Whatever else you might say about him, Donald Trump is one of the great branders of our age. And what he’s accomplished over the past 10 months since he took that now-notorious ride down the Trump Tower escalator is plainly his life’s masterwork: his rebranding of the GOP in his own image.
The Trump Organization is a global trademarking factory; among the 515 corporations, trusts, limited liability companies and other entities listed on Trump’s Federal Election Commission disclosure are scores of buildings, golf courses, product and other things from Baku to Dubai listed as “Trump Marks” (as in trademarks) entities. For example: Trump Ice LLC; Trump Marks Mattress LLC; Trump Pageants, Inc. And my favorite: The Trump Follies LLC.
After Tuesday’s primaries, it’s looking like we can add one more entity to the Trump Marks list: the Trumpublican Party, LLC.
Trump accomplished this rebranding so fast that Republicans still don’t seem to understand what happened to them. We’ve heard him say it many times in recent months—he’s defined the race, whether the issue is immigration or trade or corporate tax inversions, which even Hillary Clinton has taken up as a cause. Trump’s favorite locution: “If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t even be talking about [fill in the blank].” Or as his daughter Ivanka put it recently to Breitbart: “From Day One, my father set the agenda for what the whole party is talking about.”
But in truth the Trump takeover of the GOP occurred, to quote an old line from Hemingway, “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” What had to happen first, before Donald could step in and slap on his own brand in a short period of time, was the gradual “de-branding” of the party at the hands of its own leaders, especially over the past 7½ years since Barack Obama entered the White House. That’s when the party decided to abandon any ideas about governing in favor of one singular idea: “No to Obama.”
The events of this week supply an apt illustration. You might think there wasn’t much connection between the Republicans’ insistence on Wednesday that they wouldn’t even talk to Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland and Trump’s humiliation of his Republican rivals the night before. In fact, both events help explain why this strange outsider from New York now basically owns one of America’s political parties. Trump could succeed only because the GOP rendered itself so incoherent that no one knew what the party really stood for anymore, except for something negative—the party of No. No, we won’t talk to him. No, we won’t listen to you. No, we can’t even agree on what we disagree about. No. No. NO.
Trump was the perfect candidate to come along, kick in what was left of the party’s empty ideological husk and then rebrand it as only he, the master, can do. First, of course, Trump earned his bona fides with the Obama-hating base by being the most negative Obama candidate of all—the loudest voice in the “birther” movement. But then he quickly won over the base by forming some positive, if rather crude, platform ideas that were welcomed, perhaps, largely because no one else had any ideas other than the old tax-cutting, trickle-down bromides. Those had been the lingering core of the Republican brand, but had lost much of their political traction as the party’s base of angry, undereducated whites watched their fortunes dim as the rich enjoyed their tax relief. The same Republican leaders and pundits who have been complaining that Trump’s simplistic notions about immigration (“build a wall”) or trade (“start winning again”) are unworkable and unRepublican haven’t had the courage to spell out any clear new ideas of their own.
Think about it: Before Trump came along, and the party’s neocons and quasi-isolationists squabbled endlessly about U.S. involvement in Syria or Ukraine; and various conservative think tanks and pundits put forward 10 different plans for changing the tax code; and no one could agree on education reform or immigration reform (recall the many incomprehensible exchanges between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio at the debates over this issue), was there anything identifiable any longer as a party platform?
And clarity is key. Rob Frankel, who has been called “the best branding expert on the planet” by StrikingItRich.com, says Trump took his tactics “right out of my playbook, and I’m really proud of the way he did it. I wish my clients could execute that well. He did exactly what everybody else should be doing for their brand. To be effective you have clear, credible, authoritative. And then there’s my prime directive: for a brand to work it has to be perceived as the only solution. If I can create the perception of being the only game in town, you’re going to stop shopping. That’s what he did.”
Republican voters have stopped shopping, perhaps, because there isn’t much else on offer. This process of GOP brand destruction has been going on at least since the era of George W. Bush, who many conservatives feel betrayed them with his runaway spending habits and neocon war, but it’s especially true since Obama was elected and the party was, well, driven basically mad with Obama enmity. Beginning with Mitch McConnell’s blunt declaration in 2010—“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president “—the GOP simply became identified as the anti-Obama party and little else.
What ensued was so ugly and neck-wrenching that Republicans kept having to remind themselves they were still the party of Lincoln and Reagan, because there was no obvious way to track where they were going, much less what positive ideas they stood for any longer. House tea party members kept hijacking fairly routine congressional votes and threatening to send the United States into first-time default to fight a proxy war over their singular agenda (though no one quite knew what that was either; was it libertarian or redistributive?). An actual government shutdown occurred, and another almost did. What began as an outlandish threat—sequester—became policy through more party paralysis. Every Republican from Rubio to John Boehner who tried to make a deal with Obama and the Democrats and stand for something, anything, other than “no” was humiliated and declared a traitor to the cause. What cause? Good question.
Thus the reaction to Garland, a perfectly credible and even outstanding prospect for the Supreme Court, is all of a piece with what’s been going on for the past seven years. Now, with the exception of a few Republican senators like Kelly Ayotte and Mark Kirk who face tough reelection challenges in purplish states, a flat “no” is the order of the day once again. On Wednesday, we heard even a formerly reasonable conservative like Orrin Hatch declare nonsensically that the Garland nomination—that is, a person to fill a meaningful vacancy on the nation’s highest court—“shouldn’t be brought up when people are screaming and shouting.”
What Hatch said, of course, was gibberish, not least because it’s almost entirely the Republicans who have been doing the screaming and shouting all this time. Even Trump makes more sense than that—which is exactly the point. Trump fortuitously entered the fray and began repeating his nationalist-populist mantra at a time when no one else had a mantra, and when the party’s greatest need was for leadership, which in turn requires clarity, which in turn requires a brand. What could be a more perfect and poetic piece of justice than a fatally incomprehensible party, one whose brand no longer stood for an identifiable set of ideas other than to thwart the president, leaving itself open to a takeover by the greatest brand-maker of the age?
Hence the spectacle of John Kasich—who moved from being a firebrand House conservative in the ’90s to a more practical governor of Ohio—looking like a stranger in a strange land upon his return to national politics. On the state and local level, thankfully, ideology still swiftly gives way to the necessity to govern, which is one reason why so many Republicans such as Kasich are still successful at those levels. But Kasich has found he might as well be speaking another language with his endless stump speech about such accomplishments as turning Ohio’s deficit into a surplus and adding 400,000 jobs. What’s his mantra? What’s his brand?
This was also the subtext, perhaps, of Rubio’s sad withdrawal speech on Tuesday night, when he appeared to blame both the GOP establishment and the tea party for his faded career. “That we find ourselves at this point is not surprising, for the warning signs have been here for close to a decade,” Rubio said. “In 2010, the tea party wave carried me and others into office because not enough was happening, and that tea party wave gave Republicans a majority in the House, but nothing changed. In 2014, those same voters gave Republicans a majority in the Senate and, still, nothing changed. And I blame some of that on the conservative movement, a movement that is supposed to be about our principles and our ideas. But I blame most of it on our political establishment.”
Blame it instead on the failure of your brand, Marco.
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