Modern times need modern heroes, heroes that are as democratically flawed as the rest of us. We are drawn to the deep, dark portrayal of True Detective's Rust Cohle, Mad Men's Don Draper and Breaking Bad's Walter White, even as we psychologically distance our experience from theirs. Even with distance, though, there is something rich and true and relatable about their struggles. They are the unfiltered part of ourselves that we rarely touch day-to-day but know is beating just below the skin.
It's no wonder we are at the apex of anti-hero identification. Popular culture, business culture and, now, political culture, loves the tale of the outsider who upends the rules and creates a new order. In fact, the deification of the anti-hero has replaced worship for the hero. Being a hero, while noble, is kinda boring. Being an anti-hero fascinates, excites and brings us -- the reader, the viewer or the voter -- closer to the story because of the obvious flaws and "realness" on display. This is the fascination with, and political power of, Donald Trump. Trump's candidacy is keeping the pundits and political establishment up at night, waiting for what they bank on is his eventual fall.
They're not listening.
The essence of the anti-hero, and why this figure thrives as a touchstone at this point in history, is illuminated in Tim Adams' TED-Ed video, "An Antihero of One's Own." The anti-hero fights against the crushing conformity society demands. The anti-hero speaks his or her mind, without polish or filter. Oftentimes the anti-hero fails but not without leaving enough of an impact that others take up the cause. The anti-hero is a shot across the bow. A rebel with a cause.
Ultimately, it does not matter how far Trump gets, even though poll after current poll show him well ahead and media outlets are filled with analysis of the "Trump Phenomenon." What matters is his impact, which appears at this point to be deeper than the sideshow interest the quadrennial party "goat" delivers. He has enough independence to exist outside of the system, reminding his followers that being on the outside is a strength, not a weakness.
It's the same strength that brings excitement to Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. Regardless of the fact that Sanders has been an elected public official since 1981 (mayor of Burlington, VT; US Congressman; and, now, US Senator), he has always been an Establishment outsider. He thrives as a lone, highly liberal voice in an increasingly centrist party. It's as if the unpolished, unprogrammed and unpredictable nature of Trump, Sanders and dark horse Joe Biden is incredibly attractive and authentic. The anti-hero is more real than a hero can ever be. And living in a time where it feels as if our institutions, standards and beliefs have been co-opted by a small group of power players, there is an honest hunger for a leader who is, above all, who he says he is.
Such hunger extends to the business world as well, and the rise of the anti-hero/leader in business culture has been the narrative since the rise of tech. Today's youth no longer yearn to be rising middle managers in the grey flannel world of Corporate America. They want to be swashbuckling entrepreneurs, inventing the future, game changing their way to success via disruptive innovation. Even those long-chained to organizational life dream of becoming entrepreneurs once they tire of the 9-9 life or are cut free through yet another restructuring. Anti is now pro.
So welcome to the modern political age of the anti-hero, kicked off in recent times with the impossible 2008 candidacy of Barack Obama. Remember him as the compelling, anti-Establishment voice that spoke of hope and change? Sometimes the anti-hero or anti-leader breaks through. Maybe we will see it again in next year's election cycle, a cycle that could be led by another "impossible" candidate.