American elections have always been about branding and never once about policy. To see that in action, just look at our country’s very first election. Not the election for the first presidency, no, look to that first election where we chose to cast off the yoke of Britain to become a new nation. Look to the election where the votes were cast in bullets and blood.
We’re all familiar with the revolutionary slogan “No taxation without representation.” This slogan, among others, carries on to this very day as rallying cries for people invoking the god-like moral high-ground of the Founding Fathers. This is a phenomenal use of branding.
Remember, the founding fathers denied representation to a vast, overwhelming majority of their fellow Americans. Only land owning white males were allowed to vote, excluding women, the poor and middle classes, and slaves. On top of that, since representatives were divided up based on population, those who lived in areas of the highest concentration of poverty and slavery held more power with each individual vote.
The oft-bemoaned Electoral College system was created expressly to preserve slavery. The oft-beloved Second Amendment existed to crowdsource the existence of a military designed to be turned against the American people in events like the Whiskey Rebellion. The Founding Fathers concentrated a great deal of power into a small number of people while cheering populist propaganda.
“No taxation without representation” was true in all the ways that mattered. Those that could vote, saw that they were represented. Those that paid taxes yet could not vote… could not vote.
Skip a couple centuries, and we find ourselves facing two parties with very different approaches to branding. One focused on their brand, and the other focused on their actions. Brand. Always. Wins.
A look at post-election polls shows that Donald Trump’s victory was largely squeezed from the same voting block as previous Republican Candidates. And you can easily see why when you consider his close adherence to the pillars of the Republican brand: Business, Small Government, and Christian Values.
Proving that a candidate is pro-business is easy. Any rich man that says they are must be. The rich are inherently seen as pro-business. There are buildings and companies which bear their names. Success, failure, and investment growth rate matter not. Policies matter not. All the matters is the having of vast amounts of wealth.
Small Government is another easy one to stick by, and this is made much easier by having no experience in governance. Trump was not burdened by the usual contradictory evidence that follows most Republican politicians. Governments tend to grow during Republican presidencies and shrink during Democrat administrations. But, having never governed, Trump could not face that criticism. He has promised to shrink the government drastically. The popularity of the agencies he intends to cut matters not, his promises maintain the brand identity of “small government.”
There are only two Christian Values in America: Opposition to abortion and hatred of “the other.” People have argued that charity is a Christian value, but that, too, is branding. Watch American Christianity, and you will find that they have no dedication to charity. This is where Republican brand support finally touches on race. “The other” for white Christians is all brown people, all non-Christian religions, and all foreigners. This is less true for black American Christians, who have a single, overwhelming other: whites, in general, and Republican whites in specific. Catholics of all national and ethnic origins hold the opposition to abortion so sacred that the concept of “the other” applies only to “baby killers.”
Trump, during the course of his campaign, never slipped off brand in his messaging. He not only maintained dedication to these three pillars, but he was also unassailable upon them. Yes, he cheated small businesses regularly. Yes, he’s a fraudster. But he’s still rich. Repeated sexual assault is the ultimate “small government” statement. Being above the law shows that the law is unneeded. And, as we saw, his professed values are perfectly in line with American Christians.
Worth mentioning, Trump also promised “change.” That’s going to be important later, because that isn’t Republican branding: that’s winner branding.
Hillary’s campaign, however, was a disaster. (To borrow one of the President-elect’s favorite words.) Democrat pillars are harder to pin down, but — for her campaign — they largely fall into three pillars as well: feminism, prosperity, and policy.
Feminism is a very hard flag to fly for an election. Support for abortion rights and reproductive health is important to winning support for feminism, but — in the age of intersectional feminism — it’s a very hard thing to prove you are a feminist. In addition, Hillary made the mistake of assuming that American women were mostly feminist. They are not. Look at the women passing nude photos of Melania Trump around saying “she’s the first lady now, well she doesn’t look too ladylike!” Supposed feminists cannot even agree on what feminism is, using it as a pillar of a campaign is playing with fire.
Prosperity seems like an easy thing to prove. Eight years of job growth. More Americans with healthcare than ever before. Healthcare costs far below cost projections from before the ACA. These are all great pieces of evidence for American prosperity, but that’s the problem. Prosperity has to be argued and proven, and every American feels that they have not prospered. They can look to the things they cannot afford and feel oppressed by their poverty. Billionaire Peter Thiel said it best when he said that single-digit millionaires don’t have fair access to the American legal system.
No one believes a message of prosperity. Everyone considers themselves poor compared to how rich they could be.
Finally — and this is the second most important lesson — never build a brand pillar on policy. All policy may be argued. Policy is a thing people argue about even when they agree. When you attack the effects of policies — like whether this or that program will promote growth — you have already lost. Policy is easy to attack, and each policy’s merits must be proven. It is completely impossible to create a policy that is immune to attack in a one-sided conversation. And remember, most conversations about any election with be one-sided. A commentator will speak about you, end of story. Never rely on opponents to accurately represent your policy.
Brand. Always. Wins.
This brings us to the final and most important brand decision that any candidate can make: always be a “change” candidate. Even if all you want to do is continue policies. Even if all you plan to do is appoint the old guard to old guard positions. You must always be the “change” candidate.
Americans are unhappy. In many ways, this is for the same reason that no American should hitch their electoral wagon to “continued prosperity” or “continued legacy”. Americans are steadfastly unhappy. This is never going to change. Unhappiness is at the root of our society. Largely, this stems from our pursuit of money as the ultimate measure of success and goodness, but it cuts deeper. We seek accomplishments, but, as many have pointed out, the satisfaction of accomplishment is fleeting. You will always want to accomplish more. To quote the popular musical: “You will never be satisfied.”
Given this deep-seated and incurable unhappiness, candidates must always promise “change” above all else. Change is a great promise. It’s easy to own. It’s hard to disprove. Heck, the very nature of life means that, yes, something will change. Even the most dedicated effort to stop change will fail. Life always changes, so why not make that a promise?
Change always wins.
This election, the Democrats — with their talk on facts and policies — were so focused on being right that they never focused on being marketable. As with our very first election, the revolution where we voted with blood and bullets, this election was not won or lost by action, it was decided solely by the brand.
Brands: Not just for cattle, sodas, and slaves.