Why People Vote for the Bully

1  Barnyard Behavior

A while back I was was visiting a friend in Colorado. We hopped into the pasture to check on the goats. Soon the billy goat moseyed over. He was a big old guy: his shoulder came up to my waist. He leaned his shoulder against me and started pushing. I gave him a stern look and pushed back. He pushed a little harder, so I pushed back harder, just enough to stand my ground. He shrugged and sauntered off. My friend said “I didn’t know you knew how to do that.” I laughed. I told her that as a manager in the research lab, I saw barnyard pecking-order behavior every day. That billy goat wasn’t trying to hurt me; he just needed to know where he and I fit into the pecking order.

Figure 1: Billy Goat

Chickens literally peck each other to establish a dominance hierarchy. Analogous behavior is observed in sheep, goats, wolves, meerkats, chimpanzees, and many other species.

That includes humans! Pecking order is super-important to people, and has been for a long time, since before people walked upright. It’s deeply wired in, at a level that transcends logic. People frequently make decisions on this basis, without even realizing it. Consider office politics for example: If you let people push you around, they will keep doing it. Conversely, if you push back, they will stop. You don’t need to make a big deal about it; just let folks know you won’t let them push you around. Remember the billy goat? He just needed to find out whom he could push around and whom he couldn’t.

2  Politics

Barnyard behavior is important in national politics (not just office politics). For example, the #pussygrabber is an idiot when to comes to policy and governance and facts, but he’s a genius when it comes to propaganda and demagoguery. I like to say he’s an evil genius. Do not underestimate his evil ... or his genius.

The Access Hollywood tape illustrates the point. Never mind the sexual depravity; the important words are “and when you’re a star, they let you do it.” Why would he say that to anybody, ever? Because he wants to assert dominance! It’s the most naked claim of dominance you will ever hear. Let’s be clear: He won the election not despite the Access Hollywood tape, but because of it.

As another illustration, consider this exchange from the presidential primary debate (6 August 2015):

— MEGYN KELLY: You’ve called women you don’t like “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.” Your Twitter account...

— #pussygrabber: Only Rosie O’Donnell.

— Audience: [much laughter]

That is outstanding Grade-A barnyard behavior. He interrupted the questioner, he trivialized the question, he made people laugh, and he did not back down. He reserved the right to disrespect anyone he wanted.

Peck-peck-peck, all day every day. That’s his shtick. It just never stops. He gets two scoops of ice cream, while everybody else gets one. He makes cabinet secretaries grovel before him, in public. He literally jerks world leaders around when he should be shaking hands. He literally stalked Hillary around the debate stage, October 9th, 2016. He claimed he could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters. He runs around without a face mask, endangering the lives of everyone around him. Let’s be clear: These are not mistakes. They are not innocent tics. They are carefully choreographed assertions of dominance.

We know what he’s doing and why. Amanda Taub explained it quite clearly before the 2016 election:1, 2

Authoritarian voters have a worldview that values order and authority and distrusts outsiders & social change.

When authoritarians feel threatened, they look for strongman leaders. Leaders who are punitive, who target out-groups, and who have a simple, forceful leadership style that makes them feel strong. If you were going to grow that candidate in a lab, he would look a lot like this guy.

He isn’t just a fluke, he’s not somebody who’s just doing well because he had name recognition or was a famous TV star. This is a large group of people, they want these things, and they’re going to be looking for politicians who can give it to them. That means that he could be just the first of many authoritarians in American politics.

If we saw this sort of behavior in a third-grade classroom we would call it bullying, and we would insist that it stop. Yet somehow this guy gets away with it ... and (!) somehow 63 million people saw this and concluded that he must belong at the top of the pecking order. They see him peck-peck-peck-peck, and rarely see anybody peck back. They take this to mean he’s a strong leader, even though really he’s just a scatterbrained bully.

His obsession with picking fights makes him an astoundingly bad businessman. Contrary to what he claims, he doesn’t know the first thing about how deals are made.3

Like most bullies, he’s fundamentally a coward. We learned from Stormy Daniels that his behavior improves if he gets spanked. He incessantly picks fights with people who can’t fight back, but when faced with a fight he might lose, or even a fair fight, he runs away. Adversaries would do well to realize this.

Subconsciously, people feel he must be the alpha chimp if he can get away with saying and doing outrageous things. He’s always the center of attention; therefore he must be the leader. And some people vote accordingly. This needs to stop. We need to rise above such bestial feelings and think in civilized terms. We should tell him (and his toadies) no, that doesn’t make him a tough guy; it makes him a creep, and it’s disqualifying. We wouldn’t trust him to run a PTA bake sale, let alone anything more complicated. He embodies:

A boy’s idea of a man.
A vulgarian’s idea of class.
A pauper’s idea of prosperity.
A coward’s idea of toughness.
A fool’s idea of cleverness.
A sucker’s idea of leadership.
A creep’s idea of sex appeal.

This is a lesson that people are supposed to learn in elementary school, if not sooner: Bad behavior must not be rewarded. The rules are simple, and well known:

I am guardedly optimistic, because people are not exactly the same as barnyard animals or jungle animals. At the molecular level, our DNA is “only” 98% the same as chimpanzees or bonobos. We have a thin layer of civilization on top. We can figure things out. We can recognize uncivilized behavior for what it is, and put a stop to it. We can listen to the better angels of our nature.

In civilized society, bullies do not get to move to the top of the pecking order. Instead, they get a time-out. They get to stand in the corner while we – the well-behaved kids – enjoy our team sports.

3  The Scary Part: Political Failure

Even though he is a pathological liar, people believe him, because they want to believe him. They will believe him, even if it literally kills them, because he is offering them something they crave, something they want more than life itself.

All this is so transparently performative that you would think people would have caught on by now, but they haven’t. Even among professional politicians, it’s scary how few of them understand what’s going on. Pelosi sometimes shows flashes of understanding (“I know a temper tantrum when I see one”) but more often seems to forget the lesson. Others seem not to understand at all.

As a group they have utterly failed to explain to the voters what’s going on. When was the last time anybody called him out on this?

It seems to me this is the main thing politicians should be talking about.

4  References

Amanda Taub
“The rise of American authoritarianism” (7500-word essay; March 1, 2016)
Amanda Taub
“Authoritarianism: The political science that explains Trump” (May 2016)
7-minute video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YU9djt_CQM
25-minute video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSkd0SmjXp4
“Fundamental Character Flaws”
“Scapegoating, Fearmongering, Faux News, and Politics”
My Daddy Killed That Mule (from Mississippi Burning)
“Win/Win Transactions”