Is Putin Trump's Alpha

Donald Trump and Co: the return of the alpha males?

I am the state: With macho men like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin or Matteo Salvini, a new, old type has returned to the political stage. A communications expert explains what's behind the alpha males' behavior, why they are so popular with their followers, and how the alpha males can be disenchanted.

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The macho seemed to be a relic from a bygone era. About as old-fashioned as the song "Macho Macho". And even when it was published in 1988, Rainhard Fendrich made fun of this type of man who always wants to be the center of attention with his hairy chest. 30 years later, machos like Donald Trump or Matteo Salvini are again setting the tone in politics.

Mannheim communication scientist Eike Mark Rinke sees the beginning of this development as early as the mid-1990s. It was then that Silvio Berlusconi became Prime Minister of Italy for the first time. "Berlusconi is the epitome of the alpha male as a modern political figure," says Rinke.

Berlusconi, who was inclined to right-wing populism, managed to present himself as the "spearhead of a revolutionary movement". He attacked his opponents violently and promised his followers "quasi paradisiacal conditions", describes the communication expert.

In this sense, US President Donald Trump is following in the footsteps of his Italian pioneer. He and Berlusconi are similar in many ways: Trump also presented himself as a savior, said Rinke. This is also shown by his election slogan "Make America Great Again". Donald Trump's trademarks also include his spontaneity and unpredictability.

Personality cult instead of servant of democracy

Trump, like other modern right-wing populists, was also characterized by a disdain for democratic institutions. "Instead, the focus is on your own person," explains communication scientist Rinke.

An example of this are tweets from Italy's new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, in which he distances himself from "intellectual elites". The message: The others just talk - he, Salvini, is a doer, however.

This is one of the most important differences to the more moderate politicians like Angela Merkel, who focus less on their own person than on democratic processes and institutions.

But these processes are often lengthy and laborious. In Rinke's opinion, there is a great danger that many people from the political center are increasingly struggling with these processes and admire the short decision-making paths in authoritarian states.

The return of the "alpha men" shows the division in western societies: On the one hand there are people who long for authority and isolation. On the other hand, there are still many people for whom freedom and openness are important. "The respective representatives are increasingly repulsed by the other," says Rinke.

What is it about Trump that fascinates voters?

The expert refers to a study by the University of British Columbia, which Donald Trump compared with his Republican competitors in the election campaign. It turned out that Trump stood out on many points. He spoke of himself particularly often. In addition, compared to the other politicians, his language was the most informal, that is, "close to the people", not very academic and analytical. Another characteristic is his high degree of variability in his voice, he often changes pitch. This increases the listener's perception and creates a bond.

"This form of communication gets stuck in a certain section of the electorate," explains Rinke. Trump is particularly well received by those who are little informed about political processes. Those who are cynical about politics and have a feeling of powerlessness particularly like the fact that "those up there" are put in their place by an outsider like Trump.

Trump's supporters feel the numerous derailments and insults as legitimate - "especially those who believe that the language would be censored by 'political correctness'", said Rinke. He himself thinks that although some of Trump's electorate actually find his personal attacks unpleasant, they tolerate them. In the radicalized part, however, the attacks are even celebrated.

However, Trump's impulsiveness has the disadvantage that it can quickly lead to contradictions and false claims. Russian President Vladimir Putin presents himself as the exact opposite: "Putin appears very controlled and calm. This exudes sovereignty," explains Rinke. "It's a very different form of authority than Trump."

Rinke cites Putin's annual television show "The Direct Line" as an example. In it he answers citizens' questions. "He pretends to take care of all matters personally and directly," says the communications expert. Putin appears as a carer and a father figure. A perfect staging in a country where the media are already very much tailored to Putin.

Compared to Putin, Trump was inferior

That is why it became interesting a few days ago in Helsinki, when Trump and Putin, two very different alpha men, met directly. "In a direct comparison, however, Trump did not get off well, he looked significantly less sovereign than Putin," says Rinke. In the USA, too, the perception that the American president was inferior to the Russian one is widespread.

This sign of weakness could become a real problem for Trump, who likes to present himself as strong and ruthless. How massive the pressure was on him after the meeting with Putin is shown by his withdrawal, which is unusual for him. The communications expert believes that the "awkward rhetorical twists and turns" Trump had to make made it even worse. Even parts of the Republicans, who had previously been reluctant, criticized the performance.

Rinke does not think it is unlikely that the "Trump effect" will wear off at some point. His appearance is no longer "new" and "different" on the political stage, but everyday.

Dr. Eike Mark Rinke is a research fellow at the Mannheim Center for European Social Research (MZES) at the University of Mannheim. Political communication is one of his main focuses. Rinke has worked in Erfurt and Washington, D.C. studied and did his doctorate in Mannheim.