It would be naive to claim that image management does not matter more than substance in American politics (and British for that matter). Ever since 1960 (brilliantly described in “The Making of the President”) candidates have been primarily brands. But in Trump you have a brand that is an anti-hero – that’s a first. Voters choose him not despite his venality but because of it. The Obama brand was the precise opposite. He was not universally liked but to many he was a hero – a Kennedy figure where Trump is Nixon but without Dicky’s cleverness, vision and intellect.
Is Trump an aberration or can we expect more charismatic populists in America politics? Well not necessarily. Lyndon Johnson had none of his murdered predecessor’s charm but he won in 1964 because he was (then) respected if not greatly liked. Four years later the fatal misjudgments of Vietnam drove him from the race and with Kennedy Mark 2 tragically joining his brother in Arlington Cemetery the public chose Tricky Dicky because he actually seemed more experienced and authoritative than the alternative – which he was.
Post Obama the Democrats have struggled to find anyone of similar electable charisma. Hillary carried too much negative baggage and in 2020 they struggled to find what they needed – a youngish, appealing, decent counterweight to Trump. And so it is a choice between an old populist they know and an even older bland old man who in normal times would be at best an older statesman in a rocking chair.
Sometimes our brand choices are the lesser of two evils. If a flight route we want to travel on is either British Airways and Ryanair you grit your teeth and make a choice. We now know that Donald Trump is certifiable – the evidence is in plain view every day. If he was an anti-hero four year’s ago now he is a demented anti-hero – like a character in a Joseph Heller novel or in “MASH”. In 2016 his populist charisma struck a chord with sufficient Americans to win. In the interim he has been impeached by the House of Representatives and demonstrates every day his unsuitability for high office. And yet the core brand elements that won him the presidency are intact.
In an age of suspicion of the establishment the candidates distanced from the political norms can win. That was the key to Leave’s win in the EU Referendum and to Boris Johnson’s General Election win in 2019. Add in a heavy dose of xenophobia and patriotic symbolism and you may have enough. Can you win an election with extreme nationalism grafted on to your flag-waving populism? Yes you can – especially if you demean foreigners at the same time. Stress that COVID-19 is a Chinese virus and you shift the blame from your incompetence to someone else. When Brexit becomes the disaster it inevitably will be it will be the EU’s fault. Obviously.
I think Joe Biden will struggle (I hope to God I’m wrong). His brand identity is weak. The people that would vote for any Democrat will vote for him, but that’s not enough. Republicans, despite the admirable “Lincoln Project”, will vote pretty much en masse for Trump. Independents are the key. To be against Trump is not enough. To win the floating vote you’ve got to be pro Biden. That’s proving to be difficult.
2 thoughts on “The Making of the President – 2020 version”
I agree Joe Biden will struggle. The Democrats have a history of choosing the wrong man at the wrong time. They have simply repeated the mistakes of the last election.
The soul of Americans is aspiration. Trump represents success. The dreams most Americans strive to achieve. Trump plays that part well. Beautiful trophy wife, rich, successful. It matters not if its not real. Like all celebrity culture, the electorate simply seeks a bit of it to rub off on them. It may be childlike but Tump knows the right buttons to press. Biden looks positively downbeat, too much like them in comparison to Trump’s upbeat glitter. Americans love glitter. Intellectual rigour is not an ordinary persons concern.
Four more years of a moron in the White House is incredibly depressing. The damage he will do to the world is incalculable. Dark times are with us and more ahead. I see no sunlight uplands. We just have to live with it as best we can. One day the worm will turn.
Perceptive comment. Thank you.