Donald Trump is one of the most divisive and polarising political figures in modern history, seemingly set to win the Republican nomination, and with it, a very real potential of occupying the highest office in the land. The binary extremism of Brand Trump has generated an explosive arrival on the political stage.
The spectacular political ascendancy of Mr. Donald Trump, a gaudy, loutish, vastly successful business czar, has bewildered the most experienced political commentators. One wonders if the incumbent political establishment simply underestimated the basic attraction of a political outsider that openly dismisses the playbook on how to win a political election. Yet, we have all been witness to this apparition and recognise its ultimate potential. Trump is one of the most divisive and polarising political figures in modern history, seemingly set to win the Republican nomination, and with it, a very real potential of occupying the highest office in the land. Like a deer in the headlights, mesmerised, we watch the spectacle of the creation of the future POTUS, the Commander-in-Chief. And somewhere we know that the implications are global, somewhere we understand this means embracing the uncomfortable, yet…there is something familiar to this.
Knowingly, some commentators have been quick to suggest that Trump’s success to date is purely a vote of protest that reverberates well with the negative sentiments of a largely disillusioned mass of the US population. Others have suggested that the over-the-top, brusque business magnate and reality show star is a media phenomenon that does indeed grabs headlines; but ultimately he will fail to attract the votes of the US electorate. We suggest that Trump’s campaigning success has a stronger, deeper resonance with many voters. It extends beyond being a political voice pipe for so-called “angry white men”.
Trump’s strategy is very simple and yet very effective. Trump’s message is in brief designed to appeal to the grass roots activists of the Republican Party, those most likely to become vocal advocates of Trump. Trump is not initially seeking to win over the general electorate per se, but is targeting the Republican faithful with detached precision: like a political smart bomb. Trump’s unsettling style and tone of rhetoric has enabled the Republican frontrunner to craft a unique brand position. Other past and present conservative candidates have sought to follow a similar strategy, but it is the brutal simplicity and clarity of Trump’s message that enables him to break through the white noise surrounding other candidates. “Brand Trump” is binary…yes or no to controversial issues, and ignores the small stuff.
Brand Trump is not about compromise. Compromise means you retain something, you yield something; you negotiate. Instead, you are either with Brand Trump or against it. It does not pander to indecision; it forces decision by evoking emotions of fear and self-preservation. Ironically, anti-Trump protests have only aided the strategy by reinforcing clear lines of division and continuing the process of cleavage to finality. As well, sound bites circulating in the Twittersphere effectively get his political message across without compromise or ambiguity. “Build the wall” sums up his policy towards immigration…in three words, you are in or you are out. That’s binary.
As Trump’s bandwagon gathers speed, his ability to repeat his mantra ad infinitum reinforces his own convictions, as well as seemingly neutralising the perception of the political extremity of his message. We are no longer shocked about what Donald Trump has to say, extremist positions are simply clearer because they stand out. It has become the new normal of electoral campaigning. We now accept binary responses to complex problems because they are easy to understand – and easy is popular. Brand Trump is all about that.
Moreover, Mr. Trump has managed to deflect criticism and even engender willingness from his supporters to forgive any perceived shortcomings. His shortcomings have simply lent a very useful “human” aspect to his campaign. The ability to be seen as being a truly authentic person, even if one is a boisterous billionaire spouting extreme political ideas, strikes a chord with the Republican sentiment, and even with many the so-called undecided. Obviously, character rather than policy has been a key selling point in every US election campaign. It is this fallible human connectivity that had given Donald Trump an edge over more charismatic rivals such as Marco Rubio. Yet, should the binary Brand Trump with this authentic aura actually secure the Republican nomination, how will it win over the remaining resistance to binary politics and seize the majority of the undecided vote in the Presidential Election?
Highly polarising candidates trend to deliver inferior voter support and Trump’s current strategy will predictably touch an upper-limit threshold short of a majority. However, as is usual, the Federal election will not be won in Republican or Democratic strongholds, but in a small number of swing states. Trump’s strategy will continue to play on its strengths, but one would expect the rhetoric must eventually become less binary and drift to the center-right in order to avoid excessive fearmongering from the left about Trump himself, rather than focusing on the political issues. In other words, Brand Trump will need to avoid becoming the only issue of the electorate.
The binary extremism of Brand Trump has generated an explosive arrival on the political stage. The display of authenticity on the political stage has helped keep eyes on the spectacle. We suggest Brand Trump will not need to radically reinvent itself in order to reach further, but any Republican candidate will need to widen their appeal beyond binary voters in order to bring together a broader base of support. For Trump, this requires fiddling with a successful recipe. So, “Brand Trump Lite” may not be the real thing, but it may just be the winning formula.
About the Authors
Glyn Atwal is Associate Professor of Marketing at Burgundy School of Business, an international Graduate School of the French network of Grandes Ecoles. His teaching, research, and consultancy expertise focuses on brand management. Prior to academia, Glyn worked for Saatchi & Saatchi, Young & Rubicam, and Publicis.
Douglas Bryson is Professor (Titulaire 1) at the ESC Rennes School Business, France. His expertise focuses on research methods & data analysis, consumer behaviour and international brand management. Prior to switching to academia, Douglas worked for the Department of National Defense, Maritime Command, in Canada.