Monday, December 19, 2022

BTRTN: Our Annual Analytically-Based Major League Baseball Hall of Fame Predictions

Occasionally we take a break from politics and turn our attention to weightier matters, such as our annual prediction of who will be elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.  It is a Ruthian task, indeed. 

It’s that time of year again…the votes have begun to be tabulated for the Baseball Writers Association of American (BBWAA) Hall of Fame (HOF) ballot.  The BBWAA voting is underway now and the results will be announced on January 24, 2023.  Each year we at BTRTN analyze the ballot – in-depth, analytically -- to answer two questions: 

1)     Which nominees do we predict will be elected in this year’s voting, receiving at least 75% of the vote of the BBWAA?

2)     Who do we think amongst the nominees deserves to be in the HOF, based on our own analysis (and opinions)?  

The two lists are never identical.

For the first question – our prediction of who will be selected -- we use various statistical models (based on the candidates’ stats and, for those returning to the ballot, how they’ve done in prior years) to come up with an initial estimate of the percentage of the vote they will receive, and then overlay that with a dose of judgment.  For the second question – who should be in the HOF -- we have developed a methodology to compare nominees to their same-position predecessors to determine their “Hall-worthiness.”  (This year we’ve re-tooled that approach quite significantly, which we’ll explain a bit later.)

A few notes before we get into our answers.  First, we are aware that votes for the MLB HOF are again being publicly tabulated, as members of the BBWAA publicly announce them (some do, some don’t).  I have not looked at those tabulations.  The truth is, they are actually not very helpful in making predictions, because the writers who reveal their votes publicly tend to differ quite a bit from their more private counterparts, especially on the more controversial candidates.  So one can easily be misled by the public tally.  So we ignore the trackers ongoing tabulations entirely, and rely on our own analysis.

{Author Note:  This article was first published on December 19, 2022 and has not been revised, of course.}

Second, it is also worth noting that the performance-enhancing-drug (PED) is drawing to a close with respect to the ballot.  The two major poster children of the era, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, had a rather terrible 2022.  First, they were rejected for the 10th and final time on the BBWAA ballot in January (as was Sammy Sosa). Bonds and Clemens were then again rejected, resoundingly, by the Contemporary Baseball Era Committee in December, just over a week ago.  Bravo to the BWAA and to the Committee! 

Let’s see what that PED-push-to-the-dumpster does to the candidacy of Alex Rodriguez, who was suspended for the 2014 season for violating MLB’s drug policy and collective bargaining agreement.  Rodriguez is back on the ballot after securing 34% of the vote in his first shot last year.  I suspect he will be on the ballot for quite some time to come, perhaps for the rest of his ballot eligibility.  

Our custom is to not consider the Hall-worthiness of the PEDsters, for reasons we have enumerated many times -- basically, they violated a clear rule of the game, established by Fay Vincent in 1991, a violation that materially affected the outcome of games and artificially inflated the users' statistics.  We have heard every counterargument under the sun, including those who cite baseball's lax enforcement of the prohibition in the era, and that the HOF is full of sinners, and we reject those arguments and others.  Our view is that the PED players are, ipso facto, all unworthy for consideration.

Unfortunately that general view also extends to the biggest new name on the ballot, Carlos Beltran.  Beltran was not involved with PEDs, but he was the only player named in the official report on how the Astros cheated their way to a World Series title in 2017 (and also cheated in parts of 2016 and 2018 as well).  Beltran was clearly a team leader and a ringleader in the cheating escapade, as he later admitted.  It is obvious that the cheating could easily have been decisive to the outcomes of many games.  So this is a longstanding and material offense, much like the use of PED's.  


We rather immodestly bill ourselves as “The Best MLB Hall of Fame Predictors” (we are quite likely the only ones left now that Bill Deane hung it up after over 30 years of predictions).  Last year was not  our best year, but we did reasonably well, as you can see by the chart below.

The main miss was that David Ortiz did much better than we expected in his first year on the ballot and was, of course, elected to the Hall of Fame, against our expectations.  We thought he might be punished for appearing on the Mitchell Committee’s list of players who failed a PED test.  Most of the PED-tainted players are more surly personalities – Bonds and Clemens head that list – but Big Papi has spent his years since that flap trying to spread sunshine in his own special way, and it surely helped (Jeff Kent, take note).

We did a good job predicting that Curt Schilling, Bonds and Clemens would all fall short in their last year on the ballot.  Most players, when they get as close of those three did in their penultimate ballot, push on through in Year 10, but we rightly figured their sullied reputations would put the brakes on that potential source of momentum.

We did quite well with the rest of the field, nailing a few and coming very close on most of the others.  We were right on with Scott Rolen’s 10-point jump to 63% and almost nailed Billy Wagner’s jump as well.  We did miss by quite a bit on Omar Vizquel’s fall from grace on various abuse charges, but did reasonably well in predicting where Alex Rodriguez would land in his debut.

One thing we did very well was predict total votes per ballot.  We said there would be 7.2 players selected on each ballot, and the final number was 7.1.  That is excellent, as this figure can vary considerably given the strength or weakness of the field.  Not long ago it was common for each voter to make over eight selections on average, though in 2021 it was down to 6.2.  (The writers are not allowed to name more than ten.)

Overall, we were off by an average of 3.8 percentage points per nominee, exactly the same as in 2021, about the same as in 2020 (3.7) and not quite as good as in 2019, when we had our best showing at 3.3.  (We’ve been doing this since 2015.)  Anything under three would be spectacular, anything over five is pretty bad. 

Here are last year’s results:






On to this year!  And here is our most important prediction:  BTRTN predicts that the BBWAA will elect Scott Rolen to the MLB Hall of Fame.  Rolen will be the only candidate to reach the 75% threshold for election, and he will make that with some room to spare.

While some of the stench of last year’s ballot has been removed with the ousters of many PEDs (Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, Ortiz) and other reviled characters (Schilling and A.J. Pierzynski, who was once named the “most hated players” in a survey of MLB players, who failed to clear the 5% threshold in his ballot debut), that hardly means we have a squeaky clean ballot.  We still have some PEDsters (Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez and Andy Pettitte), serial abuser Omar Vizquel, and the clean but despised Jeff Kent.  And, as we have already discussed, the big newbie on the this year's ballot, Carlos Beltran, is tainted as well as a ringleader in the 2016-2018 Astros cheating scandal.  Sigh.

The first chart below shows the complete voting history (in percentages) of all the returning players. 

With the departure of a number of large vote-getters and the arrival of only the controversial Beltran, this is a good year to be a repeater on the ballot.  There is a great deal of vote capacity to be spread around, and it is obvious where it will likely go – to those at the top of the chart, who also happen to be among the “cleanest” names on the ballot.  Expect great upward movement from the first four names – Rolen, Todd Helton,  Billy Wagner and Andruw Jones – in particular.  They all have been on an upswing that continued last year, and, after this year’s jump will all be in field goal range of Cooperstown immortaility.

The next six returnees, however -- Sheffield, Rodriguez, Kent, Ramirez, Vizquel and Pettitte -- are all controversial in various ways.  Their progress over time, while evident, has been slower and, importantly, was non-existent last year.  Vizquel actually took a steep tumble.  In the prior year, more abuse revelations occurred during the balloting, and obviously affected his tally somewhat in 2021.  But the full force of the repugnance took hold in 2022 and he dropped like a stone.

Kent, who’s only “sin” is to be surly, is likely to see an upsurge given that this is his last year on the ballot.   But to jump from 33% all the way to 75% will be a stretch, and so his fate will ultimately be left to a future veteran’s committee.

Apart from Rodriguez, Jimmy Rollins was the only first-balloter last year to survive, and this will be a make-or-break year for him.  If he maintains or exceeds his first-year total, he may be in for a long and perhaps successful run.  You only have to look at the trajectory of Rolen, Wagner and Jones to see where a decent showing could take him long term.  But others, like Mark Buerhrle and Torii Hunter, dipped in their second year, barely surviving a third try this year.

This will be a crucial year for Beltran, as well, of course.  It is a brutal call to offer a prediction of where he may land, given his rather unique backstory.

So, what’s the answer?  Here’s the summary chart of this year’s ballot, including our predictions.  

We have also included in this chart our views on which candidates belong in the HOF.  For the explanations of those ratings, read on.

One thing to note…despite the increased “vote capacity” and the general increases we foresee for many returning players, we do think the “votes per ballot” will drop below six this year.


The second question we ask annually is this:  putting aside what the writers think, who on the ballot do we think is “Hall-worthy”? 

We believe Scott Rolen, who as noted we predict will be elected, is completely worthy of being in the HOF.  We also think that four other players on the ballot should be in the HOF, though we don't think they will be elected this year:  Billy WagnerJeff KentAndruw Jones and Francisco Rodriguez.

To arrive at our conclusions, we use the following analytic methodology.  We compare each player to Hall of Famers and “just misses” (among those whose careers started after 1950) at his position across a number of key statistics, both traditional (hits, homers, RBI’s and batting average) and non-traditional (OPS+ and WAR).  To get a sense of how they were valued “in their time, “ we also look at their number of All Star selections and times appearing in the Top 10 in the MVP balloting (for pitchers, we use an identical methodology but, of course, with various pitcher stats instead).  We show the average statistics for these comparison groups, by position.  So we will compare, say, Todd Helton, to first baseman who are in these four groups:

·        The “top half” of all post-1950 HOF first basemen (using a ranking based on WAR)

·        The “average” of all post-1950 HOF first basemen

·        The “lower half” all post-1950 HOF first basemen

·        The “next ten,” the ten post-1950 first basemen who have the highest WARs among those who are not in the HOF. 

The last two groups define the so-called “borderline” candidates.  Our general feeling is that to be worthy of the HOF, a candidate should be at least as good and probably materially better, on balance, than the last two groups.  Thus, they have to be better than borderline candidates, most of whom are either not in the HOF (the “next ten”) or include at least a few players who should never have been enshrined in the first place, and reside in the “lower half."  (We are not rigid, and you will see, we make exceptions – you will be interested in the discussion of third basemen.)   We also take into account, as a bit of a tie-breaker, a player’s postseason performance.

The big change we made this year was eliminating, for comparison purposes, all players whose careers began before 1950.  The statistics before 1950 have various issues and, with a solid base of players in the last 70 years to draw from, we thought it was time to make the change.  Pre-1950 stats are compromised primarily segregation, full stop.  But other problems include the “Dead Ball Era,” the explosive hitters’ era in the 1930s, the way-above-proportion representation of the 1930’s in the Hall of Fame, the degradation of play in the World War II years, and more.  (We make a few exceptions to keep the comparison groups large enough, including a few players such as Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, whose careers began in the late 1940’s).

Again, we do not include the PED players or Beltran in this analysis.  We stipulate that on the basis of their stats alone, they would make it.


Rather remarkably, there are no catchers on the ballot this year.

First Base 

Todd Helton is an exceptionally difficult case, one of the hardest on the ballot.  You have to take into account the “Coors Field” high altitude effect that inflates any Rockies’ stats.  His OPS+ is down with the borderlines, and, if you break this stat down further, Helton’s home/road OPS splits are 1.048/.855.  The .855 is not Hall-worthy for a first baseman.  But his WAR of 61 is excellent, right in line with the average for HOF first baseman, and WAR is a park adjusted figure.  And yet, his power stats are low, as are his All-Star and MVP votes.  We went to the postseason stats to see if they would help him but, alas, he went 11-66 with no homers and a mere four RBI across 66 games.  This is a real toughie, but our view is that if it is this hard, then we should probably pass.  So…we give Helton a very difficult thumbs down.

Mike Napoli, on the other hand, is an easy thumbs down.  He was principally a first baseman in his career, but he also caught a fair number of games, and DH’d.  But however way you cut it, this is one of those first-ballot candidates, and every year there are too many of them, who, while fine players, really should not be on the ballot at all.

Second Base 

Jeff Kent is the all-time leading home run hitter among second baseman, and is third in RBIs behind Rogers Hornsby and Napoleon Lajoie.  He is simply one of the greatest power-hitting second basemen ever and the best in modern times.  His power numbers dwarf the best of the HOF second basemen, and his OPS, hits and batting average are all right with them.  His WAR is well above the borderline groups.  If he had been a little nicer to sportswriters over the years, he might be doing better in the voting to date.  But he is unquestionably a Hall of Famer.  (By the way, for you Helton fans smarting over our snub, Kent’s home/away OPS splits are .853/.857 – in other words, Kent has a higher OPS than Helton on the road, while playing a middle infield position.)  A total thumbs up.


Omar Vizquel did well in the balloting in his first three years, establishing a voting track record (37%/43%/53%) that seemed well on the way to enshrinement.  But after a series of abuse charge (separate incidents involving sexual harassment and domestic violence), Vizquel plummeted to 24% last year, and it seems unlikely that he will be able to recover.  But, regardless, we have never considered Vizquel to be HOF-worthy.  The only offensive stat he really has going for him, in comparison to the peers, are his 2,877 hits (which he compiled over 24 seasons).  But there is no getting around his OPS of only 82, which settles the matter on the offensive side.  He was an excellent defender, with 11 Gold Gloves, and 129 “runs saved” in his career.  But he was no Ozzie Smith or Mark Belanger, who had 239 and 241, respectively (and even Craig Counsell had 127.)  He made only three All-Star teams in those 24 years and was never a Top Ten finisher in the MVP balloting.  Thumbs down.

Jimmy Rollins stats are largely better than those of the non-HOF borderline group, but they are generally below the bottom half HOF group, in particular his OPS (which is below the league average for his career) and his WAR.  He only managed three All Star selections, though he did win an MVP in 2007.  But the view here is thumbs down.

J.J. Hardy and Jhonny (no typo) Peralta had better careers than I thought, but virtually all of their stats are below the borderlines.  Thumbs down.

Third Base 

Scott Rolen’s case for the Hall of Fame is less about Rolen and more about the position.  For reasons I cannot quite determine, third base is simply underrepresented in the HOF.  And so the “comparison” analysis is not really relevant (though I’ve included the numbers below).

Regardless of position, if you have a Career WAR of 70 or more, you are a lock for the HOF:  57 out of 60 among our post-1950 group of hitters who achieved the mark are in the Hall of Fame.  (The three excluded are Lou Whitaker, Bobby Grich and Dead Ball era shortstop Bill Dahlen.)  Scott Rolen has a WAR of 70.  Case closed.

You also have an excellent shot if you are in the 60-69 WAR range – unless you are a third basemen.  Among that group, 30 out of 38 non-third baseman are in the HOF.  But third basemen are 0 for 4 (they are Graig Nettles, Buddy Bell, Ken Boyer and Sal Bando).  This pattern also extends to the 50-59 WAR group, where the other positions are 38 for 66, and the third basemen are 0 for 2 (Ron Cey and Toby Harrah).  Put the entire 50-70 WAR group together in a chart and it looks like this:


We thought some progress was being made when Ron Santo was finally elected by one of the veteran’s committees in 2012, but the pattern reverted to form when Ken Boyer was shut out last year.  (Tony Oliva was elected!  Compare their stats someday, and while you do, remember Boyer played a glove position – and was superb defensively by any metric -- and Oliva, a left fielder, did not).

HOF third basemen (in our post-1950 comparison group) have an average WAR of 86, which is higher – much higher – than every other position (outfielders are next with 77).   You are talking about a group of some of the greatest players in the game:  Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Chipper Jones, Brooks Robinson, Wade Boggs and Eddie Mathews.  That’s the entire group, and no position has fewer.

So Scott Rolen is not necessarily better than the “bottom half” of this group, but that is comprised of Brooks Robinson and Ron Santo, and I say if you hang with them, you are a Hall of Famer.  Especially if you have a WAR over 70!  Rolen is a clear thumbs up. 


Andruw Jones is an interesting case, with those 434 homers and a 63 WAR that also reflects his outstanding defensive skills.  He had 253 "runs saved" for his career, an astounding number exceeded only by Brooks Robinson.  That is truly impressive.  His relatively low 111 OPS+ is the big knock, but we think the power, defense and WAR – plus five All-Star selections and two Top Ten MVP vote totals -- add up to a thumbs up.

Bobby Abreu is a better candidate than you might think, and another difficult case.  His power stats are above average for a HOF outfielder, but his OPS+ and WAR are borderline.  His stats are almost completely aligned with the bottom half of HOF outfielders, which gave me pause.  I started looking at the other factors, and here his case gets weaker.  He only made two All Star games in his career (though he did put on quite a display in the Home Run Derby in one of those years) and never once was a Top 10 MVP vote getter, so it’s hard to make a case that he was recognized as one of the very best players of his generation.  And he played in 20 postseason games and put up just one homer and nine RBI.  With some hesitance, we gave Abreu a thumbs down.

Torii Hunter, like Andruw Jones, has a similar “great field, solid hitter” profile, but the comparison for HOF purposes does not quite hold.  Hunter was a slightly better hitter than Jones, on balance, but light years away from Jones defensively.  He did win nine Gold Gloves, but unlike Jones, who won 10, modern defensive stats don’t quite back up Hunter’s reputation as they do for Jones.  As noted, those stats reveal Jones to be one of the transcendent defensive players of all time, but try as I might, I could not find Hunter among the Top 250 in Total Zone Runs.  He had fantastic defensive years early in his career but did not match that in later years (and won Gold Gloves off that reputation).  And that ultimately shows up in his WAR, which, at 51, is well below Jones, Abreu and the borderline groups.  All in all, another reasonably tough call, but we give Hunter a thumbs down.

It pains me a bit to see Jacoby Ellsbury, Jayson Werth and Andre Ethier on the ballot.  Fine players all, but none even managed to get to 1,500 hits, which every HOF batter except a few catchers has achieved – it’s basically a price of admission to be considered, and they don’t make it.  Every other statistical marker falls short, too.

Starting Pitchers 

We recognize that the sands are shifting for the criteria to evaluate starting pitches for the Hall of Fame.  Long gone are the days of complete games and 20-game winners, and Justin Verlander may be the last pitcher to seriously threaten to crack the 300-win club (he stands at 244 and won 18 games for the champion Astros last year and just signed a two-year deal with the Mets).  Indeed, Clayton Kershaw (197 wins) and Adam Wainwright (195) may become the last members of the 200-win club next year.  David Price is next on the list at 157, then Johnny Cueto at 143; each are 36 and neither has won as many as 10 games in a season for years, since Price won 18 in 2018 and Cueto won 18 in 2016).  Gerrit Cole, who is 32 and has 130 wins, may have a shot, but he had a fine year last year for a very good team and still managed only 13 wins.  Does he have 6 more of those left in him?

So our comparisons will have to change in light of this, and thus we will deemphasize wins, won/loss percentage and innings pitched in our little chart, and put more focus on ERA+ and WAR, as well as All Star Games and Cy Young Award winners.  If anything, given that starters are now expected to go only five or six innings, ERA+ for starters might be expected to rise. 

Mark Buehrle is certainly one of the better pitchers of the modern era, a member of the now-more-respected 200+ win club.  He hangs reasonably well with the borderline group, which essentially means he is a borderline candidate, nothing more.  But if we are going to accept his low win total, he have to see more elevation in his ERA+, and it is not there.  His All Star recognition is also a bit low, though he won a Cy Young.  He did nothing special in the postseason, despite multiple opportunities.   I find myself being tough on the borderliners, and simply can’t find enough to get excited about him.  So we say thumbs down to Buerhrle.

The other five starting pitchers are all on the ballot for the first time and none of them --  John Lackey, Jered Weaver, Matt Cain, Bronson Arroyo and R.A. Dickey – are worthy of HOF consideration, as a cursory look at the chart with confirm.  At least they all made at least one All Star team and Dickey won a Cy Young in a wondrous year.  Lackey was a durable pitcher and started 23 postseason games, generally outperforming his regular season performance.  We recite these accomplishments because we will not have an opportunity to do so again in this forum.

Relief Pitchers 

There are only 31 relievers who have saved 300 or more games in their careers, including three who are active (Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, who are both approaching 400, and Aroldis Chapman).  Of the 28 retirees, only 8 are in the HOF.  We use 300 saves as a standard – essentially a price of entry to be considered for the HOF -- because 7 of the 8 HOF relievers have achieved that mark.  Only Hoyt Wilhelm had fewer, and he toiled in an era when the term “closer” was not even in use; indeed, the save was not even an official stat (it became one in 1969, very late in Wilhelm’s 21-year career).  But nonetheless Wilhelm compiled a 50 WAR, a figure that has been exceeded among relievers only by the incomparable Mariano Rivera.

The role of closer has also evolved, from a rubber armed, multi-inning stud to a specialist who toils only in the ninth inning.  Yankee HOF closers Rich Gossage, who averaged 1.8 innings per appearance in his career, and Rivera, who averaged 1.2, embody this transition. The closer role may evolve further in the coming years, as managers have started to questions the logic of saving their best reliever for the ninth inning when, say, the heart of the order is due up in the eighth.  So defining what it takes for a reliever to make the HOF is a moving target, and not an easy one.  But we press on with a range of statistics to try to capture the overall sense of what is HOF-worthy.

Billy Wagner’s statistics are amazing, and voters are now finally catching on, as Wagner has advanced in his eight years on the ballot from 11% to 51%.  But time is running out for the BBWAA to finish the deed, and Wagner still has a ways to go in the voting.  The stats are there:  he has well over 400 saves and a 1.00 WHIP that is – incredibly – equal to Mariano Rivera’s (and better than Trevor Hoffman’s 1.06).  His stats compare favorably to the average of the eight relievers in the HOF.  Wagner is a thumbs up – he is simply one of the greatest relievers of all time.

Francisco Rodriguez is not that far behind Wagner, but he is not his equal by any stretch.  He too recorded over 400 saves – more than Wagner, in fact – but his WHIP and his WAR are lower.  But his stats, including his All Star selections and top 10 appearances in the Cy Young voting, hold up well against the average HOF reliever group, and so, without too much effort, I give him a thumbs up.

Huston Street had a fine record but generally below the borderline groups, and so we give him the thumbs down.

That’s it!  We’ll be back after Tuesday, January 24, 2023, when the selections will be announced and see how we did!  Comments welcome, of course.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

BTRTN: Musk, Trump, and Putin… What Happens When an Individual Destroys a Brand

It’s one thing to self-destruct and leave your own personal reputation in tatters. But what happens when your personal flame-out destroys the reputation of a company (or two!), a political party, or an entire nation?

One is among the richest men in the world.

One was once the most powerful man in the world.

And if the third manages to trigger nuclear Armageddon, survivors will say he was the man who destroyed the world.

Just a short time ago, each stood unchallenged, imposing their will, and appearing impregnable in their domain.

Now, in this roller coaster year of 2022, each finds himself in epic free fall, a victim of his own miscalculation, overreach, and blind ambition. Each, a reason why the Greeks invented the word “hubris.” Each learning that the ability to reach an apex in one field of endeavor does not necessarily constitute a transferable skill. Each paying the price for not having a bench of strong advisors who speak truth to power.

As each one sinks, they are wreaking carnage on the brands they are most strongly associated with, and those stains could be devastating and linger for decades.

For a guy who ranks among the greatest entrepreneurs in history, Elon Musk has made a very bad business decision – but it may not be the one you think. Leave it to the MBAs to figure out if Musk overpaid for Twitter. Leave it to the management consultant brainiacs at McKinsey or BCG to tell you that his approach to management makes the bull in a china shop seem sensitive, reasoned, and purposeful.

What may prove far more problematic is that Musk – in making his extraordinarily high-profile takeover of Twitter – appears to have elevated his own personal brand to a higher level of importance, visibility, and consequence than his consumer-facing brands. It’s as if Twitter were to now call itself “Twitter, an Elon Musk Company.” Or if his car company was now known as “Tesla, an Elon Musk Company.”

There’s a reason companies think carefully about aligning their brands with individuals. Ask Papa John’s Pizza. Ask Subway about Jared. Ask Adidas about Ye. If you’ve spent millions making sure that consumers associate your brand with a specific individual, your reward is that your brand rises and falls with every action taken by that individual, for better or worse.

And it is hard to see the “for better” part in Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. In his on-again, off-again corporate raid, he appeared to have expended the same degree of measured thought about the purchase as one might make in deciding to get fries with the burger. His draconian management style triggered a brain drain so severe that questions surfaced about whether Twitter could even keep its platform functioning.  Musk used his social media platform to launch serious personal attacks on Anthony Fauci, insult Elizabeth Warren, and encourage Ukraine to fold its tent and concede territory to Russia.

Whatever method lay in his madness seems to center on the idea that Twitter should exercise no restraint on First Amendment rights, which, for practical purposes, amounted to opening the floodgates to conspiracy theorists, right wing hate speech, Covid-19 misinformation, and re-opening the platform to a former President who used Twitter like Goebbels used the volksempfänger.  

We, as a society, seem to all be comfortable with the idea that there are limits to the First Amendment rights to free speech, which is why we have laws governing libel and slander, and all agree not to yell “fire” in a crowded theater. Why is it that social media companies fail to grasp that virtually yelling fire in a virtual world can result in equally catastrophic consequences? It is immensely ironic: in the end, they appear to not believe that the experience they create for users is real and has real world consequences.

Perhaps it is a simple as this: policing content on social media sites requires a great deal of dedicated and trained personnel, which adds a huge cost to operations. It’s so much more profitable to claim that they are not obligated to spend this money, citing the First Amendment as justification.

But at a far more banal level – simple business strategy – Musk’s approach appears grievously flawed.  Did Musk ever pause to find out who actually uses Twitter? A 2020 study by Pew Research established that the “most active 10% of users produced 92% of all tweets by U.S. adults, and that of these highly active users, 69% identify as Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents.” Yes, Twitter is used predominantly by Democrats, and Musk thinks the best business plan to turn Twitter into a thriving, profitable enterprise is to alienate the people who use it.  

Exercising the power of his personal brand to change Twitter is going to make the Twitter brand worth less. As business strategies go, this is dumber than a box of hammers.

But the stench of his personal brand may be a far bigger problem for Tesla, a powerhouse brand that is now the BMW of the climate-change literati, the place where global warming is taken down by Ferrari-cool. Well, let’s ask the same question: who buys Teslas? The Manual reports that Tesla buyers are not necessarily Democrats (ownership skews only slightly in that direction), but they are definitively upscale and educated – “one-third of all Tesla drivers have either a master’s degree or a Ph.D. (compared to 13% of the general population).” It’s a good bet that such a well-educated and well-heeled clientele would be disturbed to be associated with an individual who is turning a major media platform into a cesspool for hate-speech and conspiracy theorists.

But that’s what happens when the all-new “Elon Musk” brand – which, post-Twitter, wreaks of political extremism, right-wing politics, and incompetent arrogance – is linked with the “Tesla” brand. Suddenly it won’t be so cool to own a Tesla. Suddenly, everyone in the market for an electric vehicle begins to check out what the mainstream brands are doing. Maybe a Nissan Leaf is a nicer fit for the drive to the pilates studio – it runs on electricity and does not wreak the musky odor of right-wing extremism.  

This is not, of course, the first time a super-rich person decided to buy a major media outlet, and it won’t be the last. In 2013, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos purchased the highly influential Washington Post. The difference is that Bezos did not install himself as editor, CEO, business strategist, and public spokesperson. Bezos made the purchase with the goal of perpetuating an admired brand, not changing it.

When considering the relationship between a single charismatic entrepreneur and the huge company he founded, the more instructive parallel to Musk and Tesla would be Steve Jobs and Apple.  Jobs was keenly – profoundly – aware that his own personal actions, style, and decisions could have a huge impact on Apple’s business success. He made deeply purposeful choices about his public comments, associations, political allegiances, his music, and even – perhaps especially -- his clothing. He was keenly aware of the power of his personal brand, and he never wanted it to be disconsonant with the consumer brand with which he was so thoroughly identified.

In contrast, the current Elon Musk brand comes off as a rogue, cavalier dilettante who acts purely on impulse, reveals worrisome political leanings, and proceeds with reckless abandon and arrogant disregard for the people and practices that built Twitter into a highly valued media platform.

Good for you if you made money on Twitter. But it might be a good time to reassess your holdings in Tesla.

Of course, Musk is small potatoes when contrasted to Donald Trump… but some of the same branding principles apply.

Donald Trump very clearly set out with the full intent of subsuming the Republican Party brand beneath his own personal brand. Donald Trump used a Trojan horse – his alleged business acumen – to position himself as a superior candidate on a critical element of the traditional Republican brand… savvy economic leadership. But from the moment he leveraged his claimed financial genius to gain traction in Republican Party politics, he began changing the party’s brand toward messages he could claim as his own. No other Republican dared to be as overtly racist, xenophobic, or untruthful as Trump… but he proved that racism, xenophobia, and deceit were the engines powering the “Tea Party” wing of the Republican Party, and he harnessed that base to stage his first coup: gaining control of a major political party.

Over time, Trump gradually accomplished a subtle but profound branding achievement: he created a powerful sub-brand name within the Republican Party that is wholly and completely identified with him… the “MAGA Republican.” Trump has effectively splintered the Republican Party into two segments. You might say that the Democrats also have two segments, but “centrists” and “progressives” are descriptors, not brands. It is easy to imagine that if Donald Trump does not win the Republican Party nomination, he will formally announce the founding of the “MAGA” Party and become a third-party candidate under that banner.

Like Musk, Donald Trump’s personal branding (both “Trump” and “MAGA”) now operate as separate brands that are overpowering the consumer-facing “Republican” brand. 

The consequence for the Republican Party is profound. As Donald Trump creates horrendous headlines (“terminating the Constitution,” hosting dinners with antisemites and white nationalists, a bottomless hole of legal defeats, and hand-picking disastrous Senate candidates), the party must essentially choose: will it remain one party which Trump exerts unrivaled influence through his personal command of the approximately 35% who comprise the MAGA wing, or must it ultimately splinter into two parties?

For all the discontent we’ve heard about Trump and all the reports of Republicans preparing to run for the Presidency, no announcements have been made. All those wannabees know that it will be very hard to win the nomination in a race in which Donald Trump owns the “MAGA” brand of Republicans. But the even tougher challenge is this: all those same wannabees know they can’t win the general election if they have alienated Trump’s “MAGA” Republicans during the primary process.

The Republican conundrum: the Party can’t win with Trump, and they can’t win without him.

Even more problematic: the Republican Party has lost control of the Republican brand. They couldn’t change its meaning if they wanted to. Today, the words “Republican Party” have been drained of whatever meaning they once held. The party of “law and order” attempted to overthrow the government of the United States, believes a mob attack that resulted in death and carnage in the Capitol Building was “legitimate political discourse,” and steals top-secret government documents. The Party that is “Pro-Life” refuses to limit access to military assault rifles that slaughter innocent civilians and elementary school children. The Party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush is now forced to grovel before trashy conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene. The Party of strong fiscal policy did not even attempt to write a party platform for their 2020 Convention, not did they offer an official policy position for their 2022 campaign season… each an open admission that the Party stands for whatever Donald Trump said five minutes before.

Republicans no longer bother to articulate what they favor, preferring to allow meaning to be inferred from what they oppose: immigration, LGBTQ rights, equal access to the ballot box, a woman’s right to make her own health choices, the idea that Black Lives Matter, and the validity of our elections.

Republican branding, in the age of Donald Trump, is the practice of articulating all the things they hate.

Musk is taking his wrecking ball to a couple of consumer brands, and Trump is wrecking a major political party brand… but give the prize to Vladimir Putin. He is ruining the brand of an entire country… likely for generations.

The injustice, savagery, and cruelty of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine leaves us all in numbed shock. Putin has made civilian casualties an essential element of his military tactics, with the unambiguous goal of crushing Ukraine’s will to continue. Putin’s targeting of civilian residences, hospitals, and schools is, for all intent and purposes, a good working definition of terrorism. 

Why the United States has not formally declared Russia to be the fifth nation categorized as a “state sponsor of terrorism” is baffling. What Russia is doing in Ukraine resides in the same moral universe that caused the United States to publicly condemn North Korea, Cuba, Syria, and Iran.

There will be those who assert that Putin’s aggression in Ukraine is comparable to the misguided military blunders that the United States committed in sovereign nations Vietnam and Iraq. The difference is that the electorate of the United States soundly punished the leaders of these misguided expeditions. Lyndon Johnson became one of the few Presidents to not seek re-election, and George W. Bush, pilloried for his decisions in Iraq, saw his party lose the White House in 2008.

The reputation of the United States was damaged by Vietnam and Iraq, but the overall brand of the United States was not defined by these events.

Russians, however, appear to be utterly incapable of altering the course of Putin’s war in Ukraine. Yes, small caravans bolted to the borders when Putin’s conscription began. Yes, some brave reporters, outspoken civic leaders, and gutsy protestors have spoken truth about the war, but nothing is changing. Most Russians are not willing to take the personal risk to join in protest. To fail to protest such evil is to enable and embrace it. It becomes a part of the essential identity. It becomes the brand.

Russia is Putin, and Putin is Russia. Russians would no doubt prefer to think of their brand in association with historical achievements in literature, music, dance and science. But the longer this war of atrocities lasts, the more it will become central to the identity of the Russian people, the latest installment of a brand historically linked to brutal authoritarian regimes.

Glasnost and perestroika? Two quaint words that will stand as the exceptions that prove the rule. The citizens of Russia had a brief shining moment to embrace a new Russia of free people, to routinize democratic practices and begin the long process of redefining the brand. Instead, they allowed Vladimir Putin to seal their identity for decades as a country ruled by barbarians, enabled by a citizenry whose core identity is acquiescence, abdication, and moral vacancy.

Go for it, Elon, Donald, and Vlad. You have put your personal brands so far above the brands of the organizations you lead that they will not be able to purge the stench for decades. The die is cast: the identities will be etched in stone… Elon Musk’s Twitter and Tesla, Donald Trump’s Republican Party, Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Brands that once held an inherent meaning, now all perversely redefined for the glory of mediocre megalomaniacs. 

That is what happens when an individual destroys a brand… and when an organization allows the individual to do it.


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