Trump’s stranglehold on the Republican party stems directly from the remarkable connection he’s forged with his base. This affinity stems not from Trump’s astute choice of intellectually resonant issues, but rather from the way he made his supporters feel—it’s the emotions he elicits that drive his popularity. In the Trump-supplicant arrangement, the agreement on specific issues followed the emotional connection, and not the other way around.
Americus Reed, a professor of marketing at Wharton, has a name for this type of relationship between a brand and consumers: identity loyalty. Reed describes identity loyalty as the “marketing utopia” where the consumer develops a deep connection with “a brand you fervently believe in, a brand you use to express yourself, and one you would recommend to friends.”
Identity loyalty, Reed says, “is when a product, service, organization, or person is internalized as part of a consumer’s sense of who they are.”
And that is Donald Trump’s secret sauce.
“Trump’s skill,” Reed told me, “is really creating identity loyalty in his rhetoric and branding/symbols.”
Such connection with consumers, any marketer will tell you, is incredibly difficult to achieve. But when forged, Reed explains, it can be remarkably powerful, leading followers into motivated reasoning, where they “see the world in ways that are consistent with what it is that [they] want to believe.”
The startling power of motivated reasoning was demonstrated in a 2012 study from Monika Lisjak and colleagues at Kellogg School of Management (she’s now at Arizona State University). Typically, when consumers are exposed to negative comments about a brand, their view of the brand is likely to go down.
But what Lisjak discovered was that in the specific circumstance where a consumer (a) has a strong connection with a brand; (b) has a weak sense of who they are (“low implicit self-esteem”); (c) has just been prodded by the experimenter to think about positive characteristics about themselves (“self-activation”), this consumer is apt to evince more positive views of the brand after it’s been criticized.
In other words: Identity loyalty is bulletproof. And more. Attempts to dislodge it often have the perverse effect of intensifying the follower’s connection to the brand.
This business school theory is uncannily—actually, exactly—what we’ve seen with the Trump phenomenon.
This all happens because, as Reed explains, the appeal to the target consumers is fundamentally emotional, in a way that’s completely intertwined with their identity. Which is why this connection can then become impervious to facts. Once a brand becomes enmeshed with personal identity, Reed explains, “Feelings rule the day and data takes a back seat.”
He notes that decisions that arise from emotions “feel” more authentic then those arrived at through rational deliberation, and tend to be held more tenaciously. Moreover, because the brand “now is part of the target market’s identity,” the consumer will “defend it at all costs.”
What does this mean for Republicans going forward?
First, it means that anyone trying to recreate the Trump magic by emulating his policies is likely to come up short because those issues are largely besides the point.
Second, Trump’s relationship with his target market—and thus his influence—is likely to persist after he leaves office. Over 70 million Americans voted for him and Trump will continue to use Twitter effectively to reinforce and intensify his emotional relationship with this audience. Whether or not these people agree with the specifics of what he says, many will continue to savor the way he says it and feel personally empowered through his words.
Third, the fact that Trump lost means that it is possible his influence could wane over time—but the attrition is likely to be measured in years, not months, as the attention of his loyal base becomes gradually diluted over time.
What does it mean for the rest of us? America probably dodged a bullet because Trump lacked the impulse control to run a more effective campaign. At his core, Trump seems driven primarily by an insatiable drive for praise and adoration. What if the next Trump is strategically minded and seeks revolutionary political change?
It seems unlikely we can, or should, rely on existing institutions, and bet the Republic on the wisdom and courage of journalists and politicians. The media, in lavishing so much uncritical attention on Trump in 2015, allowed his brand identity to gain a foothold; the GOP, in largely forsaking integrity for expedience, as Politico’s Tim Alberta has relentlessly documented, continues to enable him, even today.
Another thing that won’t work: Efforts to cleave Trump from his supporters that focus primarily on policy. This approach overlooks the underlying emotional affinity Trump elicits, and the extent to which his supporters see themselves expressed in his visceral outrage. Criticism that focuses on deficiencies of Trump’s policy—however accurate—may perversely draw his supporters closer.
A potentially more effective approach, according to Stanford business school professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, an expert on power and leadership, isn’t to refute Trump so much as supplant him, by “finding or constructing an overarching identity that brings people together.”
Pfeffer’s point is that each of us have “multiple identities,” and “the empirical question then becomes . . . what identity is salient at any given point in time?”
Intergroup conflict, Pfeffer notes, is “one way to make a particular group identity salient and provoke in-group favoritism and out-group derogation. The genius of Trump was constant conflict.”
The approach of coming together around a common “enemy” is familiar, of course, not only in politics but in business—Steve Jobs famously united the different divisions of Apple around fighting the “evil empire” of Microsoft, Pfeffer reminds us.
COVID-19 would seem to have been a perfect common enemy and (as I’ve argued) should have been—“but instead,” says Pfeffer, “Trump used it to divide rather than unite.”
A unifying strategy seems especially difficult to employ today, Pfeffer says, “because of the echo-chamber nature of modern communications,” and the concomitant focus on—and unreasonable effectiveness of—activating a base by accentuating differences.
But America, and Americans, have also grown weary—tired of a pandemic that won’t end, tired of divisive politics, tired of feeling angry and upset all the time.
We contain multitudes. Divided as our country may seem, we also yearn deep down to come together and experience once again our shared sense of community and mission, dedication and accomplishment. We are ready—more than ready—to heal together.
The question is whether Joe Biden—or some other leader—can articulate this shared vision in a compelling, salient, emotionally resonant fashion that pierces partisan division, speaks to our common needs, and connects with our better natures.
Without leadership that activates us emotionally, and elevates us collectively, we risk being rendered further asunder.
And 2024 is just around the corner.