers. He calls Obama a "failure" and a "bad leader" and demands on television that he make his birth certificate public. His attempt at intimidation succeeded. The White House published the birth certificate which, to Trump's disappointment, showed that Obama was indeed born in the United States—in Hawaii—and is therefore permitted to be American president. He blackens the reputations of former business partners and treats employees of his companies with contempt.

So based on scientific criteria, bully Trump is not a natural leader. How then can we explain his popularity? To understand it, we need to go way back into our evolutionary history as primates. Monkeys live in groups with a clear hierarchical structure, whereby one dominant male, the alpha, is boss. The alpha-male decides who can eat, who can interact and who is allowed to pick his fleas. Intimidation and bullying is part of his daily repertoire. It's easier for the other monkeys in the group to make themselves subordinate to the alpha rather than join the "losers." Even in the animal kingdom it is true: If you win, you have friends! This also explains our ambivalent attitude toward bullies in the workplace, in the schoolyard and in politics. We don't love them, but would rather have them for us than against us.

Authoritarian leadership

Trump fulfils the need of many Republican voters for a powerful, authoritarian leader. Clever as he is, he also chooses his opponents carefully. In particular, Trump is looking for a fight with groups the average American despises, such as Capitol Hill politicians, assertive journalists, the Mexican government and the CEOs of companies listed on the stock market. It is characteristic of him to be the only Republican candidate who thinks CEO salaries should be cut.

Research into political psychology shows that voters generally prefer leaders who radiate positive emotions like cheerfulness and optimism. Negative emotions like sadness or anger are not so appreciated by voters. However, there is an important exception that Trump puts to convenient use. Psychological reseach shows that angry people are attracted to unkind leaders. With a little imagination we could call that the "Wilders effect" (named after the angry Dutch politican Geert Wilders)

Trump benefits from the Wilders effect because right now, Americans have so little faith in the political system. According to a June 2015 Gallup poll, only eight percent of people trust Congress - the lowest percentage ever recorded. In recent years we've seen how congressional Republicans and Democrats have so fought one another that hardly any legislation has been adopted or policies implemented.

Charisma and Hairstyle

In response to such political discontent, people often focus their attention on an outsider—someone who isn't part of the current structure of political power and thus bears no responsibility for the malaise. It is the "Hitler phenomenon." Charismatic newcomers therefore have particular appeal that sets them apart them from the rest according to our research at the VU university. We presented people with a number of political scenarios in which they had to choose between several candidates in a presidential election. In some scenarios they were told that the country was in need of stability, whereas in the others, emphasis was placed on the need for economic and technological change. For the scenario of change, people often opted for an inexperienced leader who is also found to be more charismatic than the older, more experienced political rot. Other research into charismatic leaders by Carl Senior from Aston University shows that they frequently possess more striking physical characteristics than their opponents, such as an asymmetric body, a unique-looking face or unusual hairstyle. Apparently, an unusual feature can enhance someone's charisma—particularly if voters are looking for something new.

This combination of traits—narcissism, intimidation, anger, charisma and guinea pig hair—could in part explain The Donald's popularity in the polls. But could he win the grand prize, the White House—or even the Republican nomination? I expect not, and to understand why, we have to return to the monkey rock or schoolyard.

Studies into monkeys and children show that the bully has a shaky power base because he makes too many enemies. Psychological development confirms that as children get older, the bully loses his status in the schoolyard. Research by primatologist Frans de Waal published in the book Chimpanzee Politics shows that the alpha is eventually deposed because he ends up standing alone against the group. Grooming behavior in monkeys shows that to remain on top the alpha has to regularly groom subordinates.

How will it end...

According to this logic, Trump will ultimately fail to forge the coalitions so necessary to playing a meaningful role in American politics. One clue is that there have already been numerous personnel changes on his campaign team. The lesson for the other Republican candidates is that rather than competing with one another against The Donald, they would be better off acting together. During the Republican TV debate on Wednesday night you could already see that happening. My scientifically based prediction: Trump will fall on his own sword.

This blog post also

appeared on the site of the Volkskrant and It was translated by Marion Pini.

Here is a link to our website containing morphed Trump faces: Trumpfaced