Over the last 48 hours much has been made of the stark contrast in performances at the first Presidential debate by the press, pundits and public across America and around the world. As one commentator aptly stated, watching the debates was like was witnessing two separate conversations taking place at the same time. Issues aside, perhaps the starkest contrast between the two candidates was the clarity of their communications. Secretary Clinton continually brought the discussion back to the moderator’s questions, providing pointed answers that – at worst – have been described as wonk-ish. Donald Trump, whose performance has been widely criticized for its telling lack of preparedness, practiced what can only be described as a snowballing exercise in free association that oscillated between overused sound bites and untimely interjections. As much as this contrasting display is fodder for the 24-hour news cycle and the Spin Room, it’s also symptomatic of the candidates’ brands and their long term strategies for winning the Presidency.
Secretary Clinton has committed her campaign to a proactive message of commitment towards a positive future that builds on the historic gains of the last 8 years under President Obama; she stated the same in the debate. In contrast, Donald Trump has positioned himself as the “outsider,” the “other” and as the champion of those fed up with the “government as normal” as embodied in his catch phrase ‘Make America Great Again.’ It would risk oversimplification to suggest that the former plays into optimism while the latter leverages fear, but their respective positions had huge implications for their performances at the first debate and, as a consequence, who will lead the polls into election day.
The challenge that the Trump campaign brought on itself is that when your brand narrative is constantly defined in reaction or opposition to something else, it is easy to abdicate your responsibility to lay out a clear, alternative plan. Instead, a candidate (and especially one new to politics) can get great mileage by simply tearing down, demonizing or criticizing the status quo. Donald Trump became famous for this throughout his run to become the Republican nominee. Yet while Trump outdistanced and out-bullied his Republican rivals, the Presidential campaign sets a much higher bar. His many and varied appeals to bigotry, racism, and discrimination that captured the attention of a dark and retrogressive side of American culture and that blinded so much of the media, are unsuitable and counterproductive for serving as President. In short, what got Donald Trump to where he is today will not get him to the Presidency, and the first Presidential debate threw that reality into relief.
Donald Trump’s lack of expertise and fluency in topics that are germane to the role of President and Commander in Chief, as well as his retreat to defensive sound bites and slurs, quickly dissolved into an incoherent message that enhanced Secretary Clinton’s preparedness. The first responsibility of any brand is to lay out a simple, consistent, and scalable narrative that inspires its audience to work towards a common goal based on shared values. At the level of Presidential debates this is magnified tenfold given the historic numbers of viewers and the predilection of the press for headline-worthy sound bites. Trump’s lack of coherence was indicative of a “winning” strategy that came at the expense of others, whether that be Secretary Clinton or the subjects of his disdain. In contrast, Secretary Clinton’s “winning” strategy stayed squarely focused on the well-being of all individuals that call the United States home.
Ultimately, every organization is an expression of its leader, for he or she is the prism through which the entire community’s intellect, creativity and passion is projected. The first Presidential debate serves as a cautionary tale that the divisive and reactionary narrative authored by Donald Trump (and reluctantly endorsed by the Republican Party) may yet cost them both far more than the election. The incoherence that Trump demonstrated this week, and continues through the debate post-mortem, now permeates the Republican Party as it struggles to align with its heritage, unite the Party and authentically endorse its Presidential nominee. As a result, it’s not just the second debate that presents as challenge, but rebuilding the party for 2020 and 2024 as well.
Image via Flickr courtesy of user Rich Girard at https://flic.kr/p/KMkVtL
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