America has long promoted the concept of individualism. We might not have invented the idea that the individual matters more than the tribe, but through marketing, wishful thinking, and myriad blends of spiritual musing, we’ve created a religion out of the singular. Problem is that’s not how nature, or society, works.
Clearly defined social orders are crucial to our species. Pre-agricultural communities might have enjoyed egalitarian structures; once the accumulation of wealth to such vast degrees became possible, alpha males began to dominate. While this may change in the future, for now a pecking order seems ingrained.
Primatologist Frans de Waal understands this well. As he writes in Our Inner Ape, scientists once considered the frequency band of 500 hertz and below inconsequential in speech. Once you remove higher frequencies, lower tones become an unrecognizable mess. Yet research has shown this low hum to be an “unconscious social instrument.” Lower-status animals adjust their timbre to the dominant animal. De Waal goes on:
"In all eight elections between 1960 and 2000 the popular vote matched the voice analysis: the majority of people voted for the candidate who held his own timbre rather than the one who adjusted."
He notes that in 2000, George W. Bush actually adjusted to Al Gore’s vocal patterns. While the latter never achieved the highest office, he did win the popular vote that year. I’m not aware of any analysis regarding Barack Obama’s victories, but his oratorical skills have been undeniable, the focus of both lauded applause and disgruntled dismay.
At a campaign event in Iowa on Saturday GOP frontrunner Donald Trump stated that he would not lose voters even if he stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shot someone. While the comment has received some attention, at this point such a sentiment coming from his mouth is almost benign. Furthermore, the harsh reality of his statement is that it’s true.
De Waal writes that:
"[N]ot only are we sensitive to hierarchies and the body language associated with them, we simply could not live without them. Some people may wish them away, but harmony requires stability, and stability depends ultimately on a well-acknowledged social order."
In previous ages, Trump’s ascent would have been unlikely given how little support he’s received from the Republican Party. In her response to Obama’s State of the Union, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s GOP-sanctioned reply specifically warned Americans not to vote for the frontrunner. Under normal circumstances, it would be hard for Trump to gain traction. Yet he has something more important under his spell: the electorate.
Sure, he may not have the largest number of overall voters, but he has the support of those he needs: a disillusioned, anti-establishment public fed up with greedy lifelong politicians. Even the Democratic race is spiraling into an anti-establishment fiasco, with both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders trying to position the other to seem more "political." Trump’s entire campaign has relied on this tense atmosphere.
Can Trump’s ascent really be based on something as simple as vocal timbre? Fluctuations aside, he has certainly controlled the volume of GOP discourse. Whether commenting on a world event or inventing a controversy he’s masterfully pulled the puppet strings of his opponents in whatever direction he chooses. His many contradictions are overlooked thanks in part to the hypnotic swagger of his certainty.
We like to believe we’re in complete control of every decision we make. Yet our puny cognitive processing power of 120 bits per second is dwarfed by the massive array of autonomic functions our brains and bodies accomplish every second of our lives. Conscious attention is but a sliver of what we call existence. Regardless of how much we’ve evolved from our ape ancestors, we are as much victims to unconscious power dynamics as any other species.
Part of the problem is that we see evolution as a straight line leading to us, rather than a giant tree with innumerable branches spreading in numerous directions. By usurping our connection with nature we think we’ve risen above it. But nature is what created us; we were not molded of some special clay.
As de Waal explains, humans have not evolved directly from chimps or bonobos. Both have influenced us. We are our own animal, subject to our own rules. That said, denying that we are animals is fruitless. Whether Trump has your vote or you’re disgusted by his presence, he has certainly tapped into our primal and cultural ethos and pathos. (I’d leave logos aside in this case.) While his opponents scream from their pulpits about the dangers of electing him, as long as they keep pantgrunting in his presence, they’ll keep solidifying his place as their candidate.
Image: Aaron P. Bernstein / Getty Images
Derek Beres is a Los Angeles-based author, music producer, and yoga/fitness instructor. Follow him on Twitter @derekberes.