It is said that if the only tool you have is a hammer, every solution looks like a nail. That suggests that as a branding guy I would look to answer questions and solve problems through a prism of branding and marketing know-how. If we can take our partisan hats off for a brief moment allow me to explain billionaire developer and reality-TV show host Donald Trump’s head-scratching popularity. Quite simply: it’s not Trump, it’s us. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.
During his travels through a nascent America at the beginning of the 19th century, French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville was very clear on what made us different. “Americans,” he wrote “have all a lively faith in the perfectibility of man… They all consider society as a body in a state of improvement.
“I never met a citizen too poor to cast a glance of hope and envy toward the pleasures of the rich. Poor citizens observed rich ones at close quarters and trusted that they too would one day follow in their footsteps.”
In 2001 Irish philosopher Charles Handy retraced de Tocqueville’s trek across the country and echoed the Frenchman’s sentiment. “Most Americans seem to believe that the future can be better and that they are responsible for doing their best to make it that way.”
So, what does this have to do with Trump’s brand and his inexplicable popularity?
Quite simply, Donald Trump – much like Kim Kardashian and the Duck Dynasty guys – embodies an oxymoronic yet realistic combination of both obvious financial success with the basest and most boorish behavior.
Trump calls Mexicans “rapists” yet has his own private jet. He publically disparages Megyn Kelly’s possible menstruation yet owns skyscrapers emblazoned with his name. He mercilessly mocked a disabled journalist but he’s the star of his own television show. And he calls women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs,” and “disgusting animals” but he’s been married to a trio of beauties.
Nearly 200 years ago, de Tocqueville predicted how Trump would talk. “I doubt if one could extract from Americans the smallest truth unfavourable to their country. Most of them boast about it without discrimination, and with an impertinence disagreeable to strangers… there is a lot of small-town pettiness in their makeup…”
Tocqueville predicted how Trump would talk about minorities (in de Tocqueville’s case, Native Americans; in Trump’s case, Hispanics, women, Muslims, immigrants, and the disabled). “‘In the midst of this American society, so well policed, so sententious, so charitable, a cold selfishness and complete insensibility prevails when it is a question of the natives of the country.”
Tocqueville even predicted how Americans would respond favorably to Trump’s (and others’) attacks on traditional authority, saying that democracy emboldens “in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which always impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level.”
But most tellingly, Alexis de Tocqueville understood that the future Trump’s strength would be that his brand would validate the feelings and sentiments of an unfulfilled constituency. After all, if this rich, successful, and very famous guy was uttering the same politically incorrect opinions that portions of the populace were feeling then perhaps they were right all along. “In America,” wrote de Tocqueville, “a book that does not sell well cannot be good, because the test of all goodness is money.” A billionaire therefore, no matter how blustery and boisterous, was good. And if his opinions dovetail with a poorer person’s, then they must be right too – no matter how distasteful their opinions are to everyone else.
Or as David Brooks wrote in The New York Times on February 2, 2016: “… I do think this has been a period in which many silent segments of society have found their voices, often in shocking and impolite ways.”
Alexis de Tocqueville observed it almost 200 years ago. All we need to do is pay attention.