Decades of studying primates has convinced me that animal politics are not so different from our own – and even in the wild, leadership is about much more than being a bully. By Frans de Waal
In July 2017, when Sean Spicer, then the White House press secretary, was discovered hiding in the bushes to dodge questions from reporters, I knew Washington politics had become truly primatological. A few weeks earlier, James Comey had intentionally worn a blue suit while standing at the back of a room with blue curtains so as to blend in. The FBI director hoped to go unnoticed and avoid a presidential hug. (The tactic failed.)
Making creative use of the environment is primate politics at its best, as is the role of body language such as sitting on a throne high above the grovelling masses, descending into their midst with an escalator or raising one’s arm so underlings can kiss your armpit (a pheromonal ritual invented by Saddam Hussein). The link between high evaluations of debate performances and the candidates’ heights is well known – taller candidates have a leg up. This advantage explains why short leaders bring along boxes to stand on during group photos.