The Brander in Chief, and the Limits of an Entrepreneur in Politics

The Brander in Chief, and the Limits of an Entrepreneur in Politics
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<p>Trump Tower, on Fifth Avenue, is one of the President’s most recognizable brands.</p>

Trump Tower, on Fifth Avenue, is one of the President’s most recognizable brands.

Mark Lennihan/AP

Look around pop culture, and you’ll see Donald Trump everywhere.

The word TRUMP glitters atop high buildings and signifies luxury resorts. His online avatar @realDonaldTrump pervades the Twitterverse and garners wall-to-wall coverage on cable news. Even his persona—The Donald—is a carefully crafted product.

And recently, he added another title: POTUS.

Say what you will about Donald Trump, he is remarkably gifted at one thing: branding.

Trump has an innate ability to sell himself. By many estimates, little of Trump’s net worth (an approximate $3.7 billion) is material wealth. Numerous products and businesses are licensed by Trump: TRUMP in name only. The Donald has no connection whatsoever.

In 2016, Donald Trump turned his self-promotion toward politics. And he was really quite good at it.

He sold a vision for America: Make America Great Again. There were hats, bracelets, and other knickknacks.

Had Trump stopped there, he would have been unremarkable. Campaigns always have slogans and buttons: “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” “I Like Ike,” and of course “Hope and Change” are well-remembered.

But Trump didn’t just brand himself, he branded his opponents. In short order, the Twitter Candidate distilled three-dimensional political adversaries into hashtags. Jeb Bush was #LowEnergy. Marco Rubio became #LittleMarco. And, of course, Hillary Clinton was branded #CrookedHillary.

It was the genius of a salesman. Donald Trump knew his base wanted blood, and he gave it to them in buckets. The customer is always right.

Whatever we may feel about the conditions leading to his election, it would be ungenerous to downplay the systematic way that Donald Trump branded his way to the presidency.

He is our first Brander in Chief.

And yet, the BiC faces some serious obstacles.

Problem #1: He’s a Campaigner, Not a Governor

Running for office and governing are two separate things. If Trump’s first week in office is any indicator, the political instincts that got him elected seem ill-fitted to life in the White House.

Like many salespeople, Donald Trump is effective in short, one-off conversations. Improvised ideas and promises are not meant seriously, but rather as social currency: a way to build trust long enough to walk the buyer out the door—or into the voting booth.

The problem is that Donald Trump isn’t a salesman any longer. He can’t just walk the American people out the door promising to “Make America Great Again.” Now he has to do it.

Trump finds himself in the unenviable position of riding shotgun in the MAGA car he sold: one he never intended to get more than a few miles off the lot.

Problem #2: The MAGA Gilding is Beginning to Peel

Donald Trump faces a second difficulty: like so many used cars, his presidency is quickly revealing itself a deficient product. It’s dangerously unreliable: for instance, the president suggested a 20% tariff on Mexican goods to pay for his Wall, only to walk it back later that day. This may have worked on the campaign, but now Trump speaks as the President of the United States. People listen.

Additionally, the presidency is leaking everywhere: bureaucrats are taking to Twitter in opposition to gag orders, and West Wing staffers freely tell reporters about their boss’s inability to handle criticism or embarrassment.

With every jostle, screech, rattle and pop the American people will grow more skeptical. With each passing day, the scam becomes increasingly obvious.

Branding may have gotten the Donald to the White House, but it will get him no further.

Yet he perseveres.

Take Trump’s recent rebranding of news he doesn’t like as “fake news.” To the president’s credit he has recognized this weapon’s potency as a means in controlling media coverage. Yet he ham-handedly applies it to news outlets with whom he feuds—such as CNN—while taking advice from Steve Bannon, the archetypal example of fake news.

This strategy has limits, though re-branding served Trump well in the past. During the campaign he borrowed Bernie Sanders’s criticism that the system was “rigged,” and to this day spouts the lie (the New York Times’s wording) he would have won the popular vote if three million illegal immigrants had not voted for Clinton.

But the American people know a huckster when they see one. During the campaign, Marco Rubio called Donald Trump a con artist. This week, Trump has done nothing to disprove the assertion.

As President. he has: brought in staffers to applaud an awkward speech he gave to the CIA; waged a war through the press briefing room on facts that can be easily verified with photographic evidence; and consistently claimed, in defiance of the public record, that he never criticized the intelligence gathering community (he did).

Trump lies so freely because he is preoccupied with selling his presidency, not executing policy.

As the Brander in Chief, Donald Trump is not concerned with governing well. He is concerned with being seen as governing well. This is why he constantly lies and bullies those who call him out, in particular members of the free press. He’s protecting his brand.

It’s the art of the deal.

Problem #3: The Majority of Americans Aren’t Buying

More than the limits of branding, Trump’s real issue is that he is selling a product that the majority of Americans didn’t want in the first place.

He lost the national vote by three million. The protests that followed his inaugural were far more widely attended (three times as many people in D.C. alone; and a cool 3.2 million nationwide). Even his policies are unpopular: the GOP’s push to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act strikes many Republicans as “not insurance at all.”

Politics may be the art of persuasion, but it’s also the art of the possible. The question isn’t whether or not Donald Trump learns to accept that governance is about doing rather than selling. It is whether he is even capable of it—of understanding the limits of his unique entrepreneurial approach to politicking.

So far, all signs point to nyet.

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