Identity and values
Brand Despotism: a post-mortem of the Trump regime – Part 3
January 15, 2021
Identity and values
A key element of any brand is its visual identity, such as its packaging design and logo. These often stand in for the product itself. We only need to see the shape of a Coca-Cola bottle or the Nike swoosh to know the company it represents.
Brand despots need a strong visual identity too. What’s the difference between Pol Pot and Stalin? Both were despots who murdered millions of their own people. But we don’t know what Pol Pot looked like. There are only a few blurry photos of him, and we aren’t even sure of their authenticity. His followers didn’t build statues of him and hang paintings in every building. Why not? I don’t know. Maybe because he murdered all the artists. But probably because he preferred terrorizing Cambodia from the shadows.
You can be a despot without being a brand despot. There are plenty of dictators and psychopaths who shun the limelight (Putin, for example). But a brand despot needs attention. They are the kind of evil that thrives in sunlight, or limelight. And they can do so because we don’t see them as evil. We see their enemies as evil. They brand themselves as saviors, as gods even. We worship them.
This is nowhere truer than in cults. The career path of a brand despot is more similar to a religious cult leader than to a political leader. Look at what all cults have in common: They psychologically separate their followers from their family and community; they physically isolate them, often in remote areas; they take their possessions, their labor, or both; they conjure an unconquerable enemy that only the leader can protect them from; they demand blind obedience to that leader, who claims divine powers.
This is in stark opposition to a democratic government, where institutions matter more than personalities, where the goal is to empower and serve families and communities, not eviscerate them.
When Trump reminds us how rich he is, he is signaling his divinity in a capitalistic cult. When he takes credit every time the stock market rises he is like a self-anointed Messiah claiming to have performed miracles. He shunned the White House for Mar-a-Lago, where he could isolate with the most affluent members of his flock, who paid an extortionate price for membership to a country club that was really a cult.
It was no coincidence that Trump was always a narcissistic egotist, even going to the extreme of personally calling magazines under a false name to plant stories about himself. Most property developers are happy to work behind the scenes, but Trump wasn’t really a developer. The asset wasn’t a new building but his own name, his own smirking image in the tabloids.
How many images have you seen of Trump compared to other recent presidents? No doubt many more. He was never comfortable with a press secretary and eventually discarded traditional press conferences because he needed to be the one in front of the camera to maintain his brand. He probably would have put his picture on a postage stamp had he not been so intent on destroying the post office.
The illusion of values
When I do brand workshops for clients one of my first questions is: What are your values? Some people think brand is superficial, but, done right, branding goes to the core of your business. What do you believe? What do you care about? What do you stand for?
The people who run competent, credible businesses have no problem answering this question. Because for them the values come first. The values drive the business, not the other way around. The values serve as a moral compass for their business strategy and decision-making.
Brand despots talk about values too. All the time. Too much in fact. It’s another distraction tactic, to make us think they have values, when in fact they only value their own power.
What were Trump’s values? Did he value marital fidelity, like his evangelical base? Did he value Reagan’s anti-communism? Or the Bushes’ fiscal conservatism? Or McCain’s duty to country?
We were too busy staring at his open palm to see the coin concealed in his fist.