Trump and White Nationalism: Creating an Alternative Republican Brand
Note: This is a revised post of a December 2016 blog post. Concerning the recent events in Charlottesville, and the "many sides" of Trump's response, I felt it warranted an update.
I’m not a political scientist, nor a pundit, and so I tread lightly on subjects about which people hold very passionate views that are so contrary to others’ very passionate views. But as a branding professional that has committed much of his career to helping organizations carve out their niche and craft very specific, consistent messages to reach their intended audience, I watch with keen interest how President Trump seems to accept, if not approve of, some of the rhetoric coming from the Alt Right. As most organizations understand, the message of any brand can be amplified when delivered by a strong charismatic leader, but it’s crucial that you have the right message. So, does President Trump’s tacit acceptance of white nationalism - in order to win elections or accomplish other short-term political goals - permanently alter the Republican Party brand.
The Business of Politics
OK, let’s take a step back. You don’t have to be a pundit to see that Trump took a different approach to politics. His campaign actions and rhetoric made some people wonder if he actually wanted to be President. But Trump is not a politician, so why would he approach the acquisition of new “consumers” the way other politicians do? He is a businessman…a marketer, and I don't believe The Donald initially saw his presidential run as an exercise in politics. Rather, Trump was looking at the process as a sort of media blitz to promote himself, and at least early on, may not have been thinking of winning. If Trump didn’t think he would win, and was instead thinking about life after the campaign, then being as extreme as possible has huge potential marketing benefits…huge. $2 billion huge. The free publicity for a new media brand was worth the ridicule from an establishment that he seemed to despise. The reignited brand could be bigger than The Apprentice x WWE x Jerry Springer (and geared to the same audience niche).
The challenge for the Republican Party is that Trump’s unconventional media and marketing tactics were politically successful. His actions energized a segment of non-customers or low-motivated consumers. Yay for the brand! But, that reinvigorated segment was one that had been largely ignored over the past several decades for good reason: Jim Crow and anti-Semitism generally don't make for a good platform positions, and embracing those ideals is generally not looked at as “establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, or promoting the general welfare” of the United States.
But many businesses often don’t see upholding those values as their primary objectives. Businesses seek profitability, sometimes at the expense of the greater good. Think big tobacco. Think Enron. Think mortgage crisis. And Trump’s own history has shown that he often seeks short-term profitability over and above a focus on the core brand. Think Trump Steaks or Trump University. He doesn’t seem to buy into the Law of Expansion, which says that the power of a brand is inversely proportional to its scope. When you put your brand name on several products, you may see an increase in sales in the short term, but it undermines the brand name in the mind of the consumer in the long term. So, why wouldn’t he look to the fringe for a political advantage?
The bigger question is, has the Republican Party also ignored this law for short-term rewards?
Positioning the brand
The Republican brand is one known for its commitment to smaller government, states' rights, a strong military, market-driven economics, and strict adherence to certain social causes. Many people I know proudly align themselves with those ideals. Having lived in three areas heavily influenced by Republican values - North Carolina, suburban Philadelphia, and rural Iowa - I've listened to many Republican friends speak out against racism and other injustice. And some of the most transformative voices in US racial history have been Republican - from Lincoln to, well, OK just Lincoln. But seriously, when the CEO-in-Chief promotes violence at his rallies or appears hesitant to specifically condemn racially or religiously-motivated killings, do those "brand advocates" see this as merely an ideological product-line-extension they can support, or do they demand the brand move back to its core offerings?
Political parties, just like successful organizations, are driven by the vision of their leaders. However, all leaders may go off message, or create a culture that is not in the long-term benefit of the brand. Just a year ago, many people were referring to Uber as a prototypical model for brand success. Since then, revelations have come out about the culture that its leader, Travis Kalanick, had created. In May he was asked by the Board to resign. That begs the question, "Who is on the Board that provides oversight of the Leader of a political party?" Congress? Voters? Party officials? Disturbingly, many of these board members seem willing to defer to the judgment and message of the leader, even when that message seems to embrace some of the ideology of the Alt-Right and has clearly caused some powerful brand advocates (big business leaders) to distance themselves. By re-tweeting xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric, and including Stephen Bannon as a key advisor on his staff, it confuses the core message and opens the perception that the Republican Party is racist or anti-Semitic. By not quickly, vehemently, and specifically condemning the actions of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Trump has gone further to solidify that perception. And as John Lindsay famously said, “In politics, perception is reality.” Or to put it in branding terms, Trump's actions are positioning the Republican Party as the party that welcomes extremists.
OK, I’m not suggesting that the Republican Party, as a whole, is a racist entity. There have been many voices on the right that have spoken loudly against the deplorable actions in Charlottesville. And actually, after their Presidential defeat in 2012, part of the official position of the Republican party was that they needed to intentionally reach out to Hispanics and other minorities. But the actions in Charlottesville should be an issue that would clearly emphasize that commitment, and one that both sides of a passionate argument could find a lot of common ground.
So as some in the Republican Party struggle with this issue and try to define its brand for the future, I encourage them to read The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, paying special attention to #19, The Law of Consistency. And then ask if Trump and the embracing of Alt-Right ideas are a fad or a trend within the party. Will it cause a split and perhaps bring about the end to the Republican Party as we know it? Maybe that’s hyperbole, but other, seemingly invincible brands have failed or drastically altered their business models for failing to appropriately assess the market. Because by not denouncing the Alt-Right, Republicans are either being authentic to who they really are, or their brand is being diluted. They will have to decide. Otherwise, in the long term, the market will decide it for them. Maybe they’re comfortable with that.