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Donald Trump, The Kardashians, And The Politics Of Branding

Whatever meaning brands might have in the realms of real estate and reality TV -- or our social and mass media driven news cycle -- they tell us very little about who a person is and how he or she will lead a nation.
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Notepad with Personal Branding on office wooden table.
Notepad with Personal Branding on office wooden table.

Much has been said and written in the past few days about Donald Trump's noxious appeals to African American voters. Exemplifying those appeals is his August 19th speech in Dimondale, Michigan, where he addressed those voters directly (although not so much in person, as Dimondale is a predominantly white suburb of Lansing), rattling off a number of stereotypical problems in the African American community in order to ask, "What the hell do you have to lose?" by voting for the Republican rather than Democratic presidential candidate.

As political historian Kevin Kruse and others have noted, and contrary to some media coverage of Trump's speech, it's not at all new for the GOP presidential candidate to make such an appeal to African American voters. Indeed, as Kruse points out, the GOP nominee has done so in each of the last four presidential elections (as well as many prior ones). If anything, Trump's speech simply laid bare, as has become characteristic of his campaign, many of the hidden assumptions and stereotypes that have consistently driven those Republican racial outreach efforts.

To my mind, it was another phrase in Trump's August 19th speech that stood out and has been under-analyzed for what it reveals about our 21st century society and world. "What do you have to lose," Trump asked African Americans, "by trying something new like Trump?" The phrase presented Trump and his presidential candidacy as an explicit parallel to and even part of his commercial and personal brand, like trying a Trump steak or staying at a Trump resort (if you can still find any of either). And in so doing, Trump's comment reflects widely accepted contemporary social and political narratives of branding and success that we would do well to recognize and resist.

Perhaps the most prominent (and among the most successful by any measure) figures in 2016 America are the Kardashians, a family that has achieved their prominence and success based almost entirely on creating and capitalizing upon a personal brand. Using little if anything more than their private lives and public appearances, the family has built a brand worth (by some estimates) upwards of $100 million. It's easy to critique the Kardashians because of (among other things) how ubiquitous they are in our mass media, but that frustratingly inescapable presence in and of itself reflects their branding success and its effects.

Moreover, the Kardashians' form of branding is directly linked to many accepted narratives of success in contemporary society. It's widely understood that success in all social and commercial arenas now depends on social media presence and publicity, and such use of social media itself represents an overt form of personal branding--a process in which I'm entirely complicit, as I use the same name (AmericanStudier) on my Twitter and Facebook accounts among other sites. And when Omni hotels CEO Michael Deitemeyer delivered the 2013 commencement address at Fitchburg State University (my employer), he implored all of our graduates--based on his own experiences as well as the perspectives of many other business leaders--to focus on creating their own brand as an integral part of succeeding in both their professional and personal lives.

Branding has also become an increasingly central element of political success. Certainly Barack Obama's rise and successful first presidential campaign were connected to the creation of a brand, as exemplified by the famous Shepard Fairey poster that linked Obama's image to the concept of hope (a connection Obama extended in his campaign book The Audacity of Hope). We could trace that evolving political trend back at least to John F. Kennedy and the image of Camelot, an early example of the use of television and mass media to create and market a political brand. And I can't help but wonder how much of the ever-present narrative of Hillary Clinton's "unlikeability" boils down to her inability to create such a compelling personal brand, to link her campaigns or career to images or ideas that resonate in the popular imagination.

In a society and world where social media and the digital play such vital roles, where mass media influences our conversations so fully, and where image is ever more inextricably tied to identity, it's quite possible that personal branding is indeed and will remain a necessary component of success, in politics as in every other realm of life. But just as corporations are not actually people too, my friends, neither are people brands, and it's vital that we resist any narratives which equate the two.

Partly that's because, as the example of Trump's consistently bankrupt brands reminds us so potently, equating people with brands almost always means ignoring the limitations, failures, and flaws that are an inevitable part of the human experience--and likewise ignoring the more genuine successes that we can nonetheless achieve. Which is to say, equating Barack Obama with hope both inevitably leads to disappointment and makes it more difficult to recognize and appreciate the myriad ways in which his administration has been one of the most effective and successful in American history.

But it's also and especially crucial to resist narratives of branding because people, like political ideas and social movements, cannot be reduced to an image or icon without losing their nuance and complexity, and with them their potential for influential lives. The story of Hillary Clinton's life and career to date is defined not by what she has meant in our collective consciousness, but by what she has worked for and accomplished despite those simplifying narratives. And assessing her presidential candidacy similarly requires us to engage with her ideas and proposals for that potential next role, in direct relationship to those of her opponent. Whatever meaning brands might have in the realms of real estate and reality TV--or our social and mass media driven news cycle--they tell us very little about who a person is and how he or she will lead a nation.

For all those reasons our political campaigns and debates, like our collective narratives of success and identity, can't afford to keep up with the Kardashians. And if soundly defeating Trump helps us break from these limited and troubling emphases on branding and equations of it with success, that's one more reason to work for that result come November.