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.