WWD Year in Review: The Angry American


Why is everybody so pissed off?

The most potent force in American society this year was not innovation, fashion, art or any kind of beauty. Instead the country was reframed by deep-seated anger tied up in a Gordian knot of economics, politics, demographics and technology that has left millions not just falling behind but almost out of sight entirely.

Now the forces of change are on the move. Donald Trump is gearing up for his presidency with cabinet picks who promise to follow through on his mission to shake things up. Left to stew now: The still-shocked Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters who envisioned a very different America and are planning a massive and potentially disruptive rally during the Jan. 20 inauguration.

Donald Trump

Disruption is likely to continue for the foreseeable future as Trump’s victory reverberates in everything from politics to consumer behavior.  Andrew Harnik/AP/REX/Shutterstock

And disruption is likely to continue for the foreseeable future as Trump’s victory reverberates in everything from politics to consumer behavior. Fashion and retail companies are waiting anxiously to see if the president-elect goes through with his vow to get tough on trade by pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, renegotiate NAFTA, and slap tariffs on Chinese imports; boost American manufacturing, including in textiles and apparel; hold back increases in the minimum wage; sharply cut the corporate tax; roll back environmental regulations, and boost infrastructure spending, which could spark economic growth and spur consumer spending.

Whether certain consumers are eager to spend remains a question, as supporters of Hillary Clinton sit depressed and, in some cases, pull back on shopping while many of Trump’s supporters still don’t have the economic wherewithal to buy more than necessities.

Meanwhile, his victory has caused both consumers and companies to question many of their core beliefs — from the validity of statistics and media to whether brands have completely misread a large swath of the American population in their marketing.

Companies need to figure out how to connect with this new consumer mindset to counter, comment on or channel all this anger. (And while they’re at it, right their businesses. Fashion has already been suffering as shoppers bypass style for experience, buy from their phones and seek inspiration from bloggers instead of magazines).

And what about the vast middle of America that made itself heard at the ballot box? Pollsters and pundits underestimated them. Does fashion? When mainstream brands jump off at one of the “flyover states,” they often try to bring in some New York or L.A. cool only to miss the mark — adding stylistic insult to economic injury. Look at Kendra Scott, the Austin-based jewelry firm that’s growing like wildfire from a strong base in Texas and Oklahoma. The company is in the midst of selling a minority stake and could snag a $1 billion valuation.

President Barack Obama

And what about the vast middle of America that made itself heard at the ballot box? Pollsters and pundits underestimated them.  Nikos chalkiopoulos/Intime N/reX/Shutterstock

There is a market that’s still untapped or under realized, perhaps because so many people in the great middle of the country are suffering economically and uncounted.

That ‘middle’ was fed up with being ignored. The depth of the American rage was under appreciated, or deemed too explosive to touch, by nearly everyone except Trump, the beginner politician but master marketer who plumbed the American psyche, found a rich vein of discontent and followed it to the White House.

Sanders ran a much different campaign for the Democratic nomination, but tapped into a similar well of emotion, railing against the decline of the middle class, the influence of the rich, the scourge of corporate greed, the unfair political process and more. Abroad, similar sentiment pushed the British to reject the European Union and Italians to shake up their government, prompting the resignation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

An us-against-them mentality has taken over. It’s a fight between the everyman and woman and the corporate bigwigs moving jobs overseas, the billionaires and their tax shelters, Beijing and its currency rigging, the job-stealing illegal immigrants, the political elites lining their own pockets. Trump, the billionaire working out of his gilded Fifth Avenue Tower, managed to convince more than 61 million Americans he was on the “us” side in that battle — even as he proceeds to stack his cabinet with fellow billionaires.

“I could say, oh, I’m not angry,” he said in January, fighting to stand out against his 16 competitors for the Republican nomination. “I’m very angry because our country is being run horribly and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger.”

Those words alone indicated to voters that Trump viewed his campaign as a calling, a mission to “drain the swamp” and look out for the little guy. His forthright approach, or at least straight-sounding talk even with its at-times racist, sexist and fantasist overtones, helped him gain the support of people who were exhausted by the high tide of political correctness. While it took many of his supporters a while to come around to his brand of politics, they’re with him now or hopeful that things are going to be changing for the better.

“I supported the Republican conservative agenda and we started out with 17 [candidates] and he ended up being the nominee,” said Frank Henderson, chief executive officer of Henderson Sewing Machine Co. in Andalusia, Ala., and a Trump voter.

“If you wanted to sum it up in one word, it would be ‘jobs,” Henderson said. “We’ve seen the American people, the American workers, business people and others have basically taken a back seat to the political elites.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily anger,” he said of what drove Trump supporters. “Sometimes it might be disgust, at all of the things that have been rammed down our throat politically. We’ve seen the American people, the American workers, business people and others have basically taken a back seat to the political elites.”

Henderson, a third-generation worker in the textile products business, said he’s seen employment in the sector fall to less than 400,000 from 3.8 million in the Seventies as trade deals helped send jobs abroad. (Although automation and technology have also made modern factories more productive and led to significant cuts, making it harder to bring back textile jobs).

The election has led to a series of protests across the country, and a large, potentially disruptive rally is expected during the inauguration.

The election has led to a series of protests across the country, and a large, potentially disruptive rally is expected during the inauguration.   RMV/REX/Shutterstock

“Thousands and thousands of facilities and millions of people, between sewing products manufacturing, and the textile industry in general were more or less used as a sacrificial lamb,” Henderson said. “I hope that we can all see the opportunity to contribute to all of America and I hope that we can all see this country come together for a unified purpose, to reestablish America. If [Trump] can be used as a change agent for we the people of America, I think we have to get back to the people and we don’t have that at this point.”

The unfailingly polite Henderson — whose e-mail signature includes a quote attributed to Albert Einstein, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used…when we created them” — felt compelled while speaking of his support of Trump to clarify that he is “not biased against anyone.”

But the election laid bare a still-stark racial divide in the country. Sixty-three percent of white men voted for Trump, according to the NBC News national exit poll, a 32-point spread with Clinton. (White women supported Trump over Clinton by a 10-point spread).

“They bought into a world that was the world of their fathers, their grandfathers,” said Michael Kimmel, SUNY sociology professor and author of “Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era,” speaking generally of disaffected white men. “They believed that they were entitled to these positions and now they feel they’re going to other people who don’t deserve them.

“The thing that they bought into was that they, white men, if they did the right thing, they would be able to buy their own house and support their family by themselves and their wives wouldn’t have to work,” Kimmel said. “They’re kind of right, they have been screwed. The system has moved past them…bewilderingly quickly. This is just two generations since the Don Draper era [of ‘Mad Men’], since those guys thought the world was theirs. They have gotten a bad deal, but I don’t think it’s the immigrants who gave them those predatory loans. I don’t think it’s the feminists who are responsible for climate change. I think they’re right to be angry, but they’re delivering their mail to the wrong address.”

Kimmel said this group would become louder online, but increasingly smaller.

“Make no mistake, the America that they’re trying to prevent from happening has already happened,” he said. “We’re going to be majority-minority in 2048 and that generation has already been born.”

That demographic reality lies in the future. In the here and now, Trump’s goal to “Make America Great Again” as his campaign slogan promised, found traction because its central tenant resonated — despite GDP gains, a strong stock market and unemployment under 5 percent.

Those traditional signposts of prosperity, while correct in their own way, paint an incomplete picture. Total unemployment is about twice the usually reported rate, or 9.3 percent last month, when factoring in discouraged workers and people marginally attached to the workforce. And it’s been getting steadily harder for families to move up the economic ladder generation to generation. In 1970, 92 percent of the people who were 30 made more than their parents did at the same age. By 2014, that measure of mobility fell to just over 50 percent, according to academics from Stanford, Harvard and the University of California taking part in The Equality of Opportunity Project.

Another part of the disconnect between the top-line economic numbers that have been making for positive headlines and the dour mood in the country comes from the fact that prosperity is an ideal that is based more than one’s own pocketbook.

According to the Social Progress Index, which measures personal safety, access to basic knowledge and tolerance and inclusion, among other items, America underperforms when it comes to turning GDP dollars into outcomes that improve lives.

The U.S. ranks fifth in terms of GDP per capita, but 19th on the Social Progress Index, wedged in between France and Slovenia and well behind the top three — Finland, Canada and Denmark.

America could, indeed, be made greater again, but it’s not just about money.

“GDP isn’t destiny,” said Michael Green, executive director of the Social Progress Imperative, which puts together the index. “Based on this measure, the U.S. is really pretty bad. We’re actually measuring the outcomes and those outcomes are the product of years of investment; adult literacy doesn’t change overnight, your life expectancy doesn’t change. This poor result is a product of decades of underinvestment.”

Green said spending on infrastructure like bridges and roads, one of Trump’s key areas of focus, could move America up on the social progress scale, as could health care reform if it leads to more insured people.

Along the way, the average worker has also been caught in a swirl of innovation that’s seen factories and many workplaces run with greater and greater automation.

“People are loath to believe that technology is taking their jobs. It’s easier to blame someone instead of some thing,” said consultant Jonathan Low, partner at Predictiv. “Really, the big problem is that technology has been destroying jobs ever since the industrial revolution. It’s just not replacing them as quickly as it used to.”

It’s not clear how Trump will get around this as he seeks to make good on his promise to bring back the steel and coal industries and manufacturing in general. It’s also not clear how his supporters will react if the coal mines don’t reopen and the factories don’t start humming.

Much of his plan seems to center on firing up growth by getting a fair deal and merging the country’s aspirations with the average worker’s. Certainly investors, who as a group have the attention span of a gnat, are keen on the idea of Trump’s agenda with big tax cuts and big spending and have driven Wall Street to all-time highs.

“Trump is a business guy,” Low said. “He’s a brand guy and marketing guy and he understands finance. The people he’s appointed [to fill his cabinet] are all millionaire businessmen. Do I think Trump’s going to start a trade war with China? I do not. He’s all about let’s grow the business, I think he will make selective examples of certain companies and certain countries. He’s all about growth. He’s all about let’s get rich.”

That’s a message many people in the working class were clearly ready to hear. The slide in prosperity has left many people unmoored, leaving the scene set for dramatic change.

Fear and the sense of belonging are powerful emotional reactions that can basically override everything else in the brain, said Martin Lindstrom, a business consultant who mixes brand marketing and neuroscience.

“That’s exactly what Trump was building on,” Lindstrom said, noting people are “hardwired” to follow a leader. “He created a lot of fear. And the fear is all about the terrorists are going to take over.”

That also sets up an enemy, a dynamic that can push a brand forward, the way Apple’s Mac took on IBM or Pepsi squares off with Coke, Lindstrom said.

But Trump has gone further.

“What you’re seeing right now is a religion and a movement,” Lindstrom said. He pegged the 10 key attributes of a religion as a clear vision, grandeur, an enemy picture, storytelling, mystery, sense of belonging, evangelism, symbols, rituals and sensory appeal.

And with Trump’s vision of a country surrounded by high walls, his tower with its golden logos, imagery of rapists pouring across the border, his fiery, I’m-with-you campaign speeches, the instantly recognizable wave of his hair and so on, Lindstrom said a case could be made that Trump ticks all 10 boxes.

And he said that regardless of what a President Trump does, his supporters would look for information that supports the notion that they made the right decision.

“I do think he will be elected to a second term,” Lindstrom predicted. “He will send out these news bombs on a regular basis, that he’s our man, but he has his plan behind the scene.”

As he succeeds, so will his methods. The Trump playbook could be the playbook for some time. Just look at the proliferation of fake news sites.

“The concept of truth does not exist anymore,” Lindstrom said. “You’re allowed to say whatever you want, as long as you stick with it and you’re brash. Brands will become much more opinionated now. We’ll have brands that will stand for something, these brands will not be afraid of having an enemy now.”

Futurist Faith Popcorn said people are sad and in “deep cocooning” mode, letting brands come to them instead of vice versa.

“Deep cocooning is trying to go in and get everything delivered, your filtered news, your food, Amazon, your relationships, FaceTime, Skype, your adventure, which should be all your artificial reality stuff, the goggles to travel with,” Popcorn said.

She said brands would have to get to consumers in their cocoon or within their gated community, whether it be physical or a virtual community. Popcorn said people are rallying close to the like minded, sticking with the “people like us.”

“Deep cocooning times clanning (or people like us) equals the future,” she said.

Popcorn advised: “One on one marketing, marketing to the individual, knowing everything about them. And then I would try to get them to gather around the brand with some charity or doing good for others. If you don’t wrap a mission around a brand anymore people don’t want the brand.”

Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, said brands can respond by helping give shoppers a sense that they’re getting more than just a product, like Toms, which gives a pair of shoes to someone in need for each pair purchased.

Or they can cut away all of that and offer up a sense of commercial purity. She pointed to “people who just say, ‘I don’t want my jeans to make a political statement, I think this [type of marketing] is baloney.’”

What the election has shown is that, more than ever, the consumer feels they are in total control and can’t trust anyone — or any company — to tell them anything. “People feel more powerful,” Yarrow said. “They feel more vocal, they have a place where they can speak, they have a megaphone in social media they haven’t had before. We have this fundamental sense that the world should be fair. It’s a huge cognitive flaw. The world is not fair.

Newsmaker of the Year: Angry American

What Trump also stands for to those voters is the ability to cut a deal, to make money out of everything, to be a success.  Corey Olsen/WWD

“Consumers are angry,” she said. “That anger springs partially from distrust and a feeling like the world’s unfair. Nothing gets people madder than feeling like they’ve been violated in the fairness equation.”

Mad. Angry. Fed up. These words are likely to be heard over and over again in the years ahead, whether or not Trump can fulfill his campaign promises. It’s a discontent that has been brewing for almost a decade yet most pundits and companies have misread the mood. The voters chose Trump because they wanted to hit back at a system they feel had become broken as they watched the promise of the American Dream fade further into the distance.

What Trump also stands for to those voters is the ability to cut a deal, to make money out of everything, to be a success.

And even out of anger comes money-generating ideas: In another sign of the times, there’s a Dallas-based company that, for a fee, promises to relieve stress by giving customers an opportunity to “let your hair down, gear up and destroy real-life mocked rooms that simulate an actual workplace, living area or kitchen. Complete with dummies, mannequins, TVs, tables and many, many more breakable items.”

This physical outlet for psychological venting is called Anger Room. And it’s accepting applications for franchisees.

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