A neuro-exploration of the ever-present bluster of Trump brand, and how Donald Trump effectively used it as a shorthand for choice to the White House
Donald Trump tweeted that Barack Obama will go down as the worst POTUS. President Obama quipped, “at least I will go down as a president” on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” The president was not alone. Mitt Romney, who challenged President Obama in 2012, dismissed Mr. Trump as “phony and fraud.” Several more high-profile Republicans denounced using apocalyptic language to warn others not to choose Trump as their nominee during the primaries or not to cast their ballots in the general election. Prominent right-wing broadcasters from Glenn Beck to Washington Post columnist George Will to The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol asserted that Trump lacked character, values, and experience, and declared that he would put the country’s national security and well-being at redoubtable peril. Left-wing media tried their best to expunge Trump by covering his faulty business records, failed deals, tax evasions, and his salacious past with super models and beauty queens. More shockingly, newspapers that had no permanent address on the left-right scale also reclined in their opulent endorsement to Trump’s rivals both in the primaries and in the general election. Editorial boards of conservative papers such as, the Arizona Republic, the San Diego Union-Tribune endorsed a Democrat for the first time in their century-long history. The heavy reliance on big data journalism, survey and exit polls, powered by sophisticated modeling augured a massive Trump loss.
All along the rousing campaign speeches, Trump made extraordinary claims: mainstream media wants to surrender the constitution, American media is dishonest, media folks are scum, poll numbers do not present reality. One of the handicaps of the twenty-first century postmodern thought is that most election pundits, like most market researchers, have the vaguest and biased notions of what constitutes a nation (or market); a nation (or market) is never made of monolith citizens (or customers). Just as Indians of India do not have the same preferences, tastes, and choices, so do the Japanese of Japan or the Americans of the United States.
Hours after the polls closed, the New York Times reversed its anti-Trump stance when election results percolated early evening. It declared Trump had 91% chances of winning the presidency. The newscasters reporting the results did not know where to hide their numb faces. Election analysts and pundits who based their estimates on their own subjective odds bit their fingernails, silently howled, and ran for cover. After the results were announced, President Obama graciously asserted that all Americans root for Trump’s success to make America great again. Romney sent his wishes, and so did the scores of defectors of the Donald Party. Headlines screamed the day after “major upset,” “unexpected result,” “surprise victory.”
Beyond the presidential victory, the Republican Party secured a majority with fifty-one senators and retained its strong presence in the House of Representatives. State-wide gubernatorial elections also established a Republican majority. Trump’s win showed how little the electorate cared about media endorsements and opinion columns. The barometers of opinion made obvious how they were out of tune with the great swathes of American feeling.
Feeling is an instinct—a conscious, subjective experience of emotion—that cannot be measured in survey forms, self-reports, mathematical modeling, and rational analyses. Also, emotion can be evocative or suppressive; the latter, more oblique, and so more challenging to ascertain. The Trump campaign actually retreated beyond the rational and the emotional. In order to uncover unarticulated forces behind behavior, a new set of glasses are recommended to charter the recondite terrains of the ancient segment of our lizard brain. A unique concoction of neurobiology, cultural anthropology, and cognitive psychology need to be employed to discover the hidden forces that pre-organize the way people behave.
Don MacLean first informed about the triune brain: reptilian complex (lizard), limbic system (monkey), and neocortex (human). If trigonometry, descriptive statistics and polling numbers reside in the realm of neocortex (the new brain) and evocative emotions in the cortex (the middle brain) that we inherited from mammals, instincts, cherished beliefs, and reflexive decisions are governed in the lizard brain (the old brain). The new brain thinks, the middle brain feels, and the old brain decides. Though humans like to think they are rational beings, most times they have no awareness relating to nonconscious behavior, and the reason why they make the choices they make. The more outspoken ones would rationalize their irrationality, but why people do what they do, and how they related with Trump’s no-policy campaign is pre-organized in the lizard code.
Having the richest experience in politics, spending millions in election campaigns, or conceptualizing the best policies to address nation’s problems does not guarantee that voters will vote. Those address the monochrome rational brain. Exciting findings in brain research inform that speaking to the old lizard brain in the simplest of language and in the most authentic means triggers passion, decision, and action. In the book “How the Brain Works,” brain scientist Leslie Hart states, “much evidence now indicates that the old brain is the main switch in determining what input will go and what decisions will be accepted.” Dr. Joseph LeDoux in “Emotional Brain,” points out that amygdala—located in the old brain—“has greater influence on the cortex than the cortex has on amygdala, allowing emotional arousal to dominate and control thinking and decision making.” In other words, the lowly orders of our organism are in the loop of higher reason and cognition.
With all this scientific evidence, the challenge in sales, marketing, and branding is how to address a four-hundred million year-old brain. While all candidates were debating various issues from national security to green energy and educating inner-city America, Trump was engaged in piloting an emotional movement; mesmerizing the American lizard.
Donald Trump couldn’t articulate his political stance though he ran on a Republican ticket. He is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. He has been a Democrat and also a Republican. He has endorsed candidates or parties on both sides. He threw his weight behind those on the right, like Mitt Romney, and on the left, like Bill Clinton. Instead of appearing as a centrist, he chose to reconcile the right’s losing popularity at an unsatisfactory status quo with a grandiose positioning statement: Make America Great Again. That was his best chance of winning, because the US had seen eight years of a liberal Obama. Bernie Sanders widened the playing field, introducing a brew of socialism-inspired transformative policies that greatly weakened Trump’s rival, Ms. Hillary Clinton who had more things to worry throughout her campaign from deleting thirty-three thousand confidential e-mails to her slightly manufactured brand identity. Trump was authentic. He spoke his mind. Though authentically dangerous most times in the campaign trail, he effortlessly earned the points for being more openly terrible than any of his rivals. It’s considered authentic that he doesn’t speak from a teleprompter but just wings it. When you’re not making a consilient argument or an elaborate policy, winging served Trump’s purpose. As much it abundantly helped him get under opponent’s skin, it significantly thrills the lizard brain to be liked here and now. The lizard loves such authenticity. And that causes the intoxicated lizard to erupt in chants and cheers that you often witness in religious and liturgical traditions; giving one up to the communal ecstasy of making America great.
People have personalities. Brands have personalities. Nations have personalities. For brands and nations, good maps for charting highways and byways are guided less by hyperrational charts of maximizing utility that economists, statisticians, and strategists believe. In my excursions of practicing the alchemy that happens when brand truth meets consumer insight, I am moved beyond conviction that anthropologists and psychologists hold these charts in spades.
In Freud’s psychology, the ego does its best to mediate between the irrational urges of the id and the moralistic constraints of the superego. Archetypal psychology builds up on Freudian psychology to promise a baroque set of charts to explore into the deeper dynamics of instincts as natural drivers and agents of feelings as they’re felt. Carl Jung said that archetypes, a universally familiar character of unconscious origin, transcends time, place, culture, gender, and age. This notion of collective unconscious that culture has created evolves over time. This cultural unconscious offers a powerful imprint, a reference system that evokes imagery and story, produces meaning and feeling, engenders loyalty and advocacy.
America’s cultural adolescence informs Trump’s core market segment in a wide variety of ways; the very same theme showed up in nearly every American discovery session I have made in my brand consulting engagements. Americans never had to kill an emperor; we only rebelled against one and shut the door on him. Perhaps for this reason, our rebellion never terminated. The US never produced a world-class classical composer, but we exported thousands of rock and rap artists. We sold sugar and cola syrup in water, violent movies, fast food, high-energy sports and made more icons than anyone. Our celebrities encapsulate this adolescence: Mike Tyson, Michael Jordan, Elvis Presley, Tiger Woods, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bill Clinton..the list is endless. If Michael Jackson did not want to face the reality of his age that he boxed himself up in an oxygen chamber, Tom Cruise jumped around Oprah Winfrey’s set, hopped onto a couch, fell rapturously to one knee to profess his love for Katie Holmes (who are now divorced). If we look at Trump’s supporters through this set of glasses we see the lizard’s trappings of deep-rooted adolescence. Bill Clinton was a political genius, not for his understanding of world problems, but for his ability to resonate to with American cultural unconscious. Donald Trump, like Bill Clinton, is the perfect adolescent president. Trump’s adolescent rebellion showed in myriad ways: 1. I do not want money from special interest groups; 2. our political system is rigged; 3. the media people are dishonest; 4. immigrants can’t kill American people; 5. we make stupid trade deals with China.
Let’s ignore the illegal immigrants who have jumped the fence, even legal immigrants who have not been assimilated to American cultural unconscious wouldn’t understand Trump. And, Trump did not need to embrace them in his target audience. He was trying to fish from a pond that will supply him many fishes to outdo his opponent who was preaching “togetherness” in a culture that worships individualism, anti-authority, and freedom. Now let’s look at his brand communication strategy.
Words have been around for forty-thousand years; prior to that, man’s communication was limited to grunts and gestures. Written words have been around for ten-thousand years. Old brain is thirty times older than written words. In an era of one-hundred-forty-character tweets and ten-second TV sound bites, Trump’s fourth-grader language and colloquial vernacular resonated with a broader swath of voters than his highfalutin opponents. His vocabulary was filled with simple words that impel divisive emotions like “huge,” “terrible,” “beautiful,” “stupid,” or punchy, direct phrases like “all talk, no action,” “low-energy,” “take their oil,” “build a wall,” or “she’s nasty.” Though the educated may suppose a continued decline in the complexity of political speeches, the lizard brain doesn’t understand drawn-out exegesis nor was Trump targeting Ivy League professors. He was persuading the Iowa corn farmer and the tattooed Milwaukee motorcycle gang member using unbridled emotion, not sagacious reason. He was talking New York style; a type of language that can be perceived rude, offensive, or even dangerous. For instance, a person from Seattle would say: It looks like it may rain. New Yorker: Oh, shit! As if I needed that goddamned rain on my noggin. Trump’s New York speaking style was a mistake to speak outside New York, but soon the Midwesterner understood and Trump also toned down his brusque enunciation. His short sentences began and ended with strong words almost like a perfect copywriter of a Fifth Avenue advertising agency. Millions of people bought the Trump brand for what it said about themselves to others midway through the campaign.
Who are these millions of people? As media ofttimes portrayed a rally pugilist or a white supremacist, the true Trump supporter comes out of conservative tradition but she is not a traditional Sunday church-goer. She is the archetype American Trump coveted to fish. She is inspired by Ronald Reagan, but does not get her news from Fox Broadcasting Company. She is not wearing three-inch stilettos on the streets of Tribeca. She is in her comfortable sneakers and lives in Topeka. She is not listening to Beyonce’s contemporary R&B or Kurt Vile’s lo-fi brew of alternative country. She loves the angst of hard rock or stuck with Appalachian folk of yore on her iPod. She is not the one who will enthusiastically stand in line to participate in a survey or post a Facebook selfie update with a “nasty woman” hashtag. She will rather go to the Trump rally in the Michigan cold. She is not a jingoist, homophobe, or a dummy, though some are. She is the slightly spoiled white girl who relates to experience rather than is not swayed by the lame-stream media. She clearly does not want the government to shove her health insurance down her throat, for she loves autonomy, freedom, and individual choice. She may not have the aptitude to go to graduate school. She is a freewheeling country girl with abundance of attitude. Let’s remember that attitude is more consequential than aptitude to bring about any change or progress. She has been dubiously asking herself where American exceptionalism exited since the day President Obama was elected. She recently woke up from an eight-year nightmare to miraculously believe that privilege and respect were two shakes of a lamb’s tail the day Trump sits on the throne.
Believing is a old brain task; seeking is the duty of the new brain. Politics, like religion, belongs to the realm of belief. Belief gives two hoots about evidence. When the red-hot button of the lizard brain is switched on, Trump’s supporters can be tone-deaf to his unbounded vulgarity, knowledge-free authoritarianism, and ingrained misogyny. A lawyer takes a side out of sheer belief, and then diligently seeks evidence to build the case. On the contrary, a scientist diligently seeks evidence first, and then draws upon a thesis after multiple experimentations. People vote like lawyers; not as scientists. The chimera of the fiercely independent American everyman’s belief reigns supreme every four years. Perhaps that’s also the reason why among the four-hundred-and-thirty-five members of the House of Representatives, we seldom find a microbiologist or a chemical engineer.
Captivated with the apparent logic of pithy observations as “it’s not media which matter, it is what men do with media,” Trump manipulated media the way media manipulates the public. Instead of being the subject of the news, he became the news. Trump, a salesman, above all, of Trump, singlehandedly turned media around; he did not require Lady Gaga to strike a note in Omaha nor Katy Perry to sing his praise in Montgomery. When you are on your way of hypnotizing the cultural domain of the lizard brain, why bother splashing some culture with hip hop music in campaign rallies. Most below-average brands do, and so did Trump’s rivals.
Hillary Clinton should know American Presidential campaigns are not about ideas; someone needed to remind her that she was not running against Jeb Bush. Presidential campaigns are about the finding of a hero who incarnates the fantasy of the masses and finds a way to make it burgeon. Though he might have seemed like a twisted caricature of every reflex of the right, Donald Trump addressed the prevalent pain of national decline in tweet-like prose to capture the cloak-and-dagger lizard of the millions of forgotten and anxious white people who leaned slightly right or left of the political spectrum. Trump awakened something that Americans felt they did not have. What thing? As a street preacher would, Trump reconstructed their worldview that America was not as great as she could be, and peddled to them that he will make her great again.
Trump’s brand is a brand of bombast. He says a lot in blunderbuss style. “I built the greatest hotel, the greatest golf course, the greatest casino, and wrote the greatest business book.” He believes what he says. The paradox of Trump is that he knows “The Art of the Deal” was written by a ghostwriter, he does not own the greatest hotel or casino, but he says it the way he says because that’s just who he is. Heroes are narcissists. Heroes believe in themselves. It is that enormous self-belief that makes others believe. Trump believes. It is that lizard-kicking belief that made scores of American believe. Tell me seriously, if your money were at stake, wouldn’t you take Trump? He’d come with an aggressive first offer: deport all the illegal immigrants. At the end of the negotiation, he’d make a more sane deal, but still win.
As a brand strategist, I am distinctly impressed how Trump positioned himself to trump America’s lizard. I also understand the semantic tricks or techniques that were, in effect, supposed to demonstrate how the American voter was made to believe America was frail, fragile, and fatigued, and that he is the wall builder who will resolve the immigration plague; the superior dealmaker who will remedy America’s trade woes; the guardian angel who will revive the US. The truth however is Trump is a blowhard billionaire with mixed-up political ideologies who funded his own campaign to seize power before an imminent collapse of the Republican Party; a pathologically impulsive salesman who fortuitously keyed in to the lizard’s vault. As the president-elect, I wish he improves his short-attention span, begins speaking a language that of at least a sophomore of high school (definitely not as a New Yorker), and truly makes America united, prosperous, and more innovative.
As a postscript, I must announce I prefer free enterprise and favor deregulation and privatization. After having lived in large metropolises such as Chicago, London, and now New York City, it should not surprise the reader that I am socially liberal. I am neither left nor right, but all the better for it that you want to call the radical right-center. Since neither of the candidates appealed to my political stance of true progressivism, I inform the reader of the objectivity of this piece.