By now, most of us have seen the crazy violence that has erupted at Donald Trump rallies during his current presidential campaign. The upheaval got so bad that Trump was forced to cancel a planned rally in Illinois and, more recently, had his rally in Ohio interrupted by a protester who charged the stage.
For political junkies and blowhards, it has been a magical time.
While pundits and analyst like to point to Trump as the instigator in these situations, the idea of edgy and provocative political campaigns is nothing new, nor is employing these strategies for the sole purpose of drawing crowds and attention.
In fact, one could go back to the 1968 conventions' coverage, when ABC, a distant third of the three top (and only) networks in ratings, made a bold move bringing in William F. Buckley Jr., an outspoken right-wing conservative and founder of the conservative publication, National Review, to discuss the primary conventions and debate political strategies with Gore Vidal, a liberal left-wing author and playwright known best for his provocative and sexually charged publications.
While the other networks were simply providing live coverage of the conventions, ABC was pitting two of the most diametrically opposed political and cultural figures in America for a battle of purity and eloquence -- live on television.
The debates, which were heated and even turned threatening at times, were a tremendous hit for ABC, launching them ahead of the other two networks in terms of ratings and audience size. More important, many believe that these debates gave birth to modern media coverage and programming.
So Trump is certainly not the first figure, political or otherwise, to fundamentally change the level of public discourse, for better or worse. Do his actions and words have an effect? Of course they do, but they are more a manifestation of his radically different style and persona, which seem to become more dramatic as his popularity increases.
Could he be more presidential? Compared to other political leaders, absolutely, but he would not be positioned as he is today to be the Republican nominee.
All this is to say that Trump can no more be blamed entirely for the violence at his rallies than humans can be blamed entirely for climate change. There are just too many other factors involved, most of which are macro-level and entirely out of any one individual’s control.
One such factor is the concern that Americans continue to be more and more anxious and depressed. Dr. Jean Twenge, a social psychologist at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled -- and More Miserable Than Ever Before, has been studying this phenomena for several years and has concluded that "research tells us that modern life is not good for mental health," particularly among younger generations.
Twenge also published findings in Clinical Psychology Review in 2009 that demonstrated that when "asked the same questions at about the same points in their lives, Americans are, over time, experiencing worse and worse symptoms associated with anxiety and depression."
Interestingly, even with the dramatic rise of antidepressant drug prescriptions, which only took off in the late 1980’s, anxiety and depression in Americans has plateaued at best -- but not decreased.
"Obviously, there’s a lot of good things about societal and technological progress," says Twenge, "and in a lot of ways our lives are much easier... But there’s a paradox here that we seem to have so much ease and relative economic prosperity compared to previous centuries, yet there’s this dissatisfaction, there’s this unhappiness, there are these mental-health issues in terms of depression and anxiety."
A major reason for this? "There’s clear evidence that the focus on money, fame and image has gone up," says Twenge. Clearly this is due to our culture’s fascination with celebrities and reality shows -- and, apparently, Donald Trump. Twenge continues: "There's also clear evidence that people who focus on money, fame and image are more likely to be depressed and anxious."
According to Twenge, another reason for our misery is that "modern life doesn’t give us as many opportunities to spend time with people and connect with them, at least in person, compared to, say, 80 years ago or 100 years ago. Families are smaller, the divorce rate is higher, people get married much later in life," all of which Twenge supports but warns that the "potential tradeoff for our equality and freedom is more anxiety and depression, because we’re more isolated."
This isolation is also causing us to be more close-minded, especially when it comes to political beliefs. Dan Wagner, founder of Civis, a digital-data analytics firm that worked for the 2012 Obama campaign, points out that, according to data, the Internet and, more specifically. social media has created digital pockets of like-minded people who rarely need to venture beyond their own circles to consume or interpret information. It has created, as Wagner puts it, "digital tribalism." And as we continue to associate only in small circles of people, we tend to be much less open to new ideas and opinions and much more fearful of any and all sides outside our narrow groups.
So, it is not so much Trump to blame for the unprecedented violence and dissension at his rallies but rather more a burden of our disassociated society and devolving culture.
What does this mean for business? Trump supporters are more than individuals who share a political ideology. They are an apparently large and disenfranchised segment of American consumers who share a common frustration with politics and, to a greater extent, life -- justified or not.
They are anxious and generally discontent, and they seek people -- and companies -- that speak to their needs and wants in plain, simple language. Trump supporters do not necessarily share all his views but instead gravitate to him because he represents and personifies their growing anxiety and frustration.
It is a generational shift that is dramatically affecting how Americans communicate, empathize and prioritize.
This is not to say that business should rush to develop a business strategy to patronize and indulge this market with campaigns that invoke violence and intolerance. On the contrary, we need businesses and business leaders to act as a counterbalance to the growing and anxious underbelly of American society with positive messaging. We need them to raise the level of public discourse by speaking through their actions, their products and their representatives.
And, to some degree, we need companies to simply empathize with our misery.
Donald Trump appears to be the leading contender for the Republican nomination. I hope, as I know many do, that he eventually tones down his aggressive and provocative rhetoric and promotes acceptance, unity and happiness.
Yeah, fat chance. I might as well just get the hell out of here.