What is Donald Trump Tapping Into?

DonaldTrumpLet me just state, as I begin this post, that I am not interested in generating a bunch of political commentary. So please refrain – can I get a hearty Amen?

What I do want to do is muse a little bit on the phenomenon of the popularity of Donald Trump. Particularly, his branding as a candidate.

Why is his message resonating? And why is he generating such passion (pro and con) during this presidential election season?

I think it has to do with clarity of message. And particularly, I believe Trump’s messaging is tapping into one of the most powerful drivers of human motivation: Aspiration.

Americans like to win. Many Americans feel that America has been on a losing streak (and perhaps they have, too, as individuals). Trump talks about winning.

Americans are often attracted to strength and boldness. Trump projects that. His charisma wins him followers, and also wins him enemies. Strong leaders are OK with polarization. The more noise the better.

Americans want control and security, and feel that the country has been adrift and is even being lawlessly invaded. Trump says he’ll fix that.

Americans tend to hate inertia and inattention in leadership. Trump is running against that (whether or not he can actually fix the Washington D.C. logjam, the idea sure sounds appealing). He promises action. Make America Great Again.

Americans are patriotic. Many citizens actually don’t want to become like other nations. Make America Great Again.

Americans regularly (as individuals and as a nation) aspire to greatness. What is Trump promising? Make America Great Again.

Americans often aspire to a return to the good old days, when things were better (the rose-colored-glasses memory effect). Trump: Make America Great Again.

I think this is why, even with all of the appalling negative baggage Donald Trump carries, he is being looked to as the leader “for such a time as this.” He is staying relentlessly on message, and the message is very clear – I’m the one to lead you out of this desert, into the promised land you aspire to (and if you don’t aspire to that particular promised land, you’ll hate him, and you can then be marginalized as “stupid”).

It’s become clear that anyone branded as “the establishment” is going to have a rough go of it this year (Jeb!? Nope!). But not only because of voter anger. It’s also voter aspiration.

(By the way, Bernie Sanders has managed to pull off the same stunt. His message is clear: the entrenched powers have stacked the deck against us; it’s all unfair; and I’m going to fix it by deconstructing everything and giving it all away so we’re “equal.” Totally unrealistic and thoroughly unhinged, but still, aspirational – who, at some level, doesn’t aspire to “fairness” in society?)

Personally, I don’t buy any of it. I’m a substance guy (policy and character), and Donald Trump’s unfixed principles and unhinged personality concern me greatly. But I do admire the branding. I do respect the clarity. He’s made himself a lightning rod, and that’s what moves people (for or against). It does grieve me that marketing can win out over substance in something so crucial as national leadership. But that’s the power of a clear message aimed at the bullseye of people’s felt wants and needs.

People rally around a clear message and a (seemingly) committed personality.

Let’s learn a lesson from the communication strategies we see unfolding. Why is Donald Trump, the very flawed person, getting away with such a popular run? He is speaking to the heart, and keeping it simple and aspirational. He’s not diving deep into technical jargon. He’s going to fix it. He’s going to make a better future. As marketers and businesspeople, there’s a lesson here for us as well.


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