The Age of Brands Birthed a New Kind of Political DynastyPhoto by Joe Raedle/Getty Politics Features Political Branding
Such a waste of talent. He chose money over power. In this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn’t see the difference.
— Frank Underwood, House of Cards
Money and fame and power have always been close, but they used to be more separate. Global capital wants a world where everything is interchangeable, and so money, wealth and power flow together now, as inseparable as the ocean and its salts. Money to wealth to power. I call it the Exchange. And while fame is fickle and money isn’t everything, power is essential: a tool we use to change the world. But a funny thing has happened. When power can be exchanged for money and fame for no cost, power becomes the tool, and not the equal, of money and fame. In a time when the political class seems more out of touch every day, the rate at which president becomes businessman becomes guest host is troubling. We ought to consider how we got here, and what that means.
I’M A CELEBRITY, THAT MEANS SOMEONE EVERYONE KNOWS
Barack Obama is receiving $400,000 for a speech he’s giving to the investor bank Cantor Fitzgerald. It’s appropriate. Obama’s opposition to the moneyed interests was largely symbolic, and he is being paid for symbolic reasons.
It’s not Obama alone. The Clintons sold the Lincoln Bedroom during their time in the Executive Mansion. Bush had scarcely moved into the White House before former President Clinton began shuttling around the world. He spent the next decade brokering between businessmen and officeholders, problem-solving and favor-bartering. Trump is in the Oval Office solely because he could turn his money into cheap, tawdry fame, and then into cheap, tawdry power. The Exchange cycle is getting smoother, faster, more lucrative. Obama, a far classier act than Bill or Donald, will be less obvious and clumsy in his treasure-hunting. But he will still score.
Not that the Presidents or public figures of the past were pure. Lyndon Johnson married rich and finagled his way into media moguldom. Nixon had multiple homes before he moved into the office. Carter owned a peanut warehouse business. Reagan was a wealthy ex-actor who shilled for G.E. Presidents and public figures have done the Exchange since the beginning of time. What has changed is the Exchange rate. Politics was never glamorous or cool, and it could not be traded in for glamour, or cool. Even Presidents who were hip, like Kennedy, would never have traded in their “brand” for points. Both because he was rich, but also because it would have seemed distasteful.
Why on earth would someone spend money to hear Obama, or Romney, or Hillary speak? Because they are draws. Because it means status. Because the banks that pay them have too much money to begin with, and they want to throw it somewhere. But mostly because there is no cost to it. Nobody tut-tuts. The Exchange is expected.
The reason the Exchange happens has to do with the rise of brands.
It is said that modern politicians don’t believe in anything. That is false. Politics is a tough business, and you have to be committed or mad to endure it. What has changed is that power is no longer the end. The actual positive effects of Obama, and Hillary, and Bill’s policies are less impressive than the positive branding of Obama, Hillary, and Bill. That is the crucial fact, and their true masterpiece. Policy is difficult and hard to ascertain. But brands are immutable; they may be shifted from shirt to sneaker to album. They exist on every platform, and are replicated in speech, surface and image. This is not reserved to liberals alone. The Bush family, from Connecticut, adopted the Texas brand; they lived off it for years.
In politics, personality and behavior, Trump is opposed to Obama and the Clintons. But in terms of being a Brand Politician—a Brand President—Trump is the same. Like the Obamas and the Clintons, Trump shares the same transformational ability to move between money, power, and fame. The other two families came from power to money, and Trump came from money to power. Trump is the next logical step of the Brand Presidency. Trump’s self—the imperial, immense fact of Trump, capital T—is more important to him, and to his followers, than what he actually believes or does. Whether he resigns, is impeached, or serves his term, he will go back the next day to Trump Tower and continue doing what he has always done: living in the Exchange.
American political campaigns have always been about selling products. Nothing new there. But the art of selling has reached new heights. The sell is no longer tethered to the product. The product alone suffices. The brand is all. I suspect that is why so many of us, myself included, voted for Obama. In the end got exactly what we were promised: the brand.
That is what the harshest critiques of Obama the Corporate Spokesman do not get. It is not that Obama has engaged in turncoat, or that he is being paid for services rendered. This would suggest Obama is corrupt. Obama is not corrupt, not in the least. Obama is just doing what Obama has always done: perpetuate the brand, albeit in a different field. Yesterday it was politics. Now it’s in finance.
Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes just released a book—Shattered—about the Clinton campaign. The narrative has a dozen eye-opening moments. But the biggest bombshell is that Hillary did not actually know why she was running, or was unable to articulate it. The authors claim this was because Hillary was too “wonky,” too detail-focused, to sum up her vision in a single phrase. But this is false. She had a reason: that it was time. Hillary’s reason for Hillary’s campaign was Hillary. The rationale for the brand was the brand itself. I am not suggesting that Hillary was only in the game for selfish motives. What I am arguing is something far stranger: Hillary was serving the Hillary brand.
Plenty of people scoffed when Chelsea Clinton appeared on one of Variety’s special covers. The critics said that Chelsea had gotten there on nepotism, that the media establishment was trying to make Chelsea the Politician happen. The parties who argue against Chelsea’s appearance are missing the point. Of course it’s nepotism. What else would it be? Nepotism is the point. Chelsea is a symbol of the House of Clinton, of Brand Clinton. As wealth and power are further concentrated, the sons and daughters of powerful people will have no qualifications except to be the holders of symbolic brand status. We are all horrified by Trump. But it’s worth noting that Sad Jeb, who only asked for your applause, got where he was because of Brand Bush. Even the disappointing alternative dwells in the house of familial copyright.
THE AGE OF KINGS IS OVER
Assad is succeeded by Assad in Syria. Trump’s family is his cabinet, his real cabinet. Jean-Marie Le Pen fails, so his daughter, Marine Le Pen, runs for the French Presidency. It’s the same up North, too. According to Jacobin’s Jordy Cummings, the current Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau:
grew up in the spotlight, Canada’s answer to JFK, Jr. Whether it was getting a stuffed Snoopy from Dick and Pat Nixon, taking in The Empire Strikes Back with his father, enjoying canoe trips, or mugging for the camera, the media documented his childhood relentlessly. … Trudeau really came into the spotlight at his father’s funeral, with Fidel Castro and Jimmy Carter and all sorts of Davos types present. His eulogy has been called historic — some wags even compared it to Pericles — and launched his career as a national public figure. Seven years later, he was elected as a member of parliament (MP) in Papineau, a district in Montreal. At this point, Butts, Trudeau’s Karl Rove, started to craft his rise to the top. During these years, Trudeau often served as a punch line — a Canadian George W. Bush best known for charity boxing matches and non-committal positions.
The sons and daughters of actors and directors become actors and directors, and so on. The world is reentering the age of kings, of ruling houses. Or so it seems. But it’s trickier than that. Monarchy and aristocracy relied on notions of divine right and blood, of duty, of performance, of defending the realm. Really, the world is entering the age of brands. And brands, in their highest form, require no justification, not even a product: the Nike swoosh, hanging there in void, is enough. No shoe required. The symbol alone suffices, the menu and not the meal. You pay for nothing, and nothing is what you get.