Well, here we are. Donald Trump is the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for President of the United States. No one thought it would come to this. Not the inside-the-beltway crowd, the punditocracy, RINOs, the odds makers. Nobody.
And now everyone is offering their reasons as to how and why they could have been so wrong. You can find answers both exculpatory and ridiculous. But the overriding sentiment on display appears to be that Trump was and is a different kind of candidate, in different era, and wooing a body politic quite different from what pollsters once used to vet their projections.
Whether you hate or love the guy, you must admit to his unquestioned ability to speak to a considerable swath of the population — the angry, disaffected, left-behind voter scarred by the considerable downsides of modernity, that being a global economy that pits workers in the US with those in Dubai or Beijing or Mumbai or Kuala Lumpur. The flattening of salaries for unskilled, even semi-skilled labor that has come with globalization won’t change. Or it seems unlikely to regardless of who becomes president, whether we build walls or impose tariffs or deport the millions of illegal aliens currently doing jobs no one else is willing to perform at current market rates. Doing those things may have other consequences, but it won’t revive the declining prospects of the working middle class.
What interests me in this discussion is Trump’s branding and how readily it speaks to the many who feel disenfranchised by the system in one way or another. Make America Great Again says a great deal without saying anything at all. It presupposes a golden age, a decidedly brief period of time when the middle class in America was expanding, American hegemony was unquestioned, unions wielded considerable negotiating power that improved salaries of many beyond their membership rolls, and the overall tax rates were about double or nearly triple what they are today. Basically, somewhere between 1950 and 1970 or thereabouts. We’ve been wanting to go back there for quite some time. Since then it’s been pretty downhill for many working and middle class Americans in terms of salaries, opportunity, and the like. The internet has only exacerbated the pace of change, making it simpler to outsource everything, whether it’s manufacturing smart phones, reading X-rays, proofing legal documents, or everyone’s favorite, customer support whereby someone in India tries to help you make sense of your billing nightmare or shipping snafu.
Trump promises to do things differently. Make deals. Get on the phone with Putin. Tell Ford to quit making trucks in Foreignville or else. Whether this is credible or not is beside the point. His brand, his celebrity, his wealth, his unbridled willingness to do it his way, a truly different way, is the source of his appeal. And with that, I give you (knowing full well anyone drinking a double latte cappuccino will be spewing it out of their nose upon seeing it) a Trump poster that captures what HE says he is and what his supporters believe him to be: Outsider. Difference Maker. Change Agent. Rebel. Iconoclast.
This adulteration of Apple’s powerful ad campaign grew out of my reading of George Orwell’s Collected Essays, a great read by any standard. But more to the point, Orwell understood that words matter and that propaganda only serves the interests of those who proffer it. Advertising, indeed perhaps all art, is nothing but propaganda. And in the right (or wrong) hands, any tagline attached to a positive can be readily expropriated for its opposite and drive many to discover their darker angels.
People in the ad business, perhaps very few, have the wherewithal to say no to opportunities to put food on the table and shirts on our backs. But how carefully do we assess the impact of our efforts? In a ridiculously connected and interdependent world filled with ridiculously disparate and independent belief systems, how much faith can anyone have in the planet’s future when anyone can exploit the emotive force that all advertisers seek to tap, understand, and transform into enticements for purchase?
I don’t know the answer. But I do at times consider that the many creative souls in the advertising business once found employment extolling the merits of their God and are now at the beck and call of the marketplace (they used to call this mammon). Does this keep me from writing copy for a client? Well, so long as the client isn’t the Klu Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party, or the Tobacco Institute, then no, it doesn’t. Yet I don’t spend time peeking behind the curtain to see if every potential client’s business practices align with my sense of what’s right or wrong. What I learned from Orwell is that in some measure the comfort of the 1st world relies on the dreary existence of those laboring in the 3rd world. And as the global economy expands, you will continue to find residents of the 3rd world living in the 1st and vice versa. I can only hope that the differences between the two will diminish over time. I’m not too optimistic.
Perhaps knowing what’s right or wrong has become increasingly difficult to discern. Who honestly has time to evaluate the facts behind the curtain of any politico’s campaign platform? Each has a wealth of data and argument to support his view. The torrent of information hasn’t made it easier for anyone to evaluate the truthfulness of what this or that candidate claims. And so this is where we find ourselves: everyone firmly convinced that their facts are the right ones and the other guy’s facts are just wrong.
Can Trump Make America Great Again? No. Not because he can’t but because the phrase has no meaning without context, definition, or specificity — traits his campaign cannot share because doing so would be to rise above slogans, offer facts, and present a vision that by its very nature will not fit on the front of a ball cap. But in an era beset by a bewildering amount of data, conflict, despair, income disparity, and raw anger — the simplicity, promise, and emotive force of a ball cap slogan will find heads to adorn everywhere.
©2016 John Hofmeister
When I'm not writing for clients, I write about things that interest me.