In his article for the Atlantic previewing this year's presidential debates, James Fallows talked with a variety of people offering perspectives relating to the event. One of the less expected was Jane Goodall, the renowned researcher of chimpanzees.
“In many ways the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals,” she said. “In order to impress rivals, males seeking to rise in the dominance hierarchy perform spectacular displays: stamping, slapping the ground, dragging branches, throwing rocks. The more vigorous and imaginative the display, the faster the individual is likely to rise in the hierarchy, and the longer he is likely to maintain that position.”
In the first and third debates, Trump (like his opponent Hillary Clinton) was locked in place at a piece of furniture. But in the second, he was able to move around. When he did, he instantly reminded many people (Fallows, for one) of Goodall's description - not only how the male chimps moved, but why.
To express dominance.
If you're looking for a through line connecting the disparate things Trump has done in this campaign, you can find it with the single word "dominance." It's not enough to defeat an opponent; he needs to dominate them. It's not enough to have a good positive outcome; what's necessary is to win, which means someone else has to lose.
Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has been arguing all year that the way to make sense of what Trump does, and why he does it, is through the lens of dominance: Either you dominate, or you're beaten and humiliated. There's no middle ground and no other outcome. Whether the United States or its people are prosperous and free is not the point, according to Trump speeches; the question is whether we "win" or "lose."
"Trump is the master of GOP 'dominance politics', the inherent appeal of power and the ability to dominate others. All of this has a deep appeal to America's authoritarian right, especially in a climate of perceived threat, which has been growing over the last two decades - something political scientists are now catching on to," Marshall said in March.
By July, he wrote, "the entirety of Trump's political message is dominance politics. To paraphrase McLuhan it is both the messenger and the message. Trump attacks, others comply and submit. Whether or not that is always true it is the story and the promise he has sold his supporters."
The way he treats New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as his valet? The way he introduced his vice presidential pick, Mike Pence, by spending a half hour talking by himself, bringing Pence on stage and then leaving? It's all about dominance.
And if he fails to dominate in a given setting? Look closely at the picture of Trump, in the seconds between the end of his third debate with Hillary Clinton, and before his family got to the stage to surround him. He stood there motionless, head down, seemingly lost in space. (Clinton had already bounded off stage to shake hands and greet supporters.) Trump had to have known he lost the debate, and with it his last good chance to change the trajectory of the race. But that was not all: He was beaten, humiliated, surely in his own eyes at least.
That may almost be cause for some sympathy. But imagine a Trump invested with the power of the office of the presidency, with a drive to dominate and humiliate all around him.
That means you, too. - rs