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Do chimps explain America’s gender chasm?

Tom Edsall
New York Times
Tom Edsall

Over recent history, Democratic presidential candidates have most often carried the women’s vote. Republicans have had more success among men. Under Donald Trump, that gender gap may be widening into more of a gender chasm.

I take no credit for that phrase, because I stole it from the latest piece by the great New York Times columnist Tom Edsall: “What happens if the gender gap becomes a gender chasm.”

Edsall analyzes some eye-catching new numbers suggesting that the gender gap may be widening and in a way that possibly advantages Democrats. Why? Well voters come mainly in either of two genders, and, heading toward the 2020 elections, some polls suggest that the Dems’ advantage among women is quite a bit larger than the Repubs’ advantage among men.

According to Edsall, a recent Quinnipiac Poll published in early July, testing partisan preference heading toward those midterms, suggested that in votes for U.S. House races women planned to vote for Democrats by a staggering 58-33 margin, while men intended to vote for Republican House candidates by 50-42.

Put them together, it adds up to a breathtaking 33-point gender gap (a 25-point pro-Dem gap among women and an eight-point pro-GOP gap among men.) I suppose there are a million ways that that won’t turn into a blue wave. For starters, those national numbers are spread across 435 House races, each with their own characteristics. But the big trend augurs well for Dems to make large gains (just don’t take that augury to the bank).

Those numbers are across all races. Trump actually won in 2016 among white women, but the Quinnipiac poll says Democrats currently hold a substantial 52-38 percent lead among white women at the moment.

Another poll, by the Washington Post-Schar School, conducted June 27-July 2 found that men of all races approve of how Trump is handling the job by 54-45, while women of all races disapprove, 65-32, a 42-point difference.

(Think carefully here. Those 42 points don’t reflect the advantage of Democrats over Republicans. They represent the current size of the gender gap, by adding Trump’s nine-point net approval among men to the 33-point net deficit among women in that poll.)

Naturally, that leads you want to think about the midterms, which is not crazy, but it’s way too soon to obsess on the horserace stuff. And Edsall doesn’t.

Instead, Edsall, who loves to turn to scholars for understanding, asked a psychology professor, Northwestern University’s Dan McAdams, for help in understanding this big gap: 

“Trump personifies an approach to leadership that many men find deeply appealing. It is a primal appeal to social dominance. Everybody — men and women — knows that social status can be seized through physical power and threat; the strongest, biggest, and boldest may lord it over the rest of us. But boys and men have more direct experiences of this kind of thing growing up — on the playground, for example, in gym class, in the military, and in various other socialization venues wherein male strength and bravura are praised and deeply prized, even as they also evoke fear and submission.”

McAdams cited the comments of the primatologist Jane Goodall, who compared Trump’s behavior to that of a chimpanzee.

“In many ways the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals,” Goodall told James Fallows, a writer for The Atlantic in 2016.

“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.” 

Believe it or not, and I thought it was as brilliant as it was unexpected, Edsall eschews further poll data and stays on the apes and chimps angle for much of the rest of the column, which leads him to quote a biologist from USC, (Christopher Boehm) who compares the appeal of Trump to his followers to the appeal of an alpha among the Gombe chimpanzees of Tanzania to his followers.

Boehm explains that the alpha male chimp of that group (Goblin, if you must know) established his leadership by “threaten[ing] or attack[ing] rivals who looked like they might challenge him, often acting sharply and pre-emptively. Similarly, Trump knows who and when to attack to maximize intimidation. In an attack, the male chimp’s long black hair stands on end as he charges at his rival, which may either race up a tree screaming or stand and fight. Trump’s competitors have mostly been racing up trees.”

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/13/2018 - 03:28 pm.

    Chimps don’t explain anything

    For one thing, most of us don’t talk chimp, although Trump can come close 😉
    We’re not descended from chimpanzees.
    We evolved from a common ancestor that lived about 6 million years ago.
    The point is that Trump’s behavior is an example of basic primate behavior that you’ll see in all the higher primates, such as gorillas and bonobos as well as chimps.
    We developed civilized societies to set some limits on these behaviors in a way that made larger and more complex societies possible. To a limited extent, chimps have done the same thing.
    They’ll make war on other groups of chimps while maintaining limits on aggressiveness within their group.
    Some people would describe/have described Trump as a sociopath:
    someone who has not learned the set of behaviors that limit our basic primate nature and allow us to function as a society.
    And like us, chimps have gender differences in behavior, as do their cousins the bonobos, who are actually more like us than are chimps.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/13/2018 - 04:39 pm.


    Granting Paul Brandon’s several disclaimers, I still think comparing us to other primates, chimp, bonobo, whatever, provides a useful analogy, if for no other reason than that it points out that Trump’s appeal is to the… um… primitive. As Paul pointed out in his comment, humans have developed what we like to think of as “civilized” societies to rein in those primitive instincts to some degree, though the degree does vary from culture to culture.

    I’ve also come across other attempts at analysis that associate Trump with the stereotypical mob boss in an organized crime environment. First of all, of course, that association doesn’t strike me as especially far-fetched in the current White House, but even if we leave out potential criminal conflicts of interest and other criminal conduct – until now, no one thought protecting a sitting president from criminal prosecution while in office seemed necessary – it’s another situation that strikes me as having some parallels in the real world. If the boss likes you, he’ll protect you from harm, all kinds of harm, unless and until it looks like some of that harm might eventually come to him. Then he will throw you to the figurative wolves. If the boss doesn’t like you, it makes no difference how hard you work, how much humiliation you’re willing to tolerate, he still won’t like you, won’t protect you, and won’t even think twice about tossing you to the wolves.

    Either analogy seems to me not entirely off-base within the White House itself, nor when trying to characterize Trump’s relationship with (fill in the blank: the press, foreign leader(s), the business community, legislators, judges, etc.).

    He speaks and behaves as leaders of primitive societies (and dominant animals in animal societies) do. Someone is “good” if they help him in some way, “bad” if they don’t, worse than “bad” if they criticize him or his policies or actions.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/13/2018 - 06:24 pm.

    Everyone knows a loud-mouth, over-bearing, hulking boor, and most people do not automatically follow that guy. There is a range of reactions from men–from admiring his “straight talk” and being all-in with the boor’s program, to the half-excuse excuse of “that’s just sounds that way he is–he’s actually a nice guy” to silent acquiescence, all the way over to loathing. But for many, the boorish behavior is not a distinct breaking point.

    But I would submit that far more women who have had to deal with loud-mouth over-bearing hulking boors and have been directly and distinctly damaged by the encounter. Definitely not as much tolerance for the boor in reserve–because their experience puts the lie to “they just talk that way–they don’t mean it”.

    That is the gender gap in a nut-shell.

    As for the dominance of size–get a grip. Figure out the size of the great leaders–study the way they acted and spoke.

    Instead, go to another animal science study–the conditioning of animals. 3 or 4 decades of big-media propaganda have led to the profound ignorance of the issues of this world we live in. When we have progressed to such a knowledge and understanding divide, the only logical leader for the blindered is the leader who is all-in to the stupidity, whether through genuine ignorance or cynical trumpeting of the ignorance.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/14/2018 - 09:35 am.

    Yes, after decades of moderate Democratic leadership…

    Instead of extending gender equality and solidifying equal rights women are on the verge of being ruled second class citizens with no right to privacy… and the gap is becoming a chasm despite those who rose above the glass ceiling. It didn’t have to be this way, but that’s what happens when moderate/centrists displace liberals and build a Party around the mission of accommodating sexism and patriarchy. This is also what happens when you celebrate the accomplishments of a small number celebrity women instead of pursuing broader equality for a majority of women. This is how the women’s movement was stalled by the Democratic Party.

    So at this point, if women turn out to vote for Democrats THAT might help the Party, but if the Party doesn’t turn around and genuinely fight for women THIS TIME it will be all for naught. It’s not about whether or not Democrats start winning… it’s about what kind of Democratic Party will win.

  5. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 07/14/2018 - 09:48 am.

    Not quite right with some good and bad points in comments above, but I think Edsall’s piece is pretty good, chimps and all.

    Gorillas split off from a common human ancestor so long ago that they are quite different, although single alfa male dominance in these species (only two, I think), is the most extreme of the great apes with great physical and mental differences between males and females (called sexual dimorphism).

    Chimpanzees and bonobos with their differences and similarities among one another and human beings, are more instructive and relevant to today’s politics. Bonobos are thought to be more like us in many ways with fewer physical differences between the sexes, but the main bonobo difference from chimps is their almost matrilineal society (Margaret Mead would have been pleased, but just as wrong about Samoans).

    The mystery of human origins remain, but the wide range of behaviors of and between human males and females suggest we are quite a hodgepodge of great ape behaviors with likely wide variation among individuals within populations.

    The main difference between us all, joked about above, is our capacity for and use of language and the other features of our increasingly complex cultures, and though it is rough and crude, Trump’s language use is effective on his base, which includes the sorts of women who will tolerate a malignant narcissist like Trump (see The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump by Bandy Lee, et al.). We can all get tired of dealing with complex culture as demonstrated by the favorite acronym of pols and telemarketers, KISS, (keep it simple, stupid), and go for the simple, even wrong answers when presented by a malignant narcissist selling us a bill of goods.

    One only hopes there is a limit to what the most tolerant and narcissist loving women will tolerate. I hope to see these women hobble Trump with a flip of Congress to Democrats in November and cull him in 2020. Of course Congress could show how primate alliances remove troublesome alpha males before that, or perhaps Trump might just crawl away to a safer place, one of his resorts or homes in the face of such a threat or his latest fiasco in the UK (on to his master, Vlad the Assailer [of elections, places where Russians live, and other people and places that can distract his followers from thinking clearly for themselves (KISS)]).

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/14/2018 - 10:02 am.

    And no… it’s not about chimps

    Human’s are not chimps and our society is far more complex. There are examples of matriarchal societies among humans and animals. Next someone will be telling us that men and women are from different “tribes”. This is about power and privilege. The powerful and privileged have always made facile claims appealing to “natural” orders.

  7. Submitted by Misty Martin on 07/14/2018 - 10:18 am.

    Quite interesting and informative, as always, Eric, but . . .

    It makes me a little ill to compare our current P.O.T.U.S. to that of an alpha male chimp and is a discredit to these beautiful and intelligent primates. All joking aside, President Trump is in a class all by himself, and that class is just plain DISGUSTING.

  8. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/14/2018 - 11:06 am.

    Thanks, Neal, for mentioning women!

    Eric’s blunder, in his article’s not considering females at all but just how male primates dominate other male primates, was continuing in this comment thread until your comment. The kind of male that Trump shows us he is, is the kind that bats women around if they misbehave or disrespect him.

    Women know that guy. Boy, do we know that guy.

    I refer most specifically to Trump’s very public inability to deal with powerful women. He routinely and grossly insults internationally significant government leaders Angela Merkel and Theresa May; Trump depends on their civility rather than his own, to get him by while he thumps his chest and throw things around like an ape.

    But what takes the cake–and with a gesture that no woman can watch without being appalled at its disgusting male arrogance and implicit violence toward all women–is Donald Trump not only insulting Prime Minister May on her own home’s turf, but demeaning and implicitly dominating the 92-year-old Queen Elizabeth II by insisting on walking faster than the Queen did or could during a review of her Guard yesterday. He kept walking fast and refused to adapt to the Queen’s pace. British viewers were appalled, but so were a lot of American women.

    Trump’s total inability to respond to another person with empathy is clearer every day, even to Republican women: He’s the guy who tears immigrant babies away from a mother’s breast (really, and figuratively, with this week’s administrative stupid refusal to sign on to an international resolution about breast milk being better than Nestle’s formula milk). He’s the guy who breaks things without the slightest idea of how to fix them or replace them (treaties, pacts, health care plans, intact families, you name it).

  9. Submitted by Howard Miller on 07/14/2018 - 02:53 pm.

    Mammalian comparisons are useful, but …

    … when you’re asking about human behavior in political tastes, you get a more direct and generalizable answer studying those humans as they exist in context, rather than looking for clues in close mammalian relatives.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/16/2018 - 09:19 am.

    Yeah, I hate to say it but….

    If you strip this chimp thesis down to the core proposition it’s basically a form of social Darwinism… and that’s not a good thing.

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 07/16/2018 - 09:27 pm.

      Not sure how you get from chimpanzees to social Darwinism, but reading an old book called “Chimpanzee Politics: power and sex among apes” by Frans de Waal might clear things up for you.

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