In 2018, my wife and I visited the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda on a dormant volcano that spans Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. About 1000 Mountain Gorillas live there and consist of approximately 20 tribes, each led by an Alpha Male (Silverback).
We spent two full days visiting the gorillas. Observing the behavior of our close relatives, I was amazed about how the Alpha Male dominated his family. They will often attack the younger males, make a lot of noise and threatening jesters, they mate with all the adult females and do not allow the other males this opportunity. They also make all the major decisions about movement of the tribe. I remember that when the Alpha Male got up and started to move, the whole tribe followed him.
Even though we shared a common ancestor more than six million years ago, we still share almost 99% of the same DNA with gorillas. However, we are more closely related to the bonobo and the chimpanzees. The former has more of much more of an egalitarian society than either the chimpanzees or gorillas. The latter has a hierarchical society with a dominant Alpha Male and even larger tribes.
Since we were swinging in the trees of Africa, human beings have developed new forms of interaction. We developed language, culture, and eventually governments and religions. But deep within us, we are still primates. Therefore, the instinct resulting from the same behavior I observed in the Gorillas, are embedded within us. The instinct that allow individuals to subjugate themself to a dominant figure.
Donald Trump was President of the USA when I made that observation, and I thought, “He is the Alpha Male.” That explained why almost a majority of voters could elect a person like Trump (he lost the popular vote but won the electoral vote because of an archaic voting system that the founders established).
The hierarchical structure that I observed amongst the Gorillas has been weakened in the evolution of human beings. Some people are more susceptible to the Alpha Male than others. Moreover, some humans are better at playing the role of the Alpha Male than others. We only need to look at history to see what happens when an Alpha Male and a susceptible population exist. Adolf Hitler and the German people are the clearest examples of the last century. Contemporary examples are Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Some individuals instinctively understand how to invoke the subservient response to dominate others. However, because many of us are not as susceptible, we fail to understand the power and attraction that people like Trump have. When we see him “beating his chest” metaphorically, many of us laugh, but many of us respond to this ancient demonstration of power.
One of the most critical tools the Alpha Male has is to create a sense of fear of others that are not part of the family/tribe. Then they position themselves as the protector. Hitler did this with great success. For example, Germany’s Jewish population was less than 1% of the total population of that country when Hitler singled them out and blamed them for Germany’s economic problems. A current example of this is Netanyahu’s focus on Iran. He seeks to create an existential threat and position himself as the only one to protect Israel from Iran. It is like when Trump sets himself as “the only one” telling crowds that “”only I can prevent World War III.”
When Trump considered running for President, he hired college students to listen to Right Wing Radio to understand their fears and concerns. Then when he ran, he addressed there concerns and taped into their fears and discontent. The result was to create a division. Trump and others like him can only exist against the backdrop of perceived enemies. Like the silverbacks, political leaders like Hitler and Trump displayed strong personalities, charisma, and an ability to command attention. However, their leadership styles often revolved around using force, manipulation, and instilling fear in both their followers and opponents. Furthermore, they portrayed themselves as protectors of their respective “tribes” or nations, promising security and prosperity in exchange for loyalty and obedience.
People subjugate themselves to a dominant leader to seek stability, security, or a sense of belonging. They may also be influenced by the leader’s charisma, persuasive abilities, or the belief that the leader embodies their group’s values and aspirations. In some cases, individuals may be more susceptible to following a dominant leader due to personal insecurities, a need for validation, or feelings of powerlessness.
Trump won the majority of male votes in the 2020 election (53%), while only 42% of women voted for him. Clearly, the projection of his power attracted his voters and not his sex appeal. In addition, Trump won the majority of voters without a college degree. More surprisingly, at least to me, is that he won the majority of voters with higher incomes. I would guess this is due to the feeling that he would protect them and their concerns about increased taxes.
We are now living in a dangerous time. The Alpha Male Gorilla can only dominate a group of some fifty members. But modern communications technology has changed that range of Alpha Male Humans. Hitler made great use of Radio. It is hard to imagine what he would have done more using FaceTime, Twitter, and Tick Tok. Social Media has given amplification to the tools of the Alpha Male. It helps create the fear of the other and the sense of protection from being part of a tribe.
Looking at the two countries I know best, the United States and Israel, we can see that almost half the population responds to the Alpha Male.
I think there is a dichotomy. On one side, you have tribes led by Alpha Males, who define themselves not only by who they are but also by who they are not. But on the other side, there may be leaders, but they are not Alpha Males.
Many of the most powerful countries in the world are led by Alpha Males. So if the Alpha Male can dominate his own country, his natural tendency will be to go after the Alpha Male in some other country, which given the number of arms and, in particular nuclear arms, could result in the end of the world as we know it.
The only way to combat the Alpha Male is with another type of leader that can paint an optimistic picture and inspire higher human qualities. But, unfortunately, it has been a long time since we have had such a leader. We need her now!
I am feeling a bit skeptical. We need women in leadership AND so many men AND women are terrified of this. I do not think I will see a U.S. female president in my lifetime.
I hope you live a very long time.
It might be interesting to put those 4 human alpha males in the jungle with the mountain gorillas. Let’s see who the true alpha male is.
Terrific posting. You’ve hit the “nail on the head”!!
I am an amateur historian and have extensively read and studied many historical accounts of fascist regimes. It has always amazed me that large swarths of people, many well educated, somehow fall under the spell of, as you correctly call them, an “alpha male” that leads them, almost always, to disaster. As you noted in your posting, we recognize this phenomenon with Mussolini, Hitler, Tojo, Mao, and others from the past, and with Trump, Putin, Xi, and (unfortunately), Netanyahu, and others, today.
Several years ago, in the time leading up to Trump, and after his election in 2016, I read several books that had a profound effect on my thinking about fascism. Perhaps you already know of these, or have already read them, but if not, I highly recommend them to you (Note: my brief descriptions of each below the title are from online reviews):
It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, (Doubleday, 1935)
“Written during the Great Depression, when the country was largely oblivious to Hitler’s aggression, it juxtaposes sharp political satire with the chillingly realistic rise of a president who becomes a dictator to save the nation from welfare cheats, sex, crime, and a liberal press.
“Called “a message to thinking Americans” by the Springfield Republican when it was published in 1935, It Can’t Happen Here is a shockingly prescient novel that remains as fresh and contemporary as today’s news.”
1924: The Year That Made Hitler, by Peter Ross Range (Little Brown, 2016)
“Before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, there was 1924 This was the year of Hitler’s final transformation into the self-proclaimed savior and infallible leader who would interpret and distort Germany’s historical traditions to support his vision for the Third Reich.”
[PFM: this book starts with the failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, and Hitler’s time in Landsberg prison – think Trump’s failed January 6th attempted coup]
Fascism: A Warning, by Madeleine Albright (Harper Collins, 2018)
“Albright paints a clear picture of how fascism flourishes and explains why it is once again taking hold worldwide, identifying the factors contributing to its rise. Most importantly, she makes clear what could happen if we fail to act against rising fascist forces today and in the near future, including the potential for economic catastrophe, a lasting spike in terrorist activity, increased sectarian violence, a rash of large-scale humanitarian emergencies, massive human rights violations, a breakdown in multilateral cooperation, and nearly irreparable self-inflicted damage to America’s reputation and capacity to lead.”
I always enjoy reading your postings, and usually learn something new each time.
Thanks Peter for your detailed comments and for reading my blog. Both are very much appreciated. Did you read my book? Fascism lives in our DNA. Those genes can be quickly activated/expressed. It is most dangerous when politics and religion collude.
It’s good to directly hear from you. I really enjoy reading your blog postings and have been amazed at how you have chronicled so many topics, over so many years. Especially your writings on politics, both here in the U.S. and overseas in Israel. Kudos to you!!
Not being a Jew, it has been helpful for me to learn about the situations they face here, in Israel, and around the world. I have studied this facet of history deeply as my wife’s father’s family were Jews from Hungary, and those that didn’t get out before Hitler paid a big price. I got the chance to travel to Budapest in the early 1990’s, after the wall came down, and was able to look for, and find some of her father’s family members. They shared with we how so many of them were rounded up and shipped to Auschwitz in 1944, while others were able to hide out. My time with them caused me, a non-Jew, to study the Holocaust in detail and how it could have possibly happened. Of course, you and I know more about fascism than the average American, and how it can grow like a cancer in society, so we must defeat Trump or risk those cancer cells spreading.
On another note, I did buy your book as soon as it was available and very much enjoyed reading it. Your assessment of the years at DEC was revealing. Of course I had some visibility into the technical and political machinations going on, but your vantage point gave you a much more detailed, and intimate view of the people involved and events as they happened. In the end, of course, all of us involved in the PC work were disappointed with the outcome, and that’s too bad as the products were very well designed and built. If the company chose to focus on only one, rather than three lines, it may have achieved a larger degree of success – but that’s water under the bridge now.
It was also great to read more about you personally. I did know a bit about you and your background from our times together, but I was unaware of your life details and was fascinated to read about them in your book. There were names your talked about that I only knew from a distance. Learning how they behaved in real-time was fascinating, especially since much of what you worked on and experienced has led to the technological world we now live in.
Best to you,