Trump Is Having His Chinese Democracy Moment
January 23, 2023
As a child of the 80s and fan of heavy music, I was very excited. There was no more anticipated album in the MTV era. It was billed as the magnum opus of iconic rock and roll mega stars. Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy was going to be a sonic masterpiece–light years beyond anything the band had recorded. A genre defying release. GN’R was coming off the massive success of their back to back releases of Use Your Illusion 1 & 2. Could they shock the music world again like they had done in the 80s with their debut Appetite for Destruction? Would they be the Rolling Stones for Generation X?
The music world was changing with the dominance of the Seattle sound and image. The L.A. hair scene that GN’R came out of was dead by 1994. The Aqua Net teased and cocaine drenched decadence of the 80s came to an almost screeching halt with the success of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Rock music would no longer be dominated by intoxicated shenanigans with groupies champing at the bit to suck off a little piece of rock stardom. Music was important, and the misogynistic fairytales of men in makeup were now aurally unacceptable and visibly buffoonish.
After 14 years, and an estimated budget of $13 million, various firings and quitting of original members, coupled with the addition of various new instrumental virtuosos, Axel Rose, the remaining original member of GN’R released Chinese Democracy in 2008. It debuted at number 3 on the Billboard top 200, then sales fizzled. The hype train couldn’t continue to carry the band like it had in the decade prior. The debaucherous tales that made them music media darlings were now embarrassing tales of over bloated music industry excess. Guns N’ Roses wasn’t entirely finished after the massive flop that was Chinese Democracy. They reunited in 2016 having one of the most successful concert tours of that year. But something had been lost.
If hype in marketing is all about having simple solutions and overblown promises, then maybe that helps explain the rise of Donald Trump on the political scene during the 2016 presidential election. In 2012 it seemed a foregone conclusion that Hilliary Clinton would take the reins from Barack Obama, the first black President and also the first to benefit from a twenty-first century hype machine. Trump appeared on the scene as a disruptor giving a middle finger to the political establishment as his fans cheered. He was a soundbite whirlwind who laid to waste all his political foes within his own party with relative ease.
Trump refused to play any sort of respectability games. It was all bluster and name calling. Like a Jerry Springer guest, Trump ridiculed his political foes on a nightly basis and cable news couldn’t get enough of it. Leslie Moonves, the CEO of CBS, infamously let the cat out of the bag when he said that Trump might be “bad for America” but he was “damn good for CBS.” And this, of course, was very good for Trump. At the core of Trump’s campaign strategy, he simply did what he always did–he became must-see TV. If there’s one thing he knew how to do, it was make a spectacle of himself with grand fictional claims. He was the smartest, the most attractive, even the most fit presidential candidate in history. On the biggest stage imaginable he was able to project his “big boss” persona from the fictional boardroom of network television into the White House. And like Bernie Sanders on the other side of the aisle, he latched onto a powerful sense after 50 years of neoliberalism that something was deeply wrong with our society and both parties were part of the problem. While Sanders, a long time socialist with a well-established worldview, campaigned on concrete reforms that would help redress the deterioration of Americans’ material conditions, Trump was an established brand who didn’t need to do more than radiate a general sense that he was a populist. “The Donald” had been in the national spotlight since the early 80s, when he’d started popping up in tabloids and in the society sections of more respectable newspapers. By the time Gremlins 2: The New Batch came out in 1990, featuring a real estate tycoon named Donald “Clamp” with striking similarities to Trump, everyone got the joke. He even floated himself as a Presidential candidate in Pat Buchanan’s Reform Party in the 2000 election. But the breakthrough that mattered most for the persona he’d carry to the White House was that of a problem solver who brusquely told people that they were fired. He cheerfully admitted to being part of the corruption of politics, donating to politicians to curry favor with them, but his pitch was that only a tyrannical insider like him could drain the proverbial swamp.
Where Barack Obama had branded himself as an avatar of Democratic Party politics–safe, reassuring, and competent–Trump was positioning himself as a comic anti-hero of the working class. The realities of Trump's great wealth and his massive failures in running his businesses were equally irrelevant. He was seen by millions of people as both a populist hero and a symbol of success. Trump was able to create and build on controversy and hype like no other political candidate I’ve witnessed in my lifetime and maybe even in history. But, as we come closer to the 2024 presidential election, Trump’s time in the political spotlight may be coming to an end.
President As Brand
Trump campaigned on the image of a ruthless tycoon. With a media infrastructure designed to generate engagement on emotional programming and controversy, Trump delivered in spades, and he was rewarded in kind with literal billions in free advertising. The social democratic policies proposed by Bernie Sanders were extremely popular with Americans but they just weren’t as exciting as the name calling and outright racism of Trump. His Make America Great Again (MAGA) sloganeering, was symbolic for many Americans disenfranchised with the same political promises they had experienced before. Obama promised Hope and Change but the forever wars didn’t end and it was business as usual for the ruling class. The hopes of a disenfranchised working class were seeing rhetorical victories on debate stages as Trump took on the far more conventionally qualified Hillary Clinton. Brand Trump, with the help of a sea of bipartisan media voices, was up to the task. Mainstream and even independent left media was laser focused on Trump’s rise. We couldn’t get enough of his insults or his racism. He presented himself as a David fighting the Goliath for the most coveted position of power in the world, and he slayed the giant.
“Barack Obama is three things you want in a brand? New, different, and attractive. That's as good as it gets.” -Keith Reinhard, Chairman Emeritus, DDB Worldwide
We couldn’t envision reality show star Donald Trump as a sitting United States president without the ascension of another marginally qualified presidential candidate that came before him, Barack Hussein Obama. Winning Ad Ages, Marketer of the Year in 2008, brand Obama was perfectly constructed to follow the bungling war criminal George HW Bush into the White House. With not even a full term as a Senator, he wowed audiences with Kennedy-like speeches and midwestern charm all wrapped up in a professional-managerial veneer. His ethnicity would bring America into a post racial paradise. His Harvard Law review intelligence would give us an adult in the room who could delegate us out of a financial disaster and possibly out of stupid wars that his predecessor had led us too. As Stacey M. Zavataro says in her 2010 article, “Brand Obama: The Implications of a Brand President”:
“With the overreliance on branding and marketing, the president--in this case, Obama–could slip into a hyperreal simulation. He becomes not an actual leader, but an image of a leader. He becomes not an actual statesman, but the embodied image of a national brand. He becomes not a political campaign model, but an image-centric candidate model. It is this third implication that could be most dangerous for public administration, as simulations are rarely held accountable for actions.”
Unlike Obama, who’s branding allowed people to project onto him images of respected presidential brands like Kennedy, Trump imagined himself as an authoritarian dictator–even as, in practice, he wasn’t even able to run his own White House. His revolving door of cabinet members and staffers was a dramatic contrast to the smooth technocratic presentation that was Brand Obama. Once the “feel your pain” campaign language got him into the White House, his mission to continue to literally sell the MAGA brand to his small but dedicated legion of fans while ignoring the people he was theoretically there to serve would eventually be his downfall. The Trump era will be remembered by very good people murdering a woman in a racial riot in Charlottesville, asylum-seekers being separated from their children, and the truly spectacular mismanagement of a pandemic that has taken over a million lives in the United States alone.
When politics is branding, it turns voting into a consumer choice. Trump in office was an embarrassment for the people who had hitched their wagon to him in the Republican Party. After a series of embarrassments starting with his loss in the 2020 presidential election, even his own family is keeping their distance from the Donald. The January 6th Capitol Riot showed many Americans otherwise willing to laugh along with his antics that Trump was disturbingly unhinged, and his expulsion from Twitter demoted him for a crucial period from his status as the perpetual main character in American political discourse. The reality of Donald Trump was never anything but a dangerous loose cannon who did nothing for his constituency, but everything for the 1%. His act was always distasteful but now it might also be something Trump can’t recover from–boring. If Guns N’ Roses were able to redeem themselves after the magnificent flop of Chinese Democracy, it’s because they possessed something the MAGA brand didn’t have–classic material that was a proven success. Eight years after the failed disasterpiece belly-flopped on audiences, Axel Rose was able to get the 90s era band back together to go on a series of massive tours and re-release their greatest hits to resounding success. MAGA and its leader always lacked substance and a real mission. What imagined era of greatness was America supposed to return to? Working-class fathers who were able to support their families on a single income and buy a house in the suburbs? Please. Trump never supported the kind of economic changes that would have restored that. You never had to peel back too many layers to see that MAGA was just the politics of hate. Like an album that was promised for fourteen years and didn’t deliver, Trump’s time in the White House will forever be a colossal embarrassment.
Trump will run again in 2024 because it’s a marketing opportunity that will once again be lucrative, but don’t be surprised if, when all is said and done, the spectacle of Trump and MAGA isn’t getting a curtain call.