The recent election results in Virginia and elsewhere suggest that the tide may be turning away from the egregious behavior exhibited by Donald Trump, and back toward a sense of decency in American politics. How can we keep that momentum going over the next three years?
In researching my book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, I realized that a greater understanding of hunter-gatherer values and practices offers a valuable perspective on our own social and political interactions, including some hints on how our contemporary industrialized society can rein in the behavior of a rogue leader such as Donald Trump.
Nomadic hunter-gatherers do things very differently from modern societies, yet their way of life was the ubiquitous human experience until approximately the past ten thousand years when agriculture emerged. During that time, humans evolved some of the key characteristics that make us unique among primates: a sense of fair play, shared intentions, and community-based ethics.
Hunter-gatherer communities were invariably egalitarian. There was no “big chief” who lorded it over everyone else. Yet they had to work hard to maintain their egalitarian values in the face of upstarts who demonstrated bullying, arrogance, and narcissism. In doing so, they developed a set of sophisticated and powerful group dynamics. Is there anything we can learn from their playbook that can apply to the popular resistance movement confronting those same characteristics that Donald Trump exudes on a daily basis?
Consider the story of anthropologist Richard Lee, who gave the tribe of !Kung foragers, with whom he’d been living, the best Christmas gift he could procure: a fat, meaty ox for their feast. But instead of gratitude, he received nothing but insults: it was the skinniest “sack of guts and bones,” they told him, that they had ever seen. Even while they spent two days feasting on it, they kept complaining: “It gives us pain to be served such a scrawny thing.”
Only later did Lee discover that this was the !Kung's normal response to a hunter who returns with a big kill. Instead of praising him, the group ridicules his achievements and speaks of his meat as worthless, even while they’re enjoying it. This way, Lee discovered, they prevent a hunter from swelling up with pride and thinking of himself as a “big man” or a chief.
Around the world, hunter-gatherer bands viewed Trump-like attributes as a serious threat to the smooth functioning of their communities, and they worked hard to keep them in check before they got out of control. As a !Kung elder explained to Richard Lee, “When a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.”
Another common practice was for hunters to exchange their uniquely identifiable arrows with each other before a hunt. After a kill, the person who portioned out the meat to the band—thus temporarily holding power in the group—was the one whose arrow killed the prey, not the one who shot it. Through this ingenious method, power remained dispersed and randomized instead of becoming concentrated with the most skillful hunter.
How different from today’s society with its mega-billionaires and celebrity worship! But even among hunter-gatherers, dominant upstarts (almost invariably men) would sometimes get out of hand. Here are five methods they used, in order of increasing severity, to keep them from taking over.
Ridicule. The first response would be for community members to ridicule his behavior among themselves. This was a valuable indirect way of signaling to others that his arrogance wouldn’t be tolerated, without resorting to direct confrontation. It was also a powerful way to build group consensus against him, in case further resistance were needed. We see an updated version of this response to Trump every day, in the late-night comic offerings of shows such as Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Direct criticism. If the upstart didn’t respond to the subtler message of ridicule, the next step would be to confront him directly. This might take courage, and would best be done as a group. It would be most effective if the criticism came from those who were friends rather than those already known to disagree with him. This is why a critique of Trump from prominent Republicans such as John McCain, Bob Corker, or Jeff Flake has far more impact than the daily barrage of criticism from Democrats.
Group disobedience. If the upstart continued his wayward behavior, the group might then resort to disobedience. The arrogant hunter might, for example, set out in one direction, but the other hunters would refuse to follow him. In modern society, with strict rules guiding permissible behavior, group disobedience looks different. The Women’s March, the spontaneous demonstrations at airports in response to Trump’s initial racist rulings, and court injunctions against his directives, are all examples of people stepping up in moral outrage to violations of norms in an attempt to prevent some of the worst excesses.
Ostracism. If all these responses failed to have their desired effect, in rare cases a band might ostracize the miscreant. A milder form of this would be to withhold the norms of social etiquette, with more severe forms such as expulsion from the group applied in extreme cases. In some hunter-gatherer societies, such as Eskimos in the Arctic, this could effectively be a death sentence. We have seen important examples of ostracism occurring in the Beltway, such as when the Golden State Warriors refused to visit the White House, or when the White House Arts Committee resigned en masse to protest Trump’s defense of white nationalists following Charlottesville.
Extreme sanction. As a last resort, when every other attempt to check an upstart has failed, the group may come to a consensus decision to execute him. This would be done very rarely and with heavy hearts, because in spite of common misperceptions, hunter-gatherers generally had great fear and distaste for physical violence. In our modern society, with its strict ethical and legal restrictions, the extreme sanction applicable to Donald Trump would be impeachment—a process that has recently been energized by a multi-million-dollar campaign initiated by billionaire activist Tom Steyer.
Is there anything we can learn from the hunter-gatherer playbook? One takeaway is to reflect on how our 21st-century society is not so different from hunter-gatherer society after all. Each of the tactics employed by our nomadic ancestors is being implemented by those who share the common outrage at someone who so clearly thinks of himself as a “big man” and “the rest of us as his servants or inferiors.” Another lesson may be to recognize that each tactic of resistance is a crucial one: rather than arguing about taking one approach instead of another, it’s important to realize that all flavors of resistance are needed to counter a threat as grave as what Trump represents.
The most important lesson of all, however, may be to recognize what undergirded the hunter-gatherers’ resistance to an upstart in the first place: a shared set of values based in a deep sense of fairness and human dignity. Throughout the world and throughout history, hunter-gatherers showed a strong commitment to what has been called “altruistic punishment”: the willingness to punish those who flagrantly break social norms even at potentially significant cost to themselves.
If we are to be successful in the national resistance to the takeover of our society by authoritarianism, we need to emphasize the core values that the vast majority of us share, such as common decency, respect for human dignity, and caring for our community. When we act on the basis of our shared humanity, and when we’re willing to venture outside our comfort zone—even taking personal risks—to fight for what we know is right, we can rest assured that our struggle is in the great tradition of our hunter-gatherer past, and that our evolved human nature itself is on our side.