Two insightful articles about Trump have recently caught my eye. The first in Politico, Michael Hirsh wrote about how Trump rebranded the GOP in his own image. The second in Fortune, Jeffery Pfeffer wrote about the role of strength and success in leadership. Hirsh argues that Trump’s campaign success is only plausible because the Republican party has lost its way.
The party has been unable to put forward convincing programs for the issues it supports, but has been clear about what the party is against: taxes on the rich, terrorism, Obama-initiatives, and keeping the government running. According to Hirsh, there isn’t a clear, consistent message on what they are for and why their opposition will lead to problem solution. In that space is Trump, whose solutions directly address problems facing America. His position reads as follows: keep jobs at home with use of tariffs, protect jobs by removing illegal aliens, prevent terrorism by disallowing Muslims entrance into the U.S., build an awesome military to intimidate enemies and protect the veterans and the “real” needy.
In my opinion, Trump created a Republican subcategory. I’ve often argued that the only way to grow in the commercial space is to create must haves that define a new subcategory, manage that subcategory to success, and be the only or leading option in the new subcategory. Winners enjoy being masters of a subcategory versus engaging in my brand is better than your brand competition. Examples of this in the automobile category are the Chrysler minivan which for many years held the minivan subcategory, the Prius which owned the hybrid subcategory, and Tesla which has a stronghold on the electric car subcategory. Just as in those examples, Trump has defined a new subcategory and managed it so that it is preferred by a large segment over traditional Republican conservatism.
Pfeffer argues that people select leaders who are successful and strong, even though they believe and say that they prefer more humanistic leadership styles. He says success provides a powerful halo effect – a successful person or organization is attributed a host of nice attributes. People like to be associated with a winner, whether it is a football team or a presidential candidate. Strength reinforces the success image. That is why, according to Pfeffer, men are selected over women and taller men over shorter ones. Trump has positioned himself solidly as both a successful and a strong leader.
Pfeffer also notes that a successful, strong leader is given a lot of slack. A person will tend to rationalize an uncomfortable statement, obnoxious style, bad decision or the championing of an ineffective program as either unimportant in the grand scheme of things or as something that other leaders do too. These insights, if true, suggest that whether Republican or Democrat – there are three tactics a challenger can take to compete with Trump.
The key is to realize that it is not about “my candidate is better than your candidate” but that our subcategory is better than yours. The messages intended target is not the hard core Trump supporter, but those less committed in the voter base.
First, burst the success elusion. Point out failures such as Trump University and his casino bankruptcies. Make a point that much of his fanatical success is based on a licensing model in which a team of lawyers give others the right to use the Trump brand – a model that will not transfer to running the U.S. government.
Second, make clear that his subcategory is defined by ideas that aren’t really practical solutions at all but, rather, illusions. Building a wall, exporting 11 million illegals, engaging in a modern day Smoot-Hawley trade war, preventing Muslims from entering the U.S., engaging in torture, and many other proposals will not happen because of they are not feasible politically, financially, legally, and/or operationally.
Third, argue that an alternative subcategory such as conservative Republicans or progressive Democrats have positive solutions to the problems salient to voters. These solutions have substance, will work, and can actually be adopted. This will be more feasible if there are a few signature programs that are compelling.
Many of the attempts to bring Trump down have been tried without success. However, there can be a tipping point when the accumulation of many efforts come together and challenge the Trump solutions and his qualification as this nation’s leader. The key is to realize this alternative message’s intended target is not for the hardcore Trump supporter, but instead for those less committed in the voter base. Not easy, but it can happen.