What's Behind the Trump Phenomenon?

GOP 2016 Trump

Fear. Once it takes hold of you, that powerful emotion is nearly impossible to control. That’s no accident. Fear and the fight-or-flight response it induces have been fundamental to human survival for millions of years. Without it, none of us would be here.

So it should come as no surprise that fear has a profound influence on our behavior and decision-making – not just yours and mine but our business and political leaders, too. In other words, our response to fear plays a critical role in our lives, our economy and our culture.

As we face a growing terrorist threat, a slowing global economy, stagnant wages, skyrocketing costs and a spiraling stock market – all during an election year – there’s little doubt that fear will influence the choices we make to ensure our safety and prosperity. And it should.

If those issues increase your level of anxiety, you’re certainly not alone. I’m sure every reasonable person this side of utopia feels the same way. But it’s our response to fear – the choices we make – that will determine the outcome.

Consider this. If concern for safety and prosperity motivates the majority of Americans to vote for Donald Trump as president – after all, he certainly claims to be the one who can save the country from all those threats – that would clearly take the nation in a different direction than if we elected a more moderate candidate.

While The Donald’s detractors might say his meteoric rise in the polls is a gross overreaction to our current situation – that it’s a result of fear mongering, that things aren’t as bad as he says they are – his supporters would argue that ignoring reality and maintaining the status quo is an irrational reaction to real threats.

I’m not saying one way or the other, just demonstrating how different responses to fear can lead to vastly different outcomes.

In last week’s Wonder Land column, The Wall Street Journal’s Dan Henninger suggested that the Trump phenomenon is a revolt against political correctness. That middle-class voters are fed up with being bullied into silence over controversial issues while the permanent political class does little more than run for reelection (my words, not his).

He says that most of the GOP’s presidential candidates are incapable of “dealing with a degree of voter social alienation that isn’t particularly rational at this point.” This, he argues, is why voters turned to political outsiders like Trump and Ben Carson. Finally, Henninger says the election hinges on two big issues, “a weak economy and global chaos.”

While I agree, let’s not overlook his use of the word “rational.” After all, irrationality is a response to emotional distress. Considering the magnitude of the issues at hand, I would add that underlying the revolt against political correctness is concern for our children’s and our nation’s future. That’s the real emotional issue.

Make no mistake, politicians understand the role of fear all too well. They’re adept at fear mongering to expand their already bloated budgets. That’s why we’re all being legislated, regulated and administrated to death by crushing big government bureaucracy.

And politicians are themselves motivated by fear, as well. Most are far more worried about keeping their jobs than doing what’s right for their constituents. That’s not necessarily a well-thought out position, but fear of losing their political clout and the material perks that go with it.

While most corporate executives do a fair job of serving the interests of their stakeholders, they’re certainly not immune to the influence of fear. When a CEO faces an imminent threat from an activist investor seeking short-term value creation and is afraid of losing her sweet multimillion-dollar a year gig, she essentially has two options:

Give into fear, kowtow to their demands, do a little financial engineering and keep her cushy corner office job; or face her fear, muster her courage, do what’s right for long-term shareholder value and risk getting canned in an ugly proxy battle.

It seems that more and more CEOs are choosing the former option, as evidenced by the growing number of hedge fund-inspired corporate splits, sales, spinoffs, mergers and inversions.

On the other hand, if you watch the video of Lazarus from David Bowie’s new album, Blackstar – released just days before the iconic pop star succumbed to cancer – you’ll see a powerful example of uncommon courage in the face of the most terrifying human fear, mortality. Indeed, Bowie died as fearlessly as he lived.

That reminds me of Steve Jobs, who, after battling pancreatic cancer, said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose,” in a 2005 Stanford University commencement speech. He went on to create the iconic iPhone and iPad before dying in 2011.

The human response to fear may have originated millions of years ago, but just because man no longer has natural predators doesn’t mean we no longer need to heed our gut instincts. For modern man, fear can be friend or foe. Our response to fear can influence outcomes for individuals, companies and entire nations … for better or worse.

In an era where so many leaders give in to fear, that certainly creates opportunity for those with the courage, strength and ethics to face their fear and do what’s right for their constituents and stakeholders.