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© US National Archives; Dwight D. Eisenhower at Grand Rapids Campaign Event

interviews

The Evolution of Brand Presidents

by Ciara Torres-Spelliscy
December 13, 2020

This interview with Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a Brennan Center fellow, professor of law at Stetson University College of Law, and author of Political Brands, was conducted and condensed by franknews.

frank | You wrote a book recently about political brands, and in it you talk about the "rebranding of corruption." What does that mean?

Ciara | The Roberts Supreme Court has systematically redefined what counts as corruption, both in campaign finance law and in white-collar crime. The Roberts Court has made the definition of corruption so incredibly narrow that almost nothing counts as corruption anymore. And the people most delighted with what the Roberts Court has done, are corrupt politicians. 

Are there examples of politicians taking advantage of the narrowed down scope of corruption?

Just this spring, the Roberts Supreme Court decided the Kelly v. U.S. case, better known as the Bridgegate case. Bridget Anne Kelly, who worked for Governor Chris Christie at the time, used her influence to close down most of the George Washington Bridge, and she did it for a really petty political reason: she was trying to get back at the mayor of Fort Lee, who hadn't endorsed Chris Christie for re-election. By closing this bridge down, she created traffic that was so epic it backed all the way into the town of Fort Lee. She lied about the bridge closure. She had been prosecuted and charged for commandeering the public bridge essentially for private use. But when her conviction was appealed to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court wrote a unanimous decision that said that “not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime.” So she did not go to jail.

Another example is Bob McDonnell. He was the governor of Virginia. There was this businessman who wanted to sell tobacco-based pills to the employees of the government in Virginia. And the governor sets up all of these meetings for the businessmen. Meanwhile, the businessman gave the first lady of Virginia high fashion clothes, he gave the governor a Rolex, he gave the governor money.

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This was not that subtle. But when the Supreme Court looks at the case, they decide that the governor’s setting up meetings for the businessmen to pitch the tobacco pills is not an official act. And because it's not an official act, there was no quid pro quo. And thus no crime was committed. I think the McDonnell case is another instance of the Supreme Court so narrowing what a normal person thinks is corrupt. Most people would think that this businessman who keeps on giving money and gifts to the governor of Virginia is wrong, but the Roberts Supreme Court does not have a common-sense view of corruption.

Do you think that the rise of money in politics, or the narrowed rebranding of corruption, has set us up for what you call "brand presidents?"

One of the reasons I got interested in branding in the first place was that most of the money spent in politics is spent on advertising. The millions of dollars gathered by PACS, or super PACS, in large part, goes to buy ads. And Trump is just sort of the most extreme example of this, but arguably we've been electing presidents as brands since at least 1952.

Eisenhower was the first candidate to really use television in a successful presidential campaign. He literally gets Madison Avenue ad executives, or Mad Men, to help him with his 1952 political campaign. And they use the same branding techniques that companies would use in a commercial branding situation — repetition, short, clear messages, one idea per ad, with catchy tunes. They really packaged him. One of the things I concluded after writing that book was that, maybe with the exception of the 2020 election, the candidate who was more willing to be merchandised, won the election.

Eisenhower runs against Adlai Stevenson twice and crushes him both times. Adlai doesn’t believe that the presidency should be sold in the same way that a bar of soap is sold. He once said, “This isn’t a soap opera. This isn’t Ivory Soap versus Palmolive.” Eisenhower, by contrast,  was willing to be merchandised with songs like “I like Ike.” 

Obama was willing to be merchandised – his hope posters, the music videos around him, the whole “yes we can” spiel was very clever and very effective political branding. Besides Trump, Obama was the best political brander that this country has ever seen.

Do you know just how much money was spent on advertising in this last election cycle? Is that an increase from the previous cycle? Does increased advertising make it easier to craft a "brand" president? 

Much more money was raised and spent on advertising during the 2020 presidential election than the 2016 election. The Wesleyan Media Project, in conjunction with the Center for Responsive Politics, estimated $1.5 billion was spent on TV, digital, and radio in the presidential general election between April 9 and October 25. In 2016, these same sources found that Trump and Clinton spent $295.9 million combined. Increased spending on advertising has bolstered the ability of both major party candidates to brand themselves and their opponents. 

Merchandising or commodification of a political figure is something that supersedes any campaign finance changes that came from Citizens United. Do you see them interacting with each other at all?

There are times when political branding and money in politics interact and make each other worse. For example, I think it is easier for extreme positions to generate funding. If you’re fundraising and your stance as a Republican is that you will never compromise with the Democrats, or if you are a Democrat your position is that you will never compromise with the Republicans, you will find an audience for that. That's one way of fundraising.

But I think the forces causing political polarization in our country are much bigger than the campaign finance system. Take the ridiculous information silos many Americans place themselves into, for one. Almost all of us have done this. If we are left-leaning, we want to see news that confirms that thinking about things in a liberal way is the correct way. If we're conservative, we want conservative media to echo all of our preconceived notions. We are in these very different information silos that make it very hard to have a shared view of reality.

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How do these silos affect our understanding of politics? 

One thing that struck me while doing this research on political brands was that anything could be normalized with enough branding, and anything could be pathologized with enough branding. By branding, I mean the purposeful repetition of a word, a phrase, or a logo until it gets stuck in the mind of an audience. 

We are seeing both of these things occur after the 2020 election. Trump is pathologizing democracy right now by repeating over and over that the election was stolen. He knows that if he repeats a word or a phrase, it will penetrate his audience. He pathologized the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller by repeatedly calling it a hoax, and a witch hunt. He is doing the very same thing with democracy itself right now, which is very dangerous.

You can also normalize anything with branding. I think that's what Trump tried to do with COVID-19. He tried to downplay it. His messaging was almost always about how it's less serious than it is, how you should get back to work, and how you shouldn't let it take over your life. For certain populations who got their news all from conservative sources, who listened to and believed Trump over the past four years, they were much more likely to fall for the lie that COVID-19 wasn't a real problem. 

Does there seem to be an asymmetry between the two silos? The liberal media attempts to adhere to traditional liberal values – which calls for balanced media, time for the other side. Conservative media doesn’t seem to feel that need, Trump’s brand is based on a willingness to tear it all down. 

Danielle Citron writes about there being a liar's dividend. What she means by that is lying is easy. You can literally just make things up. Sticking to the facts can be difficult, especially if the facts are complicated or if telling the truth literally takes hundreds of pages. A lie can be pithy. A lie can be effective, especially if it appeals to an audience's pre-existing biases. Saying to Republican voters that the 2020 presidential election was stolen is a very seductive lie. It plays into their worst conspiratory fears, and it plays into their suspicion that the only way they could have lost was if the other side was cheating.

The truth about the 2020 election is much more complicated. The truth is we have federal elections that are run not just by the 50 States, but by localities within the 50 States. There are different technologies that are used state to state, and in some cases, county to county. There are different election laws that apply in each of the 50 States. They had different rules about who could have a mail-in ballot. They had different rules about early voting. They had different rules about signatures. When you're trying to describe what happened in the 2020 election, it's very hard to do it with nuance in a quick way. A lie — that it was “rigged” — is much easier. And I hope the press gets better at holding everyone to the same standard and not paving an easier path for lies for one side of the partisan aisle. 

History and context take time – which much news doesn’t have apparently. 

Yes. That actually makes me think of the racial reckoning that we had this summer. For a couple of months, it seemed that Americans were starting to have conversations about structural racism, which is something that doesn't fit very well into soundbites. For a while there, there was some actual introspection. People could actually process the horror of George Floyd’s killing and have some historical discussions about race relations in the United States. And then that devolved into a debate around the 2020 election about whether the term "defunding the police" was productive for the democratic side electorally. Young activists on the street won’t have the image-makers and advertising Mad Men to help them craft the perfect focus-group-tested message.

None of these topics like race in America that are rich and complicated and have a context and a history are ever going to fit into a soundbite. 

It will always be seductive to try to have a slogan for fixing race relations in the Americas, but I hope we have more moments of introspection, more moments of learning history and we can actually build some empathy so that we get out of these stupid information silos that we put ourselves in. At some point, political branding loses some of its power if regular people recognize it for what it is: a means of manipulation. Branders tell you what you want to hear so that they get something in return whether that’s your attention, your money, or your vote.