The Branded Presidency of Donald Trump
For the past six months, we haven’t been writing a lot about politics. We’ve been waiting to see Trump in action as President. To those who have looked at him with neither rancor nor adoration, President Trump is very WYSIWYG (for those schooled in earlier programming languages — what you see is what you get).
There’s certainly been a lot of teeth-gnashing by columnists and talking heads about Mr. Trump. And, there’s no doubt that he fuels the fires. He tweets endlessly and undercuts his own staff’s explanations of Administration policy. He lies pointlessly (the size of his inaugural crowd) and sometimes meaningfully (refusing to support Article 5 of the NATO Treaty when he told McMasters, Mattis and Tillerson that he would). No slight goes unanswered — even from comedians (like Alec Baldwin and Stephen Colbert). He demands loyalty but offers none (why let Mike Pence assure the country that General Flynn had no substantive contacts with the Russians when Trump knew that was false). He has no understanding of policy (“who knew that health care would be so hard”). And on and on and on.
But, while these events are newsworthy, there is something deeper at play here. During the election, Trump told the country that there would be so much winning that, eventually, we wouldn’t be able to stand it. “I’m a winner” and everyone else is a loser or a crook or a liar. Winning, winning, winning. That was Mr. Trump’s pitch. And, if you voted for him, you were voting to share in that experience of feeling like a winner. He equated his “win” with yours. If you voted for him, you were a winner too.
So, when Trump wakes up in the morning, he is probably thinking “How can I win something today.” It doesn’t really matter what it is. Want to win on TV coverage? Send out an outrageous tweet and watch the Twitter trend line: he’s winning. Want to say that you’re winning on taxes? Announce that you’ve successfully announced a new tax plan. Want to address infrastructure? Announce that you’ve successfully announced an infrastructure plan and then go to Ohio and make a speech saying that you’re keeping your promises.
Similarly, Trump hates to lose. His recent Tweet storm on the “travel pause” is more about his desire to “win” on his terms: a Muslim travel ban. It doesn’t matter that to Trump that he’s undercutting his own legal team. It doesn’t matter that his original demand for a 90 day ban has long expired. He is angry about losing. But why is he so angry?
Trump’s key asset is his instinct for brand marketing. It worked for him in business, the Republican primaries and the general election. Trump’s “I’m a winner” pitch was blatant and unrelenting and Trump himself was unapologetic. No corrections. No admissions. No regrets. “I’m a winner (and its inverse “I refuse/hate to lose”) play book is the only way to make sense of Trump. Trump is the brand and the brand is Trump. Consequently, any attack on the brand (or rejection of Trump) cannot be tolerated: silence in the face of criticism, large or small, implicitly degrades the brand and therefore degrades Trump. It matters not to Trump that he contradicts himself or distorts or lies. What matters to Trump is his then-current assertion of being right and winning. Protect the brand/Trump at all costs.
All brand value is ephemeral. When people stop believing in the value for which is the brand stands, the brand fades, and rebuilding is hard (if not impossible). Trump isn’t stupid. He’s just playing the only game he has ever known. It’s got him very far and our bet is that he will stick with it until he can’t. It’s your bet.