Donald Trump can rightly be criticized for deficiencies in a lot of areas, but everyone agrees that he is a virtuoso marketing genius. There has been no marketing force the likes of Donald Trump on the American scene since P.T. Barnum. As evidenced by the fact that he is known to carry a picture of P.T. Barnum in his wallet, Trump takes the comparison as a compliment. Indeed, there are haunting parallels between the public lives of Trump and Barnum.
Starting in his early 20’s P.T. Barnum (1810 – 1891) built his career as an entrepreneur, showman, author and Republican politician (after years as a Democrat). Barnum served as a member of the Connecticut legislature and as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, he also ran unsuccessfully for Congress. However, P.T. Barnum’s real fame came when he moved to New York and became an unabashed entrepreneur and marketeering showman. He created a new form of entertainment which was in essence a “traveling reality show” (of course named after himself) called “Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater.” Barnum primarily sold himself, but he even made money by organizing beauty pageants, flower and dog shows.
P.T. Barnum was considered a master of marketing, due to his innovative and creative ideas promoting himself and his latest venture, even though, at times, he was accused of being deceptive and blatant truth twisting. P.T. had the ability to draw patrons into his shows by giving them a glimpse of something they had never heard or seen before. His response to criticism of hyperbole was to say he simply indulged in the truth, but made it seem more appealing. He defended his exaggerated statements as simply “advertisements” to draw attention to what he was selling.
P.T. Barnum also became an author, with such best-selling books as Struggles and Triumphs and The Art of Money-Getting. What a coincidence that Trump became an author with books such as The Art of the Comeback and The Art of the Deal. Not to forget Trumps ever popular treatise Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life.
Until the arrival of Donald Trump, America had not seen such a successful self-promoter as P.T. Barnum. But even P.T. Barnum didn’t have the ego to attempt to promote his way into the presidency. He knew what he was and described himself as “I am a showman by profession and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.” He admitted that his personal aim was “to put money in his own coffers.”
If P.T. Barnum were alive today, he would most certainly tip his hat to Donald Trump for elevating pure self-promoting marketing (hucksterism) to the very cusp of the presidency.
Trump has the right idea but the wrong approach
The truth is that politics is all about marketing. The voter needs to “buy” the candidate. The problem for most politicians is that while they may be good at governing (which is what they want to do), most are totally deficient when it comes to marketing. That’s why you see politicians rushing to hire advertising, public relations and marketing companies to market their candidacy. Trump is just the opposite. He is a maven of marketing who can sell almost anything — especially himself — but he has no clue how to effectively govern; at least under the American system of government.
Trump has a proven record as a successful entrepreneur and corporate CEO, but the structure of business empowers the leader to rule by edict and command; and that is exactly Trump’s style. However, our constitution structures the government in such a way as to thwart the rise of a ruler who seeks to govern by edict and command. Unlike business, where power is top-down, the U.S. government is designed to have power move from the bottom-up. Additionally, power is diffused among three co-equal branches of government – legislative, executive and judicial – that is intended to serve as a check-and-balance against the usurpation of power by any individual.
Trump, in fact, has made it the core of his campaign to attack all three branches of the government; portraying them as inefficient, incompetent, intransigent and has individually called out and denigrated the leaders of every branch. Not to mention that Trump has consciously alienated the leaders of his own Republican Party.
The irony is that the criticism Trump levels at the government and the Republican Party is, for the most part, true. And most voters (especially Republicans) agree with the criticisms of “the establishment” thrown out by Trump. By taking this approach Trump demonstrated his remarkable marketing ability to “sell” himself to disenchanted voters as a savior who can make “Make America Great Again.” Trump, like his role model P.T. Barnum, is not afraid to use us exaggeration or twisted truth as part of his marketing strategy. That was evident in Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention when he said, “I am the only one who can fix these problems.”
Given the high odds against Trump securing the Republican nomination when he entered the race, winning the nomination is irrefutable evidence of his marketing genius. The odds against Trump actually being elected president are even higher, but remember the election is about marketing; and it is a mistake to discount the power of marketing.
What if Trump Does Win?
As proficient as Trump is at marketing, he is equally as deficient at governing. Virtually all those who have been elected president spent a lifetime governing. They gained experience at governing by working with, around and through the structure of a government that is intended to resist and reject change. No person has ever been elected president who had not previously worked in government and almost all of them were formerly a state governor, senator or vice-president. The only exception to this rule being those, such as Washington, Grant and Eisenhower, who learned to govern in the military.
Not having the experience of governing would put Trump at a severe disadvantage should he be elected. The Oval Office is not the place to learn to govern. Just as Trump would not put someone in charge of his businesses who has no experience in business, the voters should be concerned about putting someone in charge of the government who has no experience at governing. Especially a government that is structured to thwart the actions of one who believes they are the only one who can make government work.
Trump is an elite marketer, but marketing is not governing and confusing the two is a recipe for failure.