Sunday, January 31, 2016

Donald Trump Really is a Master Brander

By now it should be clear that the unholy figure of Donald Trump--against all known laws of politics and reason (including my own)—has turned out to be a remarkably good politician. He is well-positioned not only to win the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, but even to secure the GOP nomination itself.

There are people who took Trump seriously from the very beginning (see here and here). However, many scholars and analysts dismissed Trump's chances based on historical patterns that suggest that no candidate of a major party has gained that party's nomination without at least tacit the support of the party elite. In America’s lengthy electoral process, early risers often go through a process of “discovery,scrutiny and decline,” which can lead to candidate “boomlets” (think Herman Cain during the last election or Ben Carson during this cycle) that quickly go bust. Trump was expected to follow a similar pattern. As his lead built over the course of months, legendary political prognosticator Nate Silver continued to give Trump a small percentage chance of winning the GOP nomination, mainly due to establishment opposition. 

Notably, Bill Clinton was never dismissive of Trump as candidate. Former President Bill Clinton declared Trump a “master brander” in an interview with Fareed Zakaria. Trump, he believed, had successfully branded himself in the race and connected this brand with the voters—an invaluable asset in a crowded field. Bill believes he could win.

Trump the Master Brander

In fact, branding is what The Donald does best. Indeed, Trump’s true business acumen lies in his strategy of name-branding, which he credits with a significant share of profits. Trump’s financial records list the value of his “real estate licensing deal, brand and branded developments” at over 3.3 billion as of 2014. Trump has lent his name to everything from apparel, beauty pageants and real estate courses to hotels, golf courses, and vineyards. 

Many of his licensing agreements guarantee that Trump garners a share of revenues in Trump branded businesses, whether or not that business makes money. In the meantime, Trump pursues a parallel campaign of suing critics and anyone else who threatens his brand identity.

He has now carried his branding acumen and strategy over to the political arena.

Make America Great Again™

Beyond his charisma and single-minded focus on WINNING, It is Trump’s branding genius that has helped to separate him from his rivals on the stage. He began by appropriating Reagan’s brand.

As many know, Trump lifted his “Make American Great Again” presidential slogan directly from the 1980 Reagan/Bush electoral slogan. Immediately after the 2012 election, Trump trademarked the slogan for his own use. To protect his branded identity, Trump filed a trademark application to protect against its use by other candidates’ campaigns or political action committees. He later criticized Cruz and Scott Walker for dropping the phrase in their campaigns, asserting that the slogan "is my whole theme."

Trump is savvy enough to have coopted the Reagan brand, one that enjoys universal support among GOP voters and has cross-party appeal to the white working class ‘Reagan-Democrats.’

In case anyone missed the association, Trump had his volunteers circulate the following photo to potential supporters prior to entering the race. (It is worth noting that Trump had no real relationship with Reagan, as the latter’s staff worked to keep the real estate mogul at arm’s length.)

Not exactly subtle.

Next came Trump's Nixon-era slogan “Silent Majority Supports Trump.” This historical allusion is no accident, but rather a fairly naked appeal by the Trump campaign to downwardly-mobile whites in the party.  In 1969, President Richard Nixon coined the phrase in a speech wherein he appealed to the “silent majority” of Americans to support him in the Vietnam War.

Trump has repurposed the vaguely racial slogan to appeal to Tea Party sensibilities of many in the modern GOP who want to “take the country back” (from immigrants, minorities and all those believed to have benefited at the expense of hard-working rule-abiding Americans). The slogan resonates especially well with older GOP voters, many of whom actually remember and are still rankled by the anti-war activists, feminists, civil rights activists of the 1960s.

Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland, said in an interview with NPR, “The silent majority is always going to be a state of mind. It's a feeling. You know, it's a feeling of dispossession. And that feeling of dispossession can come about most dramatically in times when, you know, things seem to be changing, you know, when all that's solid melts into air.”

Trump has hit the sweet spot in the GOP base.

Finally, like any brander, Trump understands that the message should be simple, evocative, vague, and above all repeated again and again—in order to tap into the reptilian brain. You can hear his core message on the stump and at every debate.

Here are excerpts of Trump's closing speeches at the thirdfourth, fifth, and sixth GOP debates:

"If I become president, we will do something really special. We will make this country greater than ever before. We'll have more jobs, we'll have more of everything."

"We will fight, we will win and we truly will make this even more special. We have to make it better than ever before, and, I tell you, the United States can actually be better than ever before."

"Nothing works in our country. If I’m elected president. We will win again. We will win a lot. And we’re gonna have a great, great country. Greater than ever before."

"If I’m president, there won’t be stupid deals anymore. We will make America great again. We will win at everything we do. Thank you.”

That is what is known as staying on message. 

Meanwhile, Trump has negatively branded everyone else in the race, shunning surrogates to drive the point home to the voters. Jeb Bush and Ben Carson are "low-energy," Ted Cruz "a nasty guy" and "an anchor baby in Canada," Rubio is a "boy" and a "kid."

Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, wrote last week that Trump--lacking broad-based establishment support, a disciplined and nationally-integrated campaign, and a bare modicum of political prudence--should be selected out of the process: “If Trump is nominated, then everything we think we know about presidential nominations is wrong."

Trump may defy all the odds to secure the candidacy. If he does, only time will tell whether his success is a one-off event or whether it signals further party retrenchment as the GOP becomes ever more the party of the disaffected white majority.

What is sure is that this is going to be one wild ride.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Has the GOP Shrunk to its Tribalist Core?

The Republican party is too insular--so say party leaders themselves. Or, as GOP leader and head of the American Conservative Union put it, "Our party needs to realize that it's too old and too white and too male and it needs to figure out how to catch up with the demographics of the country before it's too late."

In the 2012 presidential election, Romney had bested Obama handily in the white demographic, with 59 percent of European-Americans voting for the Republican nominee. Nearly nine in ten of Romney voters in 2012 were white. No GOP had had attracted more white voters since Reagan routed Mondale in a 49-state sweep back in 1984.

Nonetheless, Obama still won re-election by a comfortable 4 percentage points.

The numbers tell the story: Obama was able to overcome his historic 18 point deficit among white voters because he enjoyed a 58 percent lead among minority voters. In fact, Obama garnered overwhelming support from every significant minority group (including fully 93 percent African-Americans, 71 percent of Hispanic-Americans, and 73 percent of Asian-Americans).

The reality for the GOP—which is well-understood by party establishment types—is that the party is increasingly dependent on the white vote. Minority Republican voters make a disappearingly small share of the Republican base. The problem: the share of all-important white voters in the United States is fast shrinking (from a high of 89 percent in 1976 to 72 percent in 2012).

This means, as noted by GOP strategist Karl Rove,  that the party will need to win increasingly lopsided election sweeps of white voters (along the order of Reagan’s 1984 victory over Mondale) to remain competitive in presidential races, and that "It's unreasonable to expect Republicans to routinely pull numbers that last occurred in a 49-state sweep.”

In fact, according to recent estimates, the GOP would need to win at least 64 percent of the white vote, and 30 percent of the non-white vote in order to win the presidency in 2016. (The last time the GOP broke the 60 percent ceiling on the white vote was in the 1980s, and the proportion of non-white voters supporting the GOP comes nowhere near to 30 percent.)

GOP leaders are well aware of the coming demographic crisis and proposed strategies for reversing its losses in its official “autopsy” report of the 2012 election loss.  The aim was to figure out how to expand the GOP's appeal, particularly to minority communities. Said the report in part,

"...among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, must be to embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform," the report read. "If we do not, our Party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only."

What are those “core constituencies”? In a word (or five): white, Southern, male, rural, older.

A former GOP Congressman characterized the losses as follows: “Politics has been defined by culture over the last few cycles, and we’ve become a rural party and a Southern party. We’ve been losing inner suburbs and the like.”

To escape this bind,  GOP strategists reckoned that Republicans would need to pass some form of immigration reform to appeal to the Hispanic community, which is disproportionately harmed by the US's byzantine immigration system. And at the very minimum, Republican politicians needed to stop race-baiting. The logic followed that if the GOP could shake their image as hostile to minorities, then social conservatives within the Hispanic and black communities might well come over to the GOP.
Fast Forward Three Years

The 2016 presidential election is still 11 months out, but it is already clear that the GOP, far from moving toward a larger tent, has pitched—so to speak—the smallest pup tent imaginable.  Why? Because the tribalist core of the GOP hates “inclusivity” and “outreach,” particularly to minority communities. And the tribalist core is increasingly in the drivers seat. In short, the Republican Party has nowhere else to go.

For months, real estate mogul and reality television star, Donald J. Trump, has enjoyed a commanding lead in the polls, thanks largely to the support of these core groups. The chart below, created through Huffpost Pollster, illustrates shifts in popular support for all GOP contenders from June to December:

The most notable feature of the Trump candidacy (apart from the fact that the candidate has never held public office) is his unapologetic nativism and America-Firsterism. Trump launched his bid by painting a picture of an insecure U.S.-Mexican border openly flouted by a tide of illegal aliens who are “rapists,” “murderers,” “bringing drugs and crime.”  The solution announced Trump, is constructing a “big beautiful wall” that Mexico would pay for. Trump later expanded on his plan with a “deportation force” that could go door to door to round up and expel undocumented individuals.

Trump does not so much ignore minority communities in his campaign speeches, interviews and debate appearances as much as he openly antagonizes them--in order to pander to the GOP’s “core constituencies.” Rather than a dog whistle, Trump favors a blowhorn.

Until the ISIS attacks in in Paris, Trump started nearly every campaign appearance with some statement about America needing to “win” again (against China, Iran, Japan…) and how he would build an awesome wall to keep Mexican undesirables out.

After the Paris attacks, Trump pivoted neatly from Mexicans to Muslims, proclaiming (among other things) that the US not take in any Syrian refugees, for fear that some might be terrorists. When asked, he said he favored a database for keeping track of Muslims in America (a suggestion he has since walked back to some extent). And of course, Trump would “hit ISIS” and “hit them hard,” even "taking out their families." In the wake of the workplace shootings by two Muslims in San Bernardino, Trump advocated banning Muslims from entering the United States as either tourists or immigrants until the government "can figure out what's going on."

Trump’s raw, unfiltered tribalism resonate powerfully with much of the GOP base. This much is clear from popular reactions to Trump’s campaign events, focus groups, and opinion polls. Other Republican candidates are following Trump’s xenophobic lead. Why? Because that is where the GOP’s “core constituencies” are taking them.

According to a Public Policy Poll conducted in August, as many as 63 percent of Republican voters want to amend the Constitution to eliminate birthright citizenship. A Bloomberg Politics poll revealed that 65 percent of likely GOP primary voters favor banning Muslims from traveling to the US, and a Rasmussen Report revealed that 70 percent of likely Republican voters support building a wall to keep Mexicans out of the United States. Finally, a CNN/ORC poll shows that 63 percent of Republicans favor mass deportation of undocumented individuals (against 29 percent of Democrats).

Trump's positions, far from extreme, are right in line with those of the GOP base.

Seeing Trump’s success with the GOP tribalist core, nearly every GOP candidate has made some effort to appeal to the base. One-time fellow frontrunner, Ben Carson, declared he would seal the US-Mexican border within a year of assuming office, and within six months registering and eventually deporting undocumented individuals;  Marco Rubio favors shutting down mosques and any place where Muslims could gather to be inspired by extremism. Even supposedly moderate GOP presidential contender John Kasich proposed establishing a federal agency to promote “Judeo-Christian” values. Jeb Bush, too, attempted to revive his status as the party’s presumptive nominee—suggesting that the U.S. only let in Syrian refugees who can prove they are Christians

What Next for the GOP?

The GOP establishment is frankly "in chaos" about where this would leave the party, or even the country. According to the Washington Post, one Republican strategist said:

 “We’re potentially careening down this road of nominating somebody who frankly isn’t fit to be president in terms of the basic ability and temperament to do the job. It’s not just that it could be somebody Hillary could destroy electorally, but what if Hillary hits a banana peel and this person becomes president?”

When Frank Luntz conducted a focus group of Trump supporters back in August, his supporters made it clear that there was nothing anyone could say to shake their confidence in Trump, particularly when coming from members of the Republican establishment. Luntz was most stunned by evidence that Trump's supporters seemed unshakable in their enthusiasm for the frontrunner, even negative ads highlighting Trump's lies or distortions. Luntz said later, "This is real. I'm having trouble processing it. Like, my legs are shaking,"

The chickens have finally come home to roost for the GOP—decades after Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the infamous Willie Horton ad that sank Michael Dukakis in 1988. The fatal decision by the GOP to use race-baiting pick up southern votes a generation ago left the party with a shrinking electoral base that may now be too small to win presidential races. For its part, the base resists the very makeover that will save the party itself.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

It’s the Water, Stupid! (Plus Gas and Oil and the Usual Suspects)

Over the past week, Allied warplanes and drones have rained munitions down on Islamic State (IS) command and control facilities, logistics and transportation, and oil refineries in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of civilians continue to flee the devastation (two million Syrians have fled the country since 2012, mostly in response to Syria's civil war).  

In the U.S. media bubble, meanwhile, debates rage over the drivers of the most recent spate of violence, from the political right (Obama's weakness and underestimating the threat of Islamic radicalism) to the left (Bush's Iraq war, which gave rise to such insurgencies in the first place).

In all of these discussions, relatively short shrift is given to more structural drivers of the conflict.  Without question the jihadist threat is multi-causal, but take away causes that are more proximate (regime change in Iraq and civil war in Iraq and Syria ) or epiphenomenal (mass radicalization due to widespread economic dislocation and the legacy of war), and we are left with the long-standing stakes of the conflict itself--control over the region's resources (water, gas and oil).

It is widely known that oil has played a role in the escalation of internal and cross-border violence in the most recent Middle East conflict--ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) insurgents captured oil fields in the functionally autonomous Kurdish region in the north, and now control as much as 60 percent of Syria's oil wealth.  Recently, Coalition forces have attacked the ISIS-controlled oil refineries in eastern Syria, while Kurdish peshmerga have recaptured oil-rich areas in northern Iraq with the help of U.S. air strikes.

Less well-known is the fact that ISIS insurgents have also targeted key dams, canals, and waterways around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as well as desalination plants.  

Why is this important?

According to an article in the Guardian, ISIS forces have gained control of the “key upper reaches” of the Tigris and Euphrates—the two major rivers that flow from Turkey to the Gulf in the south, and which provided for all the food, water and industrial needs of Syria and Iraq.

Michael Stephen, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute think tank in Qatar, explains:

"Control of water supplies gives strategic control over both cities and countryside. We are seeing a battle for control of water. Water is now the major strategic objective of all groups in Iraq. It's life or death. If you control water in Iraq you have a grip on Baghdad, and you can cause major problems. Water is essential in this conflict."

Water has long been a source of conflict in the Middle East. It is well-known that the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict--as well as disputes between Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have been fuelled, at least in part, by contested access to the Jordan River Basin water resources. 

Israel gained control of the West Bank’s mountain aquifer and the Sea of Galilee in the 1967 war with its Arab neighbors, securing the bulk of its water needs.  Although Palestinians depend on these same resources, Israel and Israeli settlements in the West Bank consume 80 percent of the aquifer’s flow, allotting the remainder to the Palestinians.   Israeli settlers on the West Bank receive between 3 and 5 times what the Palestinians receive. 

The ongoing war in Syria, too, was driven in part by a drought that began in 2006, forcing farmers to abandon their fields and migrate to the urban centers.  Burgeoning masses of frustrated, unemployed men in the cities eventually helped instigate civil unrest.

In the 1970s, Syria and Turkey opened dams that significantly reduced the water flow from the Euphrates River to Iraq, almost leading to war between Syria and Iraq.  Although an inter-state agreement resolved the water crisis at that time, new water disputes nearly led to renewed hostilities in 1998 and threaten to reignite inter-state tensions today.

In fact, a majority of the "water-poor" countries in the world are in the Middle East and North Africa, with Egypt especially vulnerable, having doubled its population in the last half century with no commensurate increase in water supply.

What's worse, water conflicts are only likely to intensify in the future.  A recent analysis concluded that "the Tigris-Euphrates Basin--comprising Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and western Iran--is losing water faster than any other place in the world except northern India. During those six years, 117 million acre-feet of stored freshwater vanished from the region as a result of dwindling rainfall and poor water management policies."

Access to water lies at the heart of conflicts outside the Middle East as well.  Although merely suggestive, the two maps below serve to illustrate the point that water-stressed areas (first map) are also areas of significant sectarian violence (second map).

Climate change is set to exacerbate these problems, and not only in the MENA region--a conclusion that finds support in the academic literature (see here and here, although see also here).  With global overpopulation placing unprecedented stresses on the world’s water systems, climate change threatens civil unrest in nations and regions that are particularly vulnerable to famine under drought conditions.  In fact, the Arab Spring conflicts of 2010-11 were in no small measure driven by the 2010 drought in the wheat-producing region of Eastern China and a subsequent spike in global wheat prices. 

The recent conflict in Sudan was also driven by a dispute over scarce water supplies between black African farmers and Arab herders, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands.   Other food-related rioting occurred in Haiti and Cameroon in 2008 in addition to the Arab Spring conflicts of 2010-11.

Hardly a hotbed of environmentalism, the U.S. Department of Defense commissioned a study on the subject of climate change and security all the way back in 2003.  In 2010, the DoD added climate change to its list of security threats, and in 2009, the CIA established a center aimed to assess the growing costs and risks of climate change. 

According to the most recent DoD Quadrennial Report, “Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”

What does this mean for the management of conflicts in water-stressed regions such as the Middle East?  The historical record clearly demonstrates that we can't shoot our way to peace in the Middle East, particularly given the high stakes of the conflict for the involved parties.  Instead, the stakes of the conflict must be addressed directly. Radically new water management policies must be enacted and supported by the international community as well as relatively stable Gulf States such as UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, it is a near certainty that the current war on ISIS (which may involve tens of thousands of new ground forces) is at best ineffectual and at worse likely to exacerbate the conflict.  This is captured nicely by U.S. Retired General James Conway, who said at a recent conference in Washington that the current military campaign to destroy ISIS "doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of succeeding."

Trouble is that short-term military solutions nearly always trump the long dreary slog of diplomacy, particularly in U.S. politics.  Particularly in an election year.