Almost two weeks have passed since Hillary Clinton told an audience at a fundraiser in New York that “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.”
People are still writing, tweeting and talking about it. For context, the Democratic Presidential candidate said the group includes people who are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.”
The other half of Trump’s supporters, she said, less disparagingly, “are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change . . . Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”
Writing in the current edition of TIME, Joe Klein harshly criticizes the candidate’s “wobbly” political strategy, or lack of one. The Economist’s Lexington column actually has more to say about Trump than about Clinton, but it does observe in passing that Candidate Clinton’s statement was “horribly sweeping.”
For a blog such as this one, which is interested in branding and communication, among other things, there’s a more fundamental — and non-political — issue that no one has mentioned. As James Carville, who’s been known to give the Clintons advice, might say: “It’s the brand, stupid.” Standing behind a podium with the slogan “Stronger Together” prominently displayed, Hillary missed a chance to show that her campaign is about inclusion rather than petty divisiveness. The prejudices and phobias she called out in her “deplorables” broadside are anything but petty. But it’s a better branding strategy by far to hang the sins on her opponent than on his followers.
It’s also important, obvious as this may seem, that as a woman running for President, Hillary has something very powerful going for her that Donald Trump doesn’t: her femininity. She owns “maternal” at a time when that could be seen as a healing attribute that aligns perfectly with the embrace and optimism implicit in her “Stronger Together” brand. Instead, though, she has made it possible for Donald Trump to accuse her of “viciously demonising [the] hard-working people” who support him.
Donald Trump in fairness has not shown himself to be any better as a potential Brander-in-chief. His slogan is an almost verbatim lift of “Let’s Make America Great Again” from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign. The wistful phrase clearly resonates with many of his supporters. His team did a good job of reinforcing the message at the Republican Convention by creating a variant for each night of the event: “Make America Safe/Work/First/One Again.” It’s the backward-looking “again” part of the formulation that’s troubling. The “greatness” of Trump’s vision is of a mythologized past. That’s not out of bounds. A quick look at a Wikipedia list of campaign slogans since 1840 shows that nostalgia is a popular idea. Roosevelt proclaimed “Happy Days Are Here Again” in 1932; Ford’s banner in 1976 said “He’s Making Us Proud Again.” In addition to the slogan that Trump has appropriated, Reagan also gave us “It’s Morning Again in America” in 1984.
What’s problematical in the “great again” brand promise is that for many voters, particularly among minority groups, the question is not a matter of when America was great, but when — and how — it will be. If some of the measures Candidate Trump has proposed should ever become policy, the “great” value proposition may seem even more remote.
As Mario Cuomo famously said, politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. But that doesn’t excuse them from not taking their own promises seriously. Sadly, many companies have stirring brand messages that have nothing to do with what their leaders say or how they behave. Anyone who watched Elizabeth Warren’s recent flensing of Wells Fargo chairman John G. Stumpf will have noticed where she began her comments. It’s clear that Senator Warren understands that brand is not really about message, it’s about experience.
“If you want to find out how strong a company’s ethics are, don’t listen to what its people say. Watch what they do,” she read out loud to Mr. Stumpf, quoting rather ironically from Wells Fargo ‘s own Vision & Values booklet. That’s good solid advice for corporate executives, brand managers, politicians and everyone else. Neglect to follow it and you, too, might end up a basket case.
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