As the political primaries heat up, little doubt exists on the public’s captivation with presidential candidates Donald Trump (Republican) and Bernie Sanders (Democrat). Trump has kindled a feverish right-wing populism never seen before in this nation, while Sanders “berns” the passion of millennials and staunch progressives. Although both individuals are galaxies apart in their ideology, a major reason for their attention is shared in a quality as American as apple pie:
The love for the outlaw and antihero.
How could this be? After all, the two candidates are as establishment as one can get. Trump is a seasoned businessperson entrenched in extroverted capitalism; Sanders is a senator with decades of political experience in Washington DC. Perception is reality, though, and the reality is that the two men have carefully marketed themselves as unadulterated outsiders. It makes sense. According to Gallup, 65% of Americans are dissatisfied with the government—the highest rate ever polled.
However, simply branding oneself as antiestablishment would make a Tea Party darling like Ted Cruz a shoe in for the Republican candidacy. The same could be said for any Libertarian/Green candidate out there. That hasn’t happened.
It has to be more than the current bad political mood of voters, then. Trump and Sanders aren’t just perceived as foreigners to politics as usual, but outlaws and antiheroes in all their romance, as will be demonstrated.
What do you mean by outlaws and antiheroes?
By outlaw, I don’t mean a criminal—but certainly an individual that stands on the fringes of societal norms, near the borders of amoral deserts. America was founded on gritty pioneers and explorers, wily figures that forged their way to new frontiers at any cost, legal or illegal. In the bestselling book, Everyone Loves a Train Wreck, Eric Wilson describes our infatuation for the outlaw:
Think of our vexed cultural relationship to the cowboy. We might disapprove of his lawless gun slinging and Indian killing, but we laud his indifference to the East Coast status quo and his fearless trekking into the Western wilds.
The outlaw, in all of his or her dangerous curiosity and individualism, is just an archetype that Americans relate to, even if they don’t consciously embrace. Furthermore, knowing that the outlaw’s ending will likely be memorable (but perhaps not positive) arrests our attention…like stopping to see a train wreck. Edward Snowden or your classic country music protagonist are two obvious American examples. This reminds me of a quote by Tom Robbins, “Love is the ultimate outlaw. It just won’t adhere to any rules.”
Then there is the antihero. Medical Daily defines the antihero as “Someone who straddles the line between deviant morality and a justified cause, reminding us of the flaws inherent in our own behavior.”
The attraction is easy to see: We simultaneously escape and test our moral principles through the narrative of the antihero. It’s cathartic and educational at the same time. We project our darkest desires onto the antihero in order to reflect upon them. We love their shooting from the hip, their bravado, and their continual emigration from constricting community constructs. As illustrations, one just has to think of Walter White in Breaking Bad or Don Draper in Mad Men.
But does all of this apply to Trump and Sanders?
With Trump, it seems obvious. His career has been one of taming cattle in the Wild West that is the real estate world and verbal gun fighting in corporate boardrooms. His policies tap into the dark corners of many voters’ psyches: the concern with immigration, the fear of terrorism, the seemingly dusk of an empire. Thus, in a deeply symbolical way, Trump is both an outlaw and antihero. His political incorrectness is liberating for many in a social media inquisition climate, while his policies are purgative to others.
What about Sanders? How can an affable, patriotic and polite senior citizen fall outside the rubric of the mainstream? Ironically, an anti-American quality makes him so American in his outlaw and antihero characteristics: socialism. Sanders heavily leans towards socialistic policies; and according to a Gallup poll socialism is the least popular quality of any political candidate (50% of voters say they would not vote for a socialist). That makes him an outlaw of sorts, an antihero to the American consciousness—and of course attractive to younger, more rebellious demographics.
Also, Sanders’ message and persona harken to some of the classic fringe elements of recent American history: the hippie, the beatnik, the pacifist. He is an individual who also wants to bring more European elements to government (importing Danish economics, for example), just as the original explorers brought European elements to North America. Despite his calm reputation, Sanders, like Trump, is notorious for shouting down those who confront him publicly (even constituents). Lastly, his campaign has made a huge effort in leveraging perhaps the most lawless and perilous frontier today: the internet.
Machiavelli famously mused on whether an individual benefited more from being loved or hated. In these short-attention-span, information-overload times, I would say that fascination is the ultimate benefit. Fascination earns zealous attention without needing the soul-commitment of either love or hate. Trump and Sanders are swimming in oceans of fascination, partly because of the uniting streams of American folklore and psychology. This means that many enthusiasts assume their candidacies will end in a train wreck, with more establishment candidates taking the party nominations.
Regardless, the outlaw and antihero motifs have served Trump and Sanders well. They served past candidates such as Obama or Reagan, both who early in their candidacies branded themselves as outsiders ready to gun duel established government systems. Neither Obama nor Reagan was as radical as Trump or Sanders, mind you. Yet these are radical times when a restless electorate seeks more for a gun-slinging attitude than an apple pie mentality.