In Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories, Br’er Fox strikes out when his plan to catch Br’er Rabbit using the “Tar-Baby” backfires. Instead, the “clever” fox traps himself in what he’d created to the point of being totally stuck in a situation from which he cannot free himself, preventing any move that doesn’t worsen the situation. This seems to me an apt metaphor for what’s playing out in the Republican Primary race and America’s spectator fascination with the dysfunctional aberrations of our fellow man.
We have to look at this year’s primary season as a phenomenon. That is, I can’t imagine that anyone could have planned or even conceived of what has unfolded in just a few months. First the numbers of people in the game is unprecedented. Secondly, almost everyone on both sides of the political spectrum thinks Trump is some kind of a caricature and not a serious contender. Even most of his ‘fans’ doubt he could win and privately confess that they would be very nervous if he did. So how do we account for his rise and what might we expect in the coming months?
I am not interested in rehashing the pundit’s assessments of him, his personality or his ideas. I am interested in exploring how someone who has little going for him but money and celebrity can command so much media attention and create a fan club of voters who apparently like his style and message. He is not even a particularly successful businessman if you look at his track record of failed enterprise (e.g. Trump Shuttle) and four bankruptcies and a long list of unhappy employees, bankers and suppliers. He is a great “brand.”
So my assumption is that this phenomenon is somehow showing us the power of branding which most of us recognize. However, brands are supposed to stand for something — usually quality, price, service, or experience. It would seem that the Trump Brand stands for itself. You should buy anything with the Trump name because it is Trump. Even iconic brands like Apple, Mercedes or Hermes would quickly disappear if they failed to provide some substance to their consumers. It would seem Donald Trump has discovered the Holy Grail of marketing — to create a brand that doesn’t mean anything, doesn’t deliver much and convinces people to trust the brand for no reason.
But what if we consider that the Trump Brand is delivering something, at least in the political space. What if he is delivering what the body politic is really looking for — specifically, validation of their experience; acknowledgement that the political establishment and political process is hopelessly out of touch with reality and a corrupt oligarchy exists that has become self-serving and narcissistic. Americans are feeling somewhere between resigned to cynical about the future: almost everyone is disappointed and saddened by the current state of affairs.
In this scenario, Trump is the champion of a defeated majority. He is the “Music Man” promising a new band for River City while setting up the population for the Big Con. He is a parody of a politician who promises to make us “great again” while being model of everything that is destroying that greatness — greed, shallow and short-term thinking and deal-making without concern or integrity for the underlying commitments that create identity and power in the world. A good deal is more than clever negotiation or a cynical view of the suckers who’ve bought into a dream you can’t deliver.
If we want to “Make America Great Again”, let’s begin with each individual getting out of the stands as spectators and getting onto the playing field of a democratic society and participate in making the Republic more than a marketplace. Let’s recover the sense of pride, privilege and responsibility that comes with citizenship in a great nation. Let’s turn our political primaries into serious debates on policies and priorities focused on having a future that can work for everyone rather than special interests and competing constituents. Finally, let’s take some responsibility for who we listen to and who we are willing to consider as our political leaders. Our political process is all we have to change the direction we’re going or to create a different future than what is predictable. This challenge is not something we should ‘opt-out’ of or ‘unsubscribe’ from. It is time for us to participate and become informed and critical of those who are trying to get our attention and our votes.
We must begin by changing ourselves and when we do, the Donald’s will realize that no one is listening to them and that the only political brands we want are those that put people first and have the authenticity and integrity to deliver on what they promise.
My message to the current flock of GOP presidential wannabes is to remember the message from Uncle Remus — you can’t outsmart Br’er Rabbit and you always get more of what you resist.