Published: Salon (October 2, 2016)
When Salon’s Brendan Gauthier recently wrote about the alt-right’s reaction to Donald Trump’s humiliating performance in the first presidential debate, he included the following quote from a 4chan user defending the Republican nominee’s alleged stiffing of contractors:
“As an alpha [Trump] has no problem with asserting his will. You beta cucks wouldnt [sic] understand because when the waiter brings you the wrong order you are too busy shoe gazing at your cell phones to dispute in front of your step-sons mom [sic].”
This definitely isn’t the first time that “alpha male” rhetoric has been used to describe Trump by his radical right-wing supporters. Indeed, it’s pretty obvious from Trump’shyper-masculine rhetoric that he views himself as an alpha-male figure — or, at the very least, that he wants to convince others this is the case. That’s why we need to remind ourselves that alpha malehood isn’t just a myth; it’s an Achilles’ heel that has been far more of a weakness than a strength for Trump and his supporters, and will inevitably doom their mutual quest for power.
It’s helpful to start by recognizing that the scientific literature that popularized the term “alpha male” is outdated. “The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature at least partly because of my book ‘The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,’” explains L. David Mech, one of the scientists whose aforementioned text helped bring the alpha-male concept into conventional use. After pointing out that the last 40 years have revolutionized scientific understanding of wolf social hierarchies, he goes on to write that “one of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. ‘Alpha’ implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack.”
Of course, even if the lupine origins of the alpha-male trope weren’t obsolete, the notion that the term can even apply to human social structures is inherently absurd. As many scientists have noted, human beings generally inhabit a number of social circles rather than simply one, and each of these subgroups contain complex and varied hierarchies (assuming that they’re hierarchical at all instead of egalitarian). Individuals who may be the top dog in one circle could be quiet and unassuming in another, or even the so-called “beta male.” Just as important, the traits commonly associated with alpha malehood — violence, self-absorption, controlling behavior — have not been found to correlate strongly with professional and sexual success. In fact, researchers have found that assertiveness, confidence and pro-social behaviors (like sensitivity and the capacity to learn from one’s mistakes) are most likely to yield results for people of both genders who wish to lead accomplished lives.
This explains why Trump’s overblown machismo, though lapped up by his alt-right fanboys and many of his other supporters, has been met with controversy instead of widespread applause. When Trump talks about the size of his manhood or describes an opponent as a “pussy” or says another opponent (female) is too ugly to be president, he may be delighting his base while alienating at least as many others. These behaviors may seem dominant to those who subscribe to the alpha-male mentality, but to the rest of the world they come across as not just boorish but also transparently insecure. Because we live in a society that believes in civility, the instinct is to condemn a candidate who demeans his adversaries and brags about himself with playground taunts and boasts. Similarly, because we value intelligence and discipline in our leaders (or at any rate many of us do), Trump’s habit ofchronically interrupting and being rude toward Hillary Clinton during last week’s presidential debate came across as uncouth rather than manly.
These observations can also be extended to the hyper-masculine rhetoric used by Trump’s supporters themselves. Take the 4channer that Gauthier quoted, the one who insulted Trump’s critics by calling them “beta cucks.” The term “cuck” is very telling here, as it harkens back to one of the alt-right’s trendiest slurs, “cuckservative.”A cuckservative, in their lexicon, is a conservative who betrays his race and gender by supporting gender equality and condemning racial bigotry, in effect allowing his white masculinity to be cuckolded by women and minorities through subservience to progressive ideals. By contrast, the right-wingers who brandish terms like “cuckservative” have rallied behind Trump because, to quote the prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer: “a) he is a tougher, superior man than ‘conservatives’ (which isn’t saying much), and b) he seems to grasp the demographic displacement of European-Americans on a visceral level.”
Precisely the same qualities that have made Trump so alluring to the right-wing fringe, however, are also likely to prove fatal to his quest for power. Sure, it helped him emerge as the victor in a Republican presidential primary whose electorate was hopelessly fragmented between more than a dozen candidates. Nevertheless, Trump has done serious damage to his reputation as the result of his behavior during this campaign, and it’s unlikely that future presidential candidates will look at his record-high unfavorable ratings and wish to emulate the methods that put him in this spot. Likewise, although Trump has done well in polls against Clinton when the latter’s own scandals are front-page news, Monday night’s debate demonstrated that his “alpha male” traits fail him when he’s forced to compete one-on-one with Clinton’s more polished and professional manner.
Ordinary Americans may not be well-versed in the science that discredits alpha malehood, and may not consciously recognize that Trump turns them off because he is appealing to it. That doesn’t mean they can’t discern the deeper implications in his behavior. While I’m not optimistic enough to believe the naked racism and sexism peddled by the Trump campaign will die with his political defeat, it’s hard to imagine how the cartoonish attempts by Trump and the alt-right to impersonate alpha men can possibly survive the ordeal of this election. Like the titular character from “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” their inflated male identity depends on an understanding of human behavior that is scientifically inaccurate — and on an approach to the art of politicking that, even under the freakish conditions of this election season, simply doesn’t work.