How Trump’s Political Brand Captured the White House
“Revolution begins with language. Change the language, and you can change everything.” So wrote former Saatchi & Saatchi chairman, Kevin Roberts, in his book 64 Shots: Leadership in a Crazy World.
That’s exactly what happened.
Donald J. Trump, Time magazine’s 2016 Person of the Year, upended everything you thought you knew about U.S. politics.
The billionaire Manhattan real estate mogul-cum-POTUS 45 astonished the entire world by winning the U.S. presidency in the face of excoriating media critique, virulent opposition from within his own party, foreign heads of state, and the Pope.
Yes, the Pope.
Boorish. Churlish. Juvenile.
Call him what you will, but now you must call him “Mr. President.”
Politics is a play on human difference precisely because it exploits that difference. Jill Lepore points this out quite clearly in her piece for The New Yorker, “The Lie Factory,” that the business of politicians to make “listeners feel…rather than think.”
Brand Trump’s messaging was and continues to be effective because it resonates in ways that neither the Clinton campaign, nor its surrogates, has been able to do.
Rhetoric That Resonates
Per businessdictionary.com, “Branding” is the process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the mind of consumers; the aim of branding is to establish a significant difference to attract consumers.
Political branding tells the public not just who a political actor is, but shapes how a political actor is perceived through her or his narrative.
The beauty of narrative is that it manipulates symbols and concepts to tell a story.
In elections, narratives use political language to get core messaging across, to rally and re-politicize consumer voters.
“Make America Great Again!” emotionally connects with a key demographic of the American electorate: the white male working-class. “Make America Great Again!” re-politicizes voters and calls those voters, who had not previously voted, back to the electoral process.
Again, Lenore quotes Whitaker of Whitaker and Baxter, founders of the first U.S. political consulting firm, Campaigns Inc., who said, “…a campaign that makes people hear the beat of drums and the thunder of bombs…This must be A CALL TO ARMS.”
“Make America Great Again!” is a call to arms. As a tagline, it is simple, coherent, and accessible.
“Make America Great Again!” invokes a sense of nostalgia, inspires hope and elicits a desire for change, while being simultaneously anxiety-provoking, racially tinged and anti-communist. It bypasses reason and reaches right into the cramped, sullen, hyper-racial abyss of the American psyche.
Trump’s narrative conveys an image that is based on reducing explosive healthcare premiums; bringing jobs back to the US; withdrawing from trade deals like NAFTA and TPP; stopping rampant “radical Islamic terrorism,” and putting an end to Hillary Clinton, arguably, the most corrupt, hawkish candidate in modern U.S. political history.
That is what narrative does. Narrative emotionally connects a segment of voters to a shared understanding of their experience.
The Clinton campaign slogan “Stronger Together” is not narrative.
Trump held narrative advantage because he quite vividly defined a set of issues that white working-class voters could rally around.
As stated by incoming White House Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter: “The Clinton strength…was to play to people without a college education. High school people. That’s how you win elections.”
For an entirely different segment of the U.S. population, Trump’s narrative was interpreted as deeply sexist, anti-Islamic, and both inflammatory and racist. True as that may or may not be, that is not narrative. That is reaction. Worse, it doesn’t win campaigns.
Bad News Is Big Business
Then there is the Donald’s outsized “brand pedigree.”
As popular as he is problematic, Donald Trump not only turned the entire U.S. political establishment on its proverbial head, but rendered mainstream U.S. media ineffectual, impotent, and effete while cashing in on 73+ million media mentions, over 450 million Google hits and nearly $2 billion in free media value.
In North American, European, and Asian markets; on blogs, Twitter, online forums and searches, and in consumer, business and online news, Trump scored a topline media rating of “99, and in some instances, 100.”
King Trump was nothing short of a ratings juggernaut.
Mary Harris’ blog piece, “A Media Post-Mortem On the 2016 Presidential Election,” had this to say: “During the GOP primary, anti-Trump groups within the GOP spent nearly $30 million in advertising to unseat Donald Trump…But during the same period Trump drove $400 million in high-stakes news coverage—without spending a dime.”
Trump’s total media value clocked at $4.96 billion, almost 4x that of Barack Obama, America’s first black president. Included in that $4.96 billion is nearly $2 billion in free media.
Cirque du Trump also “made it rain” for advertising executives, and rain it did.
Les Moonves, CBS’ chief exec on Donald Trump, had this to say: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” he said of the presidential race. Moonves called the campaign for president a “circus” full of “bomb throwing,” and he hopes it continues. “Most of the ads are not about issues. They’re sort of like the debates,” he said. “Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now?…The money’s rolling in and this is fun,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going,” said Moonves.
As far back as 1960s and 70s and 80s, the New Right began to move away from ideology and toward focusing on a candidate’s personal qualities as a path to victory.Robert Freedman in his book, Strategy: A History, also points out that party bosses gave way to pollsters and more advanced techniques in gauging voter attitudes.
In entertainment, there is a saying: “any publicity is good publicity.” In Donald Trump’s case, publicity turns out to be a multibillion dollar business.
Things Fall Apart
Finally, the effects of austerity in the U.S., the eurozone countries, the U.K., and the Baltic States have not worked.
Mark Blyth, Professor of International Political Economy at Brown University, in a lecture entitled “Global Trumpism,” observed: “…there was a moment when people began to figure out, for the past 30 years, going from 1985 until now, huge amounts of money have been generated in the global economy. And as we know from the work of Thomas Piketty and others, most of it has gone up to a tiny fraction of the population. There has been a huge amount of growth, but hardly anybody has seen any benefit.”
Oxfam’s “An Economy for the 1%,” found that, globally, 62 individuals possess the same amount of wealth as $3.6 billion; the poorest half of the world receive only 1% of global wealth, and the average yearly income of the world’s poorest 10% has risen by less than $3 in almost 25 years.
Domestically, The Mises Institute reports that U.S. median household income hasn’t increased since 2000, and the average per capita income of Americans has been down since 2007.
While average income in 2014 was about $55,000, Ryan McKaken suggests that, “The value here lies not so much in the level of average income, but in viewing the trend over time. And when we look at the trend, we find that the average income hasn’t gone anywhere in 14 years.”
John Crudele, of the New York Post, added this: “When you count all the workers who have been stuck with part-time employment or who haven’t searched for work in a year, the jobless rate is twice the official 5% level.”
The aggregate debt of American households and the number of families in poverty in the U.S. are currently at their highest levels.
Elsewhere, Mark Blyth notes that, “The 400 richest Americans own more assets than the poorest 150 million; the bottom 15%, some 46 million people, live in households earning less than $22,050 per year.”
Such numbers did and do not bode well in states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, where communities that once thrived have turned into—to quote Australian filmmaker, John Pilger— “piles of rust.”
Donald J. Trump has positioned himself as a maverick and is perceived as one who remains consistent on the issues most important to his target audience, namely the economy, jobs and trade.
Brand Trump signals a break from “the swamp”—career politicians who, are, “controlled by lobbyists, donors, and special interests.” Brand Trump also signals a political tone and style that seems to capture “the chaos that envelopes our time”— or at least articulates it in a way that many people have chosen to trust and understand.
From a branding perspective, Donald Trump’s consistency communicates his commitment to his vision
King Trump’s narrative, while consistent with fundamental branding techniques, also represents a seismic, momentous shift in how the strong man narrative will resonate across publics in the years to come.
Brand Trump has already made an indelible impact on domestic and global affairs. How long that impact will last is anyone’s guess.
The clock is ticking.