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.

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