The Return of the Alpha Males

During his speech at CPAC, Donald Trump said something we got used to hearing from him during the campaign.

We inherited a foreign policy marked by one disaster after another. We don’t win anymore. When was the last time we won? Did we win a war? Did we win anything? Do we win anything? We’re going to win. We’re going on win big, folks. We’re going to start winning again, believe me. We’re gonna win.

That is a good description of Trump’s entire world view. Everything is about a competition to decide who wins and who loses. It’s why almost four months after the election, he is still consumed by talk about how he won.

But the statement above is about “winning” when it comes to foreign policy. That is why Susan Glasser points to the fact that White House national security aide Sebastian Gorka refers to the “return of the alpha male” as the crux of Trump’s foreign policy.

“Our foreign policy has been a disaster,” Gorka told Fox’s Sean Hannity before the inauguration…”The message I have—it’s a very simple one. It’s a bumper sticker, Sean: The era of the Pajama Boy is over January 20th and the alpha males are back.”…

Trump’s foreign policy, Gorka says, will be a macho foreign policy, when tough guys will once again rule the world and wimpy Democrats (and maybe democrats?) are left on the sidelines.

We all have a sense of what he means by “alpha male.” The dictionary definition is: “a man tending to assume a dominant or domineering role in social or professional situations.” Viewing the world through the lens of a competition to dominate is a classic patriarchal notion – one that our previous president rejected.

For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes — and, yes, religions — subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.

What is at stake between these two world views is literally a question of whether or not this country is building towards war or peace. Competitions for dominance become war when both sides refuse to capitulate. Right now the Trump team is busy poking both allies and adversaries. Nothing he has done yet has provoked enough heat to lead to that kind of confrontation. Let’s hope it stays that way. But Steve Bannon’s hunger for a global war with Islam, as well as his forecasting of confrontations with Iran and China, are all signs that the alpha males are itching for war.

Building towards peace via partnership is a more complex and longer-term process. We saw the fruits of those efforts most clearly in the deal reached with Iran to halt their nuclear weapons program. Trump has vowed to scrap that agreement, but the power of partnership (the involvement of so many other countries) is on display as he seems to be backing away from that promise.

It is important to recognize this return of the alpha male in our foreign policy establishment because, as former Secretary of State Madeline Albright told Glasser, these boys can be dangerous.

As for the prospects of a Trump reset for foreign policy, Albright brought it back around to the lack of women at the table, pointing out that of the major Cabinet posts, women now hold only two, secretary of education and secretary of transportation—neither with Situation Room responsibilities. There are, she insisted, real-world consequences of having a national security team with too many Y chromosomes.

“I hope we are not in the world of the alpha males, because they have made an awful lot of mistakes,” Albright said. “And they prod each other onto more alphaness.”

Men like Barack Obama and John Kerry demonstrated that Y chromosomes are not necessarily determinative when it comes to an attraction to dominance as a world view. But the almost-complete exclusion of women from the table in the Trump administration is telling. As Hillary Clinton wrote in Hard Choices:

When women participate in peace processes, they tend to focus discussion on issues like human rights, justice, national reconciliation, and economic renewal that are critical to making peace. They generally build coalitions across ethnic and sectarian lines and are more likely to speak up for other marginalized groups. They often act as mediators and help to foster compromise.

There are many ways that the 2016 election demonstrated the centrality of the struggle to move past the old order of white patriarchy. The return of alpha males as the leaders who will be in charge of our foreign policy is one of the outcomes that will pose the most danger – not just to this country, but to the world.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.