Breaking Rules and a Successful Brand: How Trump Won the Presidency
I must admit, being a political science major in the midst of this election cycle was tons of fun. As I am sure anyone else who is pursuing the major would agree, the endless class discussions on the state of the election were far more entertaining than reading a textbook passage about trickle down economic theories for the hundredth time.
But as election day drew nearer, we campus conservatives were looking at the prospect of losing a third straight election. Times got tougher. But to our surprise, Donald Trump pulled off the miracle, the biggest upset since “Rocky” beat “The Taxi Driver” for an academy award, and won the presidency.
Happy days were here again, we laughed and liberals everywhere cried and protested the basic fundamentals of a constitutional republic. What could be better?
But then just a few days later my happiness left me almost as quickly as it came. I was not upset because Trump wasn’t the ideal candidate who represented the constitutional conservative principles that I believe in. No, I had come to terms with that the moment I saw that he was facing off against Hillary Clinton. The reason I was upset was because every political rule that I had spent the last two years studying were broken during that election.
Let me explain. I was honored to be one of the students to participate in an honors level course taught by former senator and former Democratic VP candidate Joseph Lieberman. The course was appropriately named “Presidential Elections” and we discussed the senators in depth experience on the campaign trail with the help of the textbook written by renowned political scientist Nelson Polsby. As I sat down to read the textbook in preparation for class, I couldn’t help but notice that Trump did not abide by one rule within it. It was all obsolete nonsense that no longer had any bearing on the modern presidential election (only a few days earlier I thought it was the holy grail of all things campaign related.) He turned blue states red, he almost lost historically red states, he won Utah by a wide margin despite the fact that Evan McMullin polled in at 21%. He did it all with a very limited organization on the ground, especially in contrast to Secretary Clinton, and none of it made any sense. Like I said, the rules of presidential politics were broken.
So how did he do it? This is the main question I would like to address in this article. As someone who has read copious books and articles on the political and entertainment industries (both of which Trump is a member of) and as someone who is studying both of them in school as well, I would like to tell you how Donald J. Trump became the most unlikely victor of the presidency of all time.
Like him or hate him, about 16 years ago Bill O’Reilly published a nearly prophetic book called — you guessed it, The O’Reilly Factor. In the book he discusses at length a number of encounters he had with Donald Trump. One of which provided great insight as to who Trump is as an individual. The two were attending an entertainment event and as friends they sat in the same luxury box. At a certain point Trump decided that he no longer wanted to sit in the comfort of the private suite, but rather he was interested in going to sit amongst the crowd. O’Reilly couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Why would a famous reality TV star want to be swarmed by the audience as opposed to staying put and enjoying the event as they had been up until that point? It was based on his knowledge of Trump and their many public appearances together that Bill claimed that Trump was addicted to the spotlight, obsessed with his own fame, and unable to tame his desire for more of it.
It was clear to me after reading that story why Trump ran for president. He had the fame, he had the money, it was now time to get the power too. Parenthetically, I take comfort in this. Since I am fairly certain that Trump cares about nothing else other than padding his name in the history books, I can only assume he will work with the GOP Congress to pass as much reform as he possibly can, just so history will refer to him as an active and easy to work with president.
O’Reilly then posed a further question where he asked why people were so infatuated with this billionaire who seemingly had zero connection to them and their lifestyle. He provides a fascinating observation that suggests that people are enamored with him specifically because they admire the life he lived. People are impressed with the concept of getting away with trading in his wife for a newer and younger one every few years. People also wish to have their name in golden letters on a building. They see Trump as a man living the ideal life and therefore love him for it. And he loves more than anyone else the fact that people love him for it. Sixteen years in the future this remains an insightful literary piece illuminating why Donald ran for the presidency in the first place and how Trump garnered the support he did despite not running a traditional presidential campaign. People were marvelling at him and his lifestyle before any official campaign announcements.
When I was reading that passage by O’Reilly, I couldn’t help but feel as though the phenomenon he was describing was one probably rooted in psychological thinking. So I delved into the world of psychology to see what I would find.
In Daniel Kahneman book titled Thinking, Fast and Slow, he does an incredibly meticulous job of breaking down the human mind and analyzing how it works (I highly recommend this read). Over the course of this book he discusses a bunch of psychological fallacies that many of us act upon on a regular basis. One in particular that caught my eye was what he labeled “The Halo Effect.” This fallacy is the human tendency to view someones brand and equate its success (or lack thereof) with the person themselves and all of their personal character traits. Uh… Hello! Donald Trump epitomizes what it means to be a brand. The big gold letters that say TRUMP are all that people needed to see in order to automatically equate him with positive traits. And, in the case of his candidacy, political traits.
This is a man who was in everyone’s living room once a week “creating jobs” for 12 apprentice contestants or raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity. According to Kahneman’s work, people took Trump’s past, and automatically came to the conclusion that he is a capable politician (which those of us who actually study politics would claim is not true).
Not only did Trump maximize his pre-existing brand by putting his name in big letters on his podium instead of a boring campaign slogan. He also created a new brand at the beginning of the campaign one that even his haters have grown to love. “Make America Great Again” was a genius marketing move, and, therefore, a genius political one. His confidence when exuding that message resonated with voters because they didn’t make a distinction between making a country great and making a business great.
I submit that based on both these texts, one personal and one scientific, that many people had decided to vote for Trump before he even opened his mouth (as a matter of fact, there is a good chance that opening his mouth only lost him voters.) And the reason that the experts, news stations, polling statistics, and even my handy textbook didn’t see it coming is because none of those outlets had the ability to analyze people’s perception of Trump on both a psychological and personal level.