Are Republicans Facing a Branding Crisis?
The GOP’s deepest brand is white, straight, authoritarian, wealthy & religiously fundamentalist. Their vulnerability is these can be re-cast as bigoted, homophobic, fascistic, greedy & hypocritical…
Institutionally, Republicans know how to brand, or at least did until recently. Democrats don’t appear to, and haven’t for decades.
The result is that Republicans have established a 40-year-long stable and largely consistent brand (at least until recently) while — because Democrats haven’t invested in their own brand — the GOP has also succeeded in branding Democrats.
So, what is branding, how does it work, and why should progressive Democrats take it seriously as soon as possible?
Branding is a function of our deep unconscious, of systems rooted in 3 million-year-old DNA that allowed us, from our earliest ancestors to modern humans, to survive.
And survival throughout evolutionary history has been a challenge for humans: we are more like chimps than bonobos. We make war, not love.
Branding is how we knew, when that information was essential to survival, who’s “our tribe” and who’s “another (possibly hostile) tribe.”
Friend or foe. Safe or dangerous. Us or them.
Keep in mind that we humans are the entire planet’s apex predators: literally every other life form on Earth is potential prey to us, from insects to lions to 40-ton whales. We also — grotesquely — often hunt and kill members of our own species, which is the evolutionary pressure that produced this need for instant recognition of branding.
Human predation ranges from large and bloody examples like Putin attacking Ukraine to more personal but subtle examples like a cell phone company, bank, or car dealer trying to steer you into a product you don’t need but makes more money for them. In between are millions of gradations that make up the entire spectrum of exploitation and crimes against persons and personal property.
The ability to recognize a brand is what keeps us safe from that predation. Which is why brand recognition is wired into us at levels both conscious and unconscious.
At its deepest level, branding is how our unconscious makes quick decisions about who or what’s a threat and who or what’s safe. It happens so rapidly it seems instinctual.
At a more surface or conscious level, branding determines what makes us feel comfortable versus uncomfortable. Familiar versus unfamiliar. It helps us rationalize decisions.
We trust known positive brands, from restaurants to clothing to cars to banks, and are wary of unknown ones. Therefore, the first job of any product (and a politician or political party are both products at the end of the day) is to define its own brand and associate it with comfortable, safe, happy feelings.
Brands are also associative: they link one thing to another. If I say “Toyota” you may think “car.” But if I say “Prius” or “Hummer” you’ll get entirely different types of associations that have acquired political brand meaning.
The most powerful brands link to personal identity: we bind ourselves to these brands as a way of both externally expressing who we are and internally validating our own sense of self.
From the clothes we wear to the place we live in to the car we drive, every brand we associate ourselves with is both an extension and an amplification of our personal identity and — for lack of a better word to define shared identity — tribe.
Which is where Republicans have been masterful in recent years past.
There’s nothing inherently Republican about guns, Country music, or stock car racing, for example. In the era of Woodie Guthrie, in fact, all three of these things — that can all be used as political brand logos — were more likely to be associated with Democrats and the New Deal than with Republican politicians, who were then branded by society as the wealthy elite who brought down Wall Street in 1929.
Even by the era of 1952–1960, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower had no use for any of them. He and his wife preferred to go to the symphony.
Guns, Country music, and stock car racing, however, all have a strong association with straight white men. So, when Nixon and then Reagan rebranded the GOP as the party of straight white people (their shared “Southern Strategy”), their first imperative was to find existing brands that already had strong “straight white” associations and connect to them.
Reagan was the master of this, having learned branding from his years as a pitchman for General Electric. His horseback “western” branding, for example, was so effective that when George W. Bush decided to run for president — although he’s afraid of horses — he bought an old pig farm in Crawford, Texas to turn into his (horse-free) “ranch.”
The multi-millionaire who’d been born of a patrician Connecticut family put on jeans, leather work gloves, and a flannel shirt, picked up a chainsaw, affected a Texas drawl, and transformed his brand into that of a Reaganesque GOP cowboy. And it worked to help him get elected.
The Republican brand (like all brands) exists at two levels, surface and deep.
The surface level GOP brand is widely acknowledged and easily identified: small government, personal freedom, low taxes. Guns, Christianity, and country/suburban living. Pickup trucks, flags, and tidy haircuts.
The deeper brand is what supports all the surface parts of the GOP’s brand, and, like all brands, is where their vulnerabilities lie.
When deep brands — brands that generally operate below the radar screen of conscious thought — are challenged, altered, or damaged, all the surface manifestations of that brand can quickly crumble.
In other words, if you understand the values and symbols that underlie a deep brand and can remove, refute, or diminish enough of them, you can destroy the entire much larger overall brand.
So, understanding that background, let’s get into the recent history of the Democratic and Republican brands and where they may be going as we head toward 2024.
The GOP’s deepest brand is white, straight, authoritarian, wealthy, and religiously fundamentalist. Which means their vulnerability is that these can be re-cast as racially bigoted, homophobic, fascistic, greedy, and hypocritical.
If Democrats are serious about taking on the GOP in future elections, this is low-hanging fruit where they could be directing their fire.
The Democrats’ brand also exists on two levels, but has gone through a major transformation in my lifetime.
During the era from the 1920s through the 1960s, the Democrats’ surface brand was working class, unions, and a strong defense.
Democrats created Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. They passed the minimum wage and successfully fought Republicans to create the right to unionize. Democratic presidents won both World Wars. They were bad-asses back in the day.
Their deep brand was, during that era, also white and straight like the GOP, but they differentiated themselves from “fat cat” Republicans by embracing the concept of fairness for (largely white) working class people. This was expressed through Democrats’ social programs, workplace protections, and strong defenses of consumers and the environment.
But during the 1960s, the Democrats’ brand began to shift.
President Kennedy decried racism and President Johnson passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in his name. He ended race-based immigration quotas in 1965, leading to the rapid “browning” of America. President Obama, America’s first Black president, embraced gay marriage. And LBJ’s failure with the Vietnam War and his own party’s backlash against it shattered the Democrats “strong defense” association.
As a result of those major structural changes in American politics during the 1960s, the period from the 1970s to today has seen the most rapid cultural and racial transition in the entire post-1789 history of the United States.
Democrats, holding to the “all people are created equal” founding principle of our nation and having facilitated many of those changes, embraced nonwhite folks, queer people, and the entire spectrum of faith from Christians to non-Christian religions to atheists.
Inclusion became the primary core value within the deep brand of the Democratic Party. Acceptance. Tolerance. Diversity.
Had Democrats managed that transition like brand managers, they could have brought a large part of America along with them. They could have amplified their earlier deep brand as the advocates for working people (Bernie Sanders exemplifies this: his positions were more ordinary among Democrats during the New Deal and Great Society eras) while expanding their brand to be inclusive of nonwhites along with gender and religious minorities.
But right in the middle of the process — mostly through the 1980s and 1990s — Democrats stopped defining and promoting their deep brand.
In large part this was because of two crises the Democratic Party faced during that era.
The first crisis was the Party’s split with the racist southern Dixiecrats, who were moving to the GOP throughout the 1970s and taking their once-reliably Democratic southern white working class base with them.
The second crisis was Reagan’s successful destruction of American unions (with a lot of help from 5 Republicans on the Supreme Court), which had previously bonded working class people to the Democratic Party and were the party’s main funders.
When Reagan was elected in 1980 about a third of the country was unionized, and working class people knew it was because of the Democrats. By 2000 that percentage had fallen to around 6 percent of the non-governmental workforce, and working class people had begun to believe the Republican pitch that employment security depended on morbidly rich “job creators” getting tax cuts rather than unions representing workers.
Coincidentally, that was when the GOP decided to exploit the aforementioned chaos in the Democratic Party and started their own campaign to brand Democrats.
Rush Limbaugh, with a handful of wealthy backers, rolled out rightwing hate radio in 1987 after Reagan ended the Fairness Doctrine. He began to mercilessly redefine the Democratic Party’s brand for his millions of listeners.
Democratic women were, Limbaugh said, domineering, masculine, and unattractive: “feminazis.” The Democratic impulse for racial inclusion and fairness meant, Limbaugh and his imitators argued, that Democrats “hated” white people generally and straight white men, in particular.
And the Democratic embrace of LGBTQ folks and a wider spectrum of spirituality meant, Limbaugh told America, that Democratic politicians were every bit as evangelical as fundamentalist Christians except that their religion was promoting gayness and satanism to America’s children.
During those years the Democratic Party was also struggling with its loss of unions’ revenue and growing neoliberalism in its brand, which was challenged at the top of the ticket with Bill Clinton’s embrace of austerity economics.
Limbaugh exploited that by offering rapid-fire one-liners to brand-paint the Democrats and their politicians:
“Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women access to the mainstream of society” and, “Women should not be allowed on juries where the accused is a stud.”
“I guarantee there'd be some people in the Republican establishment who will now think, yeah, we need to do this. We need to provide a home, we need to provide a comforting atmosphere for the tranny community and the gay community. But those people are voting Democrat anyway.”
“Take that bone out of your nose and call me back,” he said to a Black caller objecting to his playing Barack The Magic Negro to the tune of Puff the Magic Dragon. He followed it up with: “I think it's time to get rid of this whole National Basketball Association. Call it the TBA, the Thug Basketball Association, and stop calling them teams. Call 'em gangs.”
Soon his one-liners branding Democrats as feminine, weak, elite, and putting the interests of Black and gay people over straight white men, were being echoed across the radio dial by hundreds of local hosts on over 1,500 rightwing hate radio stations across the country, owned and programmed by openly conservative billionaires and the media corporations they controlled.
When Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch rolled out Fox “News” in 1996 these messages rebranding the Democratic Party quickly migrated into millions more homes via television.
Roger Ailes added more ominous paint to the Democratic brand by requiring his producers to mostly book “kooky” Democrats on the show as punching bags for his hosts. His favorites were young new-age-ish women with unusual hair who were barely able to argue a point. Soon even my old colleague Alan Colmes was too “normal” a Democrat for Fox.
Which again explains the necessity of intentional branding, especially for a political party.
This is because the most powerful thing a political brand can do is explain to people “how the world works.”
This was the moment when Republican branding was at its most effective.
Throughout the de-industrialization and de-unionization of America that Reagan started with his offshoring, free trade agreements, and union busting, white working class people in much of the country — particularly the rustbelt — were lost and confused.
What happened, they wondered, to that lifestyle they’d grown accustomed to where a single wage-earner could raise a middle class family and have a safe retirement?
Across the South, white working class people saw Blacks and Hispanics showing up in their workplaces for the first time ever, and sharing classrooms with their children.
Where would this all lead?
Democrats utterly failed at answering those questions.
Clinton signed the NAFTA agreement negotiated by Reagan and Bush, then took a meat axe to the Great Society programs that were a lifeline for working class whites as over 60,000 factories and 15 million jobs moved from America to China and Mexico.
He abandoned the Democratic Party’s traditional deep brand, declared the end to the era of “big government,” and proclaimed the destruction of “welfare as we know it.”
The Democratic brand was faltering and, as mentioned, the GOP and its formidable media machine were more than happy to supply easy answers to the white working class’s questions.
The rebranding of the Democratic Party was underway, but the Democrats had little say in it by that time.
Meanwhile, Republicans were enthusiastically answering the troubled middle class’s query with their own newly reinvented narrative.
Working white peoples’ lives and financial stability weren’t collapsing because of Reagan’s neoliberalism: it was all those Black, Hispanic, and queer people the Democrats were using to “replace” them!
Throughout those years I was a partner in a small advertising agency in Michigan, the founder and co-owner of a second in Atlanta, and taught branding and marketing for years with The American Marketing Centers. My clients ranged from American Express, Holiday Inn, and Serta to Scientific Atlanta and the NSA. A team I put together and I trained people from over 400 of the Fortune 500 companies and hundreds of employees from dozens of state and federal agencies.
Democratic politicians, however, weren’t interested. Frustrated, in 2008 I wrote a book (Cracking the Code: How to Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Restore America’s Original Vision with a foreword by Jim Hightower) to help Democrats message with the upcoming election. It earned me an invite to the White House, but that was about it.
Obama was a branding genius, but nobody had bothered to build out or maintain a media and messaging infrastructure for Democrats to amplify his message (see my rants about Air America Radio, which I helped start and used to carry my show).
So here we are, and a lot has changed recently.
The new Republican surface brand today is defined as much in negatives as positives: they’re “anti-woke.” (“Woke” being the latest brand Republicans have slapped on the Democratic Party.)
Ron DeSantis even passed a bill called the Stop WOKE Act that mostly outlaws teaching Black history in Florida public schools and is currently enjoined by a federal judge. It’s clearly the opening salvo of his bid for the White House.
The third person to officially launch a GOP run for president (after Trump and Hailey), multimillionaire businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, rolled out his campaign on Tucker Carlson’s show last week and is running a three-minute brand-and-attack-Democrats video saying:
“We’re in the middle of a national identity crisis. Faith, patriotism, and hard work have disappeared, only to be replaced by new secular religions like Covidism, climatism and gender ideology.”
Can Republicans continue to successfully brand Democrats with these GOP insider pejoratives?
I’m skeptical, given how successful Biden has been recently. Republicans are beginning to grasp at straws, and have largely run through the ready pool of hard-core racists. Main stream media, at the same time, has begun to call them out on their racism and bigotry.
Additionally, the good news is that brands can change over time. And it’s happening now in American politics.
Joe Biden is the first Democratic president since Jimmy Carter to reclaim the traditional Democratic brand of being for the working class and a strong defense while melding into it the new, post-1965 Democratic brand of tolerance and inclusion.
The Party is still lacking a strong media infrastructure, but Biden’s been remarkably successful on multiple occasions at punching through the mainstream fuzz. Jen Psaki (now with MSNBC) and Karine Jean-Pierre are both communications geniuses, and Biden’s White House team has done some great work.
Republicans, meanwhile, are facing a branding crisis much like what the Democrats confronted in the 1980s and 1990s.
Their standard-bearer, Donald Trump, went from having a brand of “successful businessman” to “outsider politician” to “corrupt president” to “criminal.” Each shift took time and repeated reinforcements, but his brand is now so damaged it’s hurt the GOP in multiple elections across the country.
And the fascists and zealots Trump invited into his party continue to bruise its brand, making it vulnerable to Democrats doing what Limbaugh did to them decades ago: rebrand the GOP against its will.
To this end, Democrats need message discipline, consistency, and a hell of a lot of repetition. The Biden White House is an exemplar in this area; this sort of clear-eyed communication needs to spread more generally across the Party.
So how do we make that happen? How do we make more widespread, across America, knowledge about the good aspects of the Democratic Party’s brand?
It turns out there’s a lot you and I can do.
The single most powerful way brands migrate across a culture is through word-of-mouth. No messenger is as credible as a trusted friend or relative.
The key to making a brand work is to get as many people as possible to use, wear, or talk about it. Person to person. Friend to friend. Neighbor to neighbor.
So get out there and start spreading the good word. Tag, you’re it!
Thom, great article! I'll just remind you that my son and I recently were on your show to talk about our book, "BRANDING DEMOCRATS: a Top-to-Bottom Reimagining of Campaign Strategies." You kindly said the book was "brilliant."
Your article touched on some of the same concepts we examine in the book. (Available on Amazon!)
I'm happy to report that the book and the ideas we put forward are quickly gaining traction with some important Democratic leaders. Hopefully some of your followers can join us as we push Dems to smarter, more effective branding.
Republicans don't have a branding problem. They have a persecution complex problem. They blame everything on the democrats. Every time someone murders someone else? "Oh, it's the democrats fault." Every time they cause poverty? "Oh, it's the democrats fault." Every time they aren't allowed to not force people to believe what they want? "Oh, it's the democrats fault." These people are very sick and these people want America to burn to the ground. They need to be put in jail forever and never ever let out for any reason. They use Fox News to spread their hate and disinformation. We need to fix this country and restore secularism and send all these religious politicians to Hungary where they will be much happier.