Let’s talk about the Republican brand. An unpleasant subject, I know, but well worth watching as it turns rancid.
Marketing has always been a strength of the GOP. They don’t do policy at all, and they’ve stopped even paying lip-service to reality. But they’ve always had a singular knack for mass manipulation.
From Lee Atwater to Karl Rove to Roger Ailes, the party has long been a showcase for brilliant but bent marketing talent, people who understood their target audience and knew what messages would resonate.
Those messages have always been deeply fraudulent, and for good reason. They know they can’t tell their audience the real story. The one about who they are and what they stand for.
Because the real story is tax cuts and deregulation, nothing else. That’s what they want their brand to be about, but it’s a lousy product. Nobody with a net worth of less than $10 million has any interest in it. So rather than promote it, they’ve had to put up smokescreens to divert attention away from it. Those smokescreens have grown — especially in recent years — increasingly haphazard, nonsensical, and unworkable.
Which is a marketing nightmare, because the target audience for the brand is now split into two very different — and mutually exclusive — demographics.
The first is, metaphorically speaking, the WASP-y, suburban country club crowd — that rapidly vanishing breed we associate with the traditional GOP. They still ostensibly control the party, along with its elected officials and most of its money. But their rank-and-file voters, fed up with the party’s ever-steeper descent into depravity, are abandoning them in droves — mostly out of embarrassment. They’re finally seeing what’s in front of their eyes, bless their hearts. If only there were more of them.
The second group is much larger, and much more gullible. It’s that strange coalition of evangelicals, white supremacists, and gun nuts — the fabled Trump base — who do the actual voting that keeps the party in office. Among the things they have in common — besides racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny — is their total indifference to tax cuts (which don’t really affect them) and deregulation (which they can’t spell).
For decades, the first group kept the second one voting their way, mostly through a devil’s bargain: In exchange for those remarkably uninformed votes, the party made sure to keep the culture wars well stoked. Through a variety of fears, outright lies and any scapegoat that was handy — immigrants, Black people, gay people, feminists, and so on — they were able to successfully harness a lot of seething resentment and corrosive anger, and use it for nefarious purposes. Witness the Capitol insurrection.
As marketers, we’re taught that a brand and its attendant messaging should be aligned with the overall brand strategy. The trouble for the GOP is that the brand strategy keeps slipping inexorably into craziness, taking the messaging with it.
What is that strategy, anyway? When Joe Scarborough — talk show host and ex-Republican congressman — famously called his former cronies “the party of stupid,” he was actually on to something.
Because the GOP’s strategy — unwritten, as far as we know, but no less toxic — is to leverage the stupidity of their base, to turn that stupidity into anger, and to turn that anger into votes. It’s not clear that this is sustainable.
The underlying assumption is that the target audience is irredeemably ignorant. That they’ll believe anything. That they can be infinitely manipulated. That they can be reprogrammed to change their beliefs on a moment’s notice. That they can be taught to ignore their own interests and subscribe — literally, as well as figuratively — to outright lies.
The messages that flow from these assumptions are mostly a deranged mash-up of fantasy and received anger. I’m sure you all have your own favorites, but here’s my partial list:
- Democrats are evil. They are the party of pedophiles and, even worse, socialists. The checks they send you can't be real money. Their vaccines will kill you and make you sterile, in that order.
- Being white is an entitlement. White people are free to do whatever they want, to whomever they want. Non-white people are not.
- Voting is reserved for white people exclusively. No voting bill is too racist, cruel, or absurd to sign into law, preferably in front of plantation paintings.
- Guns are fine, in any quantity, of any caliber. The second amendment extends to all must-have home defense weaponry, up to and including surface-to-air missiles.
- Donald Trump is the only politician who has ever told the truth about anything.
- “War is peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
With messaging like this, it’s no surprise that their audience is dwindling, or that cheating is their only path to continued power.
So the question becomes whether the target audience really is as stupid as the party thinks it is. Or, more to the point, will that audience learn to better identify and buy into its own interests?
Specifically, will their dread of the deep state extend to not cashing checks that arrive in their mailbox? Will they be able to withstand vaccination when their families won’t let them near their grandchildren without one? Will they refuse to accept a smaller monthly premium for their health insurance? Will they continue to ignore weather catastrophes as they become distressingly frequent? Will they ever see that their party, with its wealth-centric agenda, has made their lives, their livelihoods, and their lifestyles immeasurably worse?
The likely answers to these questions are not promising, and I hesitate to give this audience the benefit of any doubt. From all evidence, they are easily as dense as the GOP thinks they are.
So the party will have no choice but to keep pandering to them. They have to keep the devil’s bargain going, while suppressing as many non-white votes as they can.
As marketing strategies go, this is iffy. It’s possible that they’ve backed themselves into a corner, and that their tactics are so transparently cynical that they’ll keep hemorrhaging voters well into the future.
But that said, they remain lavishly funded and openly villainous. Which means we’d be insane to underestimate either their corrupt intentions or their voters’ malleability.