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Tribal Politics and the Republican Brand

May 10, 2016

Trump.jpgA couple of years ago, I got introduced as a “branding guy”. Somebody said, “You know what needs rebranding? The Republican Party.” Actually, I’ve been observing this brand they call the Republican Party for some time now. It has long seemed inevitable there would, eventually, be a split of some sort. On the one hand, you had the Leadership. On the other, you had the Base. And with every passing year that the Leadership did not deliver on its promises to the Base, you could see the gap between these two dissimilar groups getting wider and wider. In tribal societies, that sets up perfect conditions for a rebellion.

Almost exclusively, the Republican Leadership comes out of the ranks of the wealthy – the One Percent. They are mostly moderate on social issues, fiscally conservative, and pragmatic in their approach to foreign policy. Well-traveled and well-educated, they accept both science and religion. Judging by their actions, their primary interest seems to be tax policy. But there aren’t enough of them to gain power on their own. So they had to forge an uneasy alliance with a different kind of Republican, the Base. These are mostly from the middle class, the tea partiers, the blue-collar social conservatives, gun-obsessed, fiercely religious, and distrustful of outsiders like immigrants, gays, science and, even, women. (I’m generalizing here, of course. And there are a lot of other contributors to the turmoil among Republicans. But please bear with my simplifications while I try to make a point about branding.)

The Republican Leadership made lots of promises to the Base in order to keep them in their uneasy coalition. They promised that trickle-down economics would eventually enrich everybody. They promised international trade deals would keep jobs in the country. They promised to defund Planned Parenthood. They promised to reduce the deficit. They promised that the LGBT community would never be allowed to marry. They promised to make the tax code more fair. They promised to put a stop to illegal immigration. They promised to repeal Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act. They kept exactly none of these promises.

Long-time readers of Brandtalk know that bad things happen when a brand fails to deliver on its promises. In business, customers just walk away. They go over to the competition. In tribal groups, the group members rebel. Usually, the rebellion forms around a young warrior who exudes strength and confidence. He offers no agenda except to be better than the old chief, who is usually tired and weak. The Republican Base found their upstart, a new leader they could rally around. And, following him, they rebelled.

Donald Trump is a classic rebel leader. He proclaims is own strength. He says he’ll “make” others build this or pay for that. He promises he’ll “be good at” the military. He applies for the job of leader by making brash claims, “Women will love me.” “The Hispanics will love me.” He labels the current leaders as weak and ineffective. They’re “low-energy”. They’re “liars.” “We never win anymore.” “We make bad deals.” He promises he’ll be stronger, smarter, braver, and more patriotic. He promises to “make America great again”. He’s going to fix all this, apparently, solely by force of his will and personality.

Trump stands in the center of the village, beats his chest, raises his arms and deems himself worthy to be the new tribal chief. He’s the young warrior asking the village to drive out the old chief and name him successor. He’s giving Republican voters what they want – a strongman.

Romney.jpgThe Republican Leadership doesn’t seem yet to understand that they’ve been driven out into the wilderness. John McCain, long-serving Republican Senator from Arizona, was quoted as saying that, “With Trump at the head of the ticket, this may be the campaign of my life.” That’s probably the understatement of the year. The party belongs to Trump, now, and he’s going to remake it in his image. McCain, Romney and the Bushes won’t recognize it anymore.

After losing the last presidential race, the Republican Leadership did a postmortem on their strategy. They found they needed to be more inclusive. They needed to reach out and build bridges to women. They needed to bring blacks, hispanics and other minorities into their ranks. They needed to be more attractive to young voters. But the Base rebelled. They went out and did pretty much the exact opposite. The Republican Party has been rebranded, all right.

But, before the Democrats get too smug about this, they should look in the mirror. What answers do they have for the coming deluge of bad news? Robotics continue render the skilled worker obsolete. Driverless vehicles will throw millions of truck, bus and cab/Uber drivers out of work. 3-D printing will destroy manufacturing as we know it. Nanotechnology will also have a disruptive impact. Almost every industry is facing evisceration because we just won’t need as many workers as we used to. 

What's your brand promise, Democrats?

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