What chimpanzees (and primitive cultures) could teach Trump about leadership

Groups of chimps, and preliterate human societies, have clear standards of leadership. Donald Trump falls short

Published April 29, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Chimpanzees (AP Photo/Salon)
Donald Trump | Chimpanzees (AP Photo/Salon)

In this time of global pandemic, when life and livelihoods are under threat and our normal routines are on pause, it seems useful to stop and consider what kind of leadership America has, circa 2020. 

When I reflect on leadership, what first comes to mind is the clang and bang of a stick in hand smashing against a metal garbage-can lid. It's the story of a chimpanzee in the wild who gets his hands on that cymbal-like object — something not of his world, but belonging to the humans observing him — to create a sound-spectacle that led to his artificial rise in the group's dominance hierarchy. In a sense, he was a fake "alpha animal." He made a ruckus and harassed other chimps, but didn't do anything in the service of the group.

Such artificiality is in contrast to normal chimpanzee life, in which an Alpha's primary function is to provide a direction for achieving group security and for establishing a relatively peaceful coexistence between members. For the most part, chimpanzee life is occupied with foraging, grooming each other, taking care of the young and relaxing. Yes, an approach by the Alpha can spatially displace another, usually without a serious confrontation. However, the assumption of chimpanzee life — unlike, say, in hamadryas baboon societies — is not that every approach by another is a potential do-or-die threat. Of course, chimps have minor skirmishes and, as we now know, in rare instances also exhibit cannibalistic behavior when winning a fight with a chimpanzee from a rival group who threatens territory. Normally, however, everyday life is not one of defensive hyper-vigilance. There is not a great deal of spectacle surrounding the dominant one. More typical is to see group members checking in with an Alpha simply by orienting to him. His power is more assumed than constantly tested, and that power is expected mostly to benefit the group. If he fails at establishing this regard, it's typical that beta-males and high-status adult females will eventually act to usurp or rehabilitate him. 

Fake or incompetent chimpanzee leaders are rare, and when they appear they don't last long. In chimpanzee life there is no offstage, no speechwriters and no teleprompters. There are no Michael Cohens or Paul Manaforts.         

The second leader I think about when thinking about leadership is a human: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Unlike Jimmy Carter, who rejected the trappings of the presidency and lost some support for doing so, FDR was a man who loved the pomp and circumstance surrounding the American presidency. But he was also the kind of leader who exhibited great courage and empathy at a crucial time in American history, between the Great Depression and the Second World War. FDR created the New Deal because he was the real deal — a good leader. Only after Carter's presidency, when he became a widely admired philanthropist, did his star rise again. FDR's popularity has remained constant over time.

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was a variation on the dimension of fake-to-real. Reagan's true nature was that of a performer. As a staunch anti-communist he was nevertheless able to take "a walk in the woods" with Mikhail Gorbachev and admonish him in Berlin, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall" — both actions helping to thaw the Cold War. 

Yet Reagan was a man who believed — or half-believed — that because he had played a World War II fighter pilot in a B-movie, he really was such a warrior. In all his expressions, Reagan was aided by his speaking voice that sounded as if it embodied the words, "Amber waves of grain." Speaking at Normandy for the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, when Reagan referred to the "Boys of Pointe du Hoc" — the men who scaled the cliffs — and called them "the best damn kids in the world," he, for a moment, became the father of our country. He had that kind of natural performance skill that was an authentic display of who he was. Reagan as a fake-real, a fighter pilot in a B-movie, took center stage in real life as the leader of the free world. History alone can evaluate Reagan's accomplishments as Alpha.

Lastly, my mind of course veers to that square peg we now have in our Oval Office, Donald J. Trump. With Trump it's always "Me First," not America first. In that way, he is being his true self, but his true self is callous, selfish and greedy. He's real, but a fake leader, He's not the good kind of leader: smart, strong and kind. Trump sure makes a lot of noise, and now in addition to his usual tweet scaldings, he has his daily televised coronavirus briefings, spewing out his lies, misperceptions and, perhaps, self-deceptions. 

Instead of promoting unity, Trump often pits one group of Americans against another. Moreover, he is hyper-vigilant for personal slights and compliments, and those seem to take priority over scanning the world for real or potential risks to our Constitution and national security. Chimpanzees would find President Trump poor at leadership.

These examples of leadership prompt a general comparison between expert leadership and the perversion of leadership: 

  • Governing vs. Dominating: American democracy exists for the common good, not simply for the president's own good. A president must consider what he or she wants to do and what ought to be done, given all the competing forces that impact on most presidential decisions. Trump's orientation is first and foremost toward Trump, and this immediately relates to counting votes and money. Trump is a modern-day Boss Tweed. In spite of the fact that Trump thinks of himself as America's CEO, with his eyes on himself and on his earnings, America is not a business. America is also not an ideal. America is an idea. In 1776, that idea was creativity, going beyond a monarchy. In 2020, it should remain so.  
  • Respect and Commendation vs. Fear and Grievance: Instead of promoting vitality, cooperation and praiseworthy behavior — as examples of ingenuity and self-sacrifice, for instance — Trump is a natural agitator mainly concerned with self-aggrandizement. For example, he excites and accentuates the anger and fear some people have about America's traditional institutions, decrying the federal government as "the Swamp" he wants to drain. Trump blames the people that run these government institutions and also "coastal intellectuals" for being responsible for every gripe his base has. Instead, the leader of any size entity — a nation, a company, a health care or educational system, even a small business  — should provide a common vision of what's possible if its members work together. Fear and anger are easy emotions to activate, but also do the greatest harm in reducing the cognitive capacity for open and imaginative thinking. Cynicism is a powerful enemy of creativity, and right now, when getting back to normal seems impossible, creativity is not a luxury but a necessity. Humans have evolved past the hamadryas baboon model.
  • Seeking Stability That Fosters Progress vs. Causing Instability: Trump seems to believe in the dictator's rulebook: to maintain control, you ferment conflict within your citizenry, confuse people with contradictory pronouncements and, in general, keep people off balance. This brings to mind one function of East Germany's Stasi, the notorious secret police that specialized in sowing suspicion and distrust. Recently, Trump said state governors should decide when and how to open up their jurisdictions, while on the same day he sent three tweets urging protesters to "Liberate" Virginia, Michigan and Minnesota from lockdown restrictions. It has become customary for Trump to encourage culture wars and he never seems to miss an opportunity to disqualify all criticism, particularly by defining a free press as "the deep state" or "fake news." While Vice President Spiro Agnew did this for Richard Nixon, Trump doesn't delegate this function. Trump is a textbook propagandist. We don't know for sure whether Trump and Vladimir Putin actively colluded to put a dent in American democracy, but these men are deeply simpatico: birds of a feather. 
  • Expert Advisers vs. Cronies: The mark of any good leader is surrounding himself or herself with experts, as well as allowing for dissent and hearing recommendations that fly in the face of "I want." Nixon, who was untrusting and defensively vigilant toward anyone who was not an unquestioning believer, was bad at surrounding himself with experts with a view towards the common good. He might well be bested by Trump in that regard. In primitive tribes, shamans are respected individuals, looked upon for their curative knowledge and rituals, their communion with the spirit world and their advice during times of tribal high emotion. If different from the Alpha, the shaman as court jester is often allowed to persist. Hail Shaman Fauci.   
  • The Buck Stops Here vs. Casting Blame: Trump is the blamer-in-chief. Ask him to rate himself and he gives himself a "10." Whenever a problem arises, he invariably puts the blame on others. In terms of the coronavirus, Trump blames China, the WHO, Barack Obama and even Nancy Pelosi, saying he didn't orient to early intelligence warnings on the coming pandemic because he was distracted by impeachment proceedings. With no offstage in primitive tribes, where everyone knows much of your moment-to-moment behavior, falsely blaming others is hardly attempted. When attempted, it hardly ever works. Trump often also shuns responsibility. Think about the Kurdish fighters in Syria he abandoned, who had supported U.S. policy. A good leader, even when clothed only in feathers and natural dye tattoos, knows the balancing act between expediency and principle.     
  • Being a Strategic Thinker vs. Being a Literal or One-Variable Problem Solver: Trump's nature is to think short-term and in one dimension that is literal, never conceptual. Money — his favorite topic, because he equates self-worth with net worth — is countable, observable and concrete. It's the same with another topic he dwells on: immigration. To that problem, Trump thinks there is only one solution: Build a wall, something he can see. Yet when you are president, you must deal every day with complex problems that have many levels of causation, and many possible unintended consequences that could result from your actions. As a leader, a smart and open mind is a basic requirement. Trump fails at satisfying these prerequisites. 

Trump rightfully wants to provide hope to the American public, but in this time of pandemic, that cannot come at the price of denying science. It can be said that the primary survival strategy of primal life is minimizing loss before maximizing gain. Truth and wisdom in the service of "the people" counts more than hoped-for votes and pats on the back. Wisdom implies the ability to deal with complexity and contradiction, not seeing everything in black or white terms. Trump's default setting is, "If you're not for me you are against me." In contrast, in primitive tribes one can sometimes observe rituals of temporary status reversal, in which group members mock and ridicule their leader as a way to both seriously and playfully let off some steam. Trump would not be able to tolerate such a break in power relations. He demands submissiveness and has no sense of playfulness. Have you ever seen Trump smile, save when he thanks his minions for attending his rallies? 

The primal world is adapted to Its environment

The leaders of primitive tribes learn from the oral history of their group and are deeply embedded in and adapted to their environment. They know how to "read" the forest and see telltale indicators of what is not visually manifest. These people live with their feet on the ground. They have not created the technologies to land a fellow tribesman on the Moon. Nevertheless, for all the hardship endured by being totally exposed to nature, primitive people have a certain calming certainty in the world they inhabit. That is something we moderns, so removed from direct experience of our environment, can't appreciate. What we could appreciate, perhaps, is the ability to say about our next president what one New Yorker recently said about her building's doorman, who had died from the coronavirus: "He was a mensch who appreciated the ironies." That says a lot. If chimpanzees spoke English, they would know that says a lot, too. 

By Bob Deutsch

Bob Deutsch holds a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience. He has studied chimpanzees while supported by the New York Zoological Society and taught anthropology at the City University of New York. Before spending a decade as a State Department analyst, he studied preliterate tribes in Irian Jaya and Amazonia. He has written for the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, HuffPost and Forbes, and has appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" and PBS' "Rights & Wrongs."

MORE FROM Bob Deutsch

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Anthropology Chimpanzees Commentary Donald Trump Editor's Picks Leadership