Saturday, August 8, 2015

The First GOP Debate: Trumped!

Our preeminent political reviewer Steve is back to critique the first GOP debate of the season.  Here is his unique take:

For most of the week leading up to the Republican debate, the political literati seemed to revel in their cleverness in observing that Donald Trump was turning the Republican nominating process into a reality tv show.  For starters, this was arguably unfairly demeaning to reality TV shows; the last 17 entertainers competing to be the most recent American Idol were far more ready for prime time than the cast on stage Thursday night. And The Voice certainly knows better than to put all the singers on the same stage at the same time.

But those who felt that they were belittling Trump and the entire Fox event by comparing it to reality TV were missing the bigger point. Dwight Eisenhower famously warned of the rise of the military industrial complex; today, we need to beware of the entertainment/celebrity/political complex. If Thursday proved anything, it is that the person who has mastered prime time television and 21st century branding has an almost unfair advantage over mere career politicians.

The man who brought you “you’re fired!” has a sense for the television moment. And I want to give the devil its due: the people at Fox News created brilliant theatre by designing an opening question that would seem to skewer Trump no matter what he said. When the contenders were asked to raise their hands if they would (1) not pledge to support the candidate of the party and (2) not rule out a third party campaign, Team Ailes seemed to have gamed out that any answer Trump gave would be a disaster. He’d either be revealed as an egomaniac attempting to use the party for his own purpose, or be fully locked into a pledge that he’d already asserted an unwillingness to make. Worst of all, he’d have appeared to have been bullied into backing down on national television by the Foxy Lady.

But this bold “one no Trump” opening bid handed The Donald his “you’re fired” moment. The stunning visual of one strong leader boldly and defiantly raising his hand while nine dweebs fumbled with their pocket change was the photo-op of the evening, not even a full minute into the debate.

Donald Trump may be a lot of rotten things, but he is ready for prime time. He saw an opportunity and he pounced, doubled-down, and didn’t back off. He grabbed the leadership position.

In the world of marketing, defining the leadership brand promise in any given product category is actually not too hard. You have to figure out what the most people want the most, and then deliver it best. Coke promises that it refreshes you best. Visa is everywhere you want to be. These leaders found the most important promise to the most people; and their products thoroughly fulfill by the promise. Donald Trump was not the only one who carved out a clear brand promise on Thursday night, but he may have found the most important one.

In point of fact, a number of candidates did a good job in truly staking out their brand promise. Ted Cruz definitively conveyed that he was the most pure and true conservative. Marco Rubio positioned himself as the candidate focused on the future. John Kasich taught old George W what it might really mean to be a “compassionate conservative.” Chris Christie is a street fighter for the common man. Mike Huckabee demanded to be viewed as the champion of social values.  The candidates who carved out the clearest brand positions tended to be the ones who did the best in the debate.

But having a clear position alone is not enough. Just ask Rand Paul. He made perfectly clear that he was “a different kind of Republican.” This came across in exactly the wrong way: as someone who picks fights with party orthodoxy and who is way out of the mainstream. When Trump told him that “he was having a bad night,” Trump was not only right – he was also projecting that he held the authority to make such a judgment. He may as well have said, “Rand, you’re fired.”

Which brings us to the question of Donald Trump’s brand positioning.

The Donald may have indeed put his finger on the issue that is most important to the citizenry in this moment in time. He has tapped into a very real and very intense frustration in the United States today. He has put voice to the widely held perception that career politicians are a bunch of inauthentic panderers; man-handled by handlers; they are poll-watching talkers who get absolutely nothing done.

When Fox put the very first question on the table, Trump instinctively knew that if he was going to get burned no matter what he said, the real right answer was to disagree with everybody else. That was the picture on the screen: There’s Donald Trump, the only man raising his hand, and a bunch of timid, inauthentic, career politicians, all looking tentative, uncertain, and all looking at Donald Trump.

Sure, Trump stumbled and bloviated and no doubt deeply troubled some people in the base by refusing to step back from the third party threat. He may even lose a percentage point or two in the polls. But he came off as his own man; the big tough guy who is willing to take on everybody in the room. Best of all: Fox could have phrased that first question in a way that would have allowed all other nine guys to raise their hand. Instead, they enabled Trump to stand alone, center stage, the only hand raised, the only man taking action. The man in the arena.

Nobody – certainly not this writer -- is saying that Donald Trump is going to win the nomination. The truth of it is that the primary process generally homogenizes the candidates, either smoothing out their rough edges or finding a way to kill them off entirely. There’s a reason the Republicans end up with various flavors of Mitt Romney.

But while Trump himself might not go the distance, the issue he has identified – the anger with do-nothing, dysfunctional, self-perpetuating politicians – may become the defining idea for this election cycle.

If so, wow. Beware, Jeb. And, yes, watch out, Hilary. If you’ve been wondering why Bernie is drawing those crowds, you may want to think about the fact that The Bernie is your very own Donald, right down to the crazy hair.  

It’s worth a moment to reflect on how recessive Jeb Bush and Scott Walker appeared in the face of Trump’s outsized candor and his comprehensive dismissal of the political class.  Jeb might have appeared quite good last night if you simply read a transcript of the events. Unfortunately for him, television is 90% visual and 10% verbal – and he came across as defensive, whiney, and a bit too eager for validation. Scott Walker seemed to be reading from cue cards the entire evening; lacking verve and muscle, he seemed odorless, colorless and vacuous.

I have not mentioned Dr. Ben Carson, who may have salvaged his one hour and fifty minute disappearing act with a few nice zingers in the lightning round. But my money is that the Republicans will swap out their one minority podium next debate and bring in Carly – who won the kiddie table debate in a runaway.

I will go out on this limb: I think the real winner last night was John Kasich. He had the magnificent advantage of the lowest expectations, and yet he made no apology for the statistical farce that earned him a place on the stage. He managed to be both viscerally powerful and profoundly human at the same time. His immensely graceful handling of a silly question about gay rights proved him to be authentic, caring, and strong.

He may be the fresh face who can carry Donald Trump’s message over the finish line.


  1. Trump is killing it with his stand up routine....Best reality TV ever!

  2. Great analysis of how Trump is leveraging the media. This is entertainment, but of a different sort than Sarah Palin provided in that it is pretty cleverly orchestrated. Capitalizing on the press is here to stay as a factor in presidential elections, but let's hope we get to some seriousness of purpose here. Really great writing, Steve, thanks!

  3. I could not have said it any better!

  4. the clear branding is the donald could not be bought because he is the one who does the buying haha...

    another funny. jeb said he's running on "hope".


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