Branding is everything. In the fifties and sixties everyone knew a Cadillac was just a Chevy with slightly different bodywork and a bit more sound-deadening here and there, but it had that chrome lettering here and there – Cadillac. That was enough. Those who could, and some who couldn’t, paid double for that lettering. And in the fifties and sixties everyone knew that anything tagged “Made in Japan” was cheap crap – and then it wasn’t. Japan stopped making cheap crap. Their “brand” recovered – but a Timex watch keeps time just about as well as a Rolex. Cheap crap should be rebranded. Cheap crap can sell too – Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka, Trump Water or whatever. Donald Trump figured that out. Forget the consumer products. Trump University didn’t work out – he got sued – but there was something else he could do. He stopped building big glass towers. Let others build those, on their dime. He’d sell them the right to put his name on their big glass towers – “Trump” in big gold letters. He licensed his name. They’d get rich and he’d get massive royalties. He built a licensing empire – but a Cadillac is still just a Chevy, and by the eighties everyone knew that Cadillacs were big wallowing land yachts with brocade upholstery, driven by strange old men. The folks at Cadillac are still working on that. Brands can become tarnished.
That may be what is happening to the Trump brand:
A worker with a crowbar on Monday pried the word “Trump” from the sign in front of the only Trump-branded hotel in Latin America, after the building’s owner said he’d won a legal fight to take control of it.
The removal of the Trump name from the Trump International Hotel Panama came after a days-long standoff between the majority owner, Cypriot businessman Orestes Fintiklis, and the president’s company.
But the building’s future remained uncertain: The Trump Organization said it could still retake control of the hotel.
Fintiklis had sought to fire the Trump Organization – which has a management contract running through 2031 – because he blames the company and the Trump brand for poor revenue. The Trump Organization had refused to leave. There followed 10 days of confrontations, including shoving matches, a power outage and several appearances by police.
The rest of this item – eight hundred words or so – covers the details. The details hardly matter. Trump is one of those strange old men and the brand may never recover. The extended management contract here is the issue – this is breach of contract – but in Manhattan the Trump name is being pried off big glass towers from Soho to the Upper East Side, as each licensing agreement expires. No one is seeking renewal of those agreements. The Trump name is toxic. The Trump name is bad for business. He’s one of those strange old men.
Anyone could see that on the same day that the Panama story broke. Benjamin Netanyahu was at the White House and there was talk of a “final solution” for Iran. And the tariff stuff was still hot. In his brief remarks Trump said everyone in the world is taking advantage of us, even our allies – especially our allies. Every other nation in the world is laughing at us – especially our allies – especially the EU and Canada. It’s a vast conspiracy? Everyone, simply everyone, is out to get us? His eyes darted back and forth. He won’t back down on the tariffs. They’re all our enemies – all of them. They’re all out to get us. The only answer is to humiliate them all – even our allies.
Everyone should have known that was coming. Donald Trump was inevitable. Richard Hofstadter explained that in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and in the essays collected in The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964) which explored our curious distrust of people who know more than we know, a culturally established distrust of experts and expertise. If you’re so smart how come you’re not rich? Maybe there was a time when being well-educated and insightful, and full of ideas, or at least able to discuss the ideas of others intelligently, or at least know there were ideas floating around out there somewhere and they mattered, made you cool – or maybe that was in France. That wasn’t in America, except for the eight years of Obama – but America decided they’d had enough of that, and of him. America became America again, and Donald Trump told America to sneer at the rest of the world – to get angry and get tough. The world was laughing at America and the rest of America – the blacks and the gays and the urban hipsters and the fancy-pants experts and the goofy scientists and all “politicians” in general – was laughing at Real Americans. Mexicans and Muslims were laughing at us too – and he could fix that. When someone hits you, hit them back ten times harder. We’ll build that wall and Mexico will pay for it. Muslims will be banned from entering the country – once he gets a few more judges who see things his way. Hit back ten times harder. That way no one messes with you ever again. That’s the way America should deal with the world.
That sort of thing made him president, but he’s still a strange old man, meeting with another strange old man:
President Trump said he may soon visit Israel to open a new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem as he offered a warm welcome Monday to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – one that did not include any public mention of the potentially career-ending corruption inquiry that followed the long-serving Israeli leader to Washington.
“I may” go for the planned May opening of the embassy, Trump said. “We’re looking at coming. If I can, I will.”
Netanyahu said of Trump’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem: “This will be remembered by our people through the ages. Others talked about it. You did it.”
This was love-fest with no mention of the real possibility that Netanyahu might soon end up in jail – he’s been a bad boy – and no mention of Robert Mueller closing in on Trump. They blew air-kisses at each other, but there was that other matter:
President Trump, facing an angry chorus of protests from leaders of his own party, including the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, insisted on Monday that he would not back down from his plan to impose across-the-board tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. But the White House was devising ways to potentially soften the impact of the measures on major trading partners.
The intense maneuvering, which began before Mr. Trump’s unexpected announcement of the tariffs last Thursday, is likely to delay any formal rollout of the measures until next week, according to several officials who have been briefed on the deliberations.
Trump’s brand – bold and decisive and defiant – wasn’t selling:
On Monday, Mr. Ryan, the most powerful Republican in the House, broke with the president, declaring through a spokeswoman, “We are extremely worried about the consequences of a trade war and are urging the White House to not advance with this plan.” The tariffs, Mr. Ryan’s spokeswoman said, would “jeopardize” the economic gains from the recent Republican tax cuts.
A trade war that makes everything more expensive, and scarcer, as other nations retaliate with their own tariffs on our exports, is a good way to tank the economy, not that the strange old man sees it that way:
Mr. Trump appeared little moved by the pushback. One of his all-important barometers – the stock market – rebounded on Monday after falling sharply immediately after the announcement of the tariffs last week as the Republican dissent fueled optimism that Mr. Trump would ultimately reverse course. Opponents of tariffs, including many economists, warn they could damage economic growth by igniting a ruinous trade war, a prospect that Mr. Trump has alternately welcomed or dismissed as unlikely.
But a person close to the White House said that the president was itching to impose tariffs, and that Monday’s stock market rebound had reassured Mr. Trump that he was in the right.
That’s what made this strange. The stock market rebounded because traders and investors – two different things of course – assumed this wasn’t really going to happen. Trump had it backwards – and he simultaneously held that trade wars are good, and can be won easily, but a trade war wasn’t likely, so everyone should calm down, because that bad thing – which he said was a good thing – wasn’t really going to happen.
He is a strange old man, and he proved it:
“We’re not backing down,” the president said at the White House on Monday, as he reeled off a familiar litany about trade deals that he said had driven out factories and deprived American workers of jobs.
But Mr. Trump did open the door to a compromise, at least with Canada and Mexico, which are in negotiations with the United States to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement. If the two countries agree to a “new and fair” NAFTA, they could be exempt from the tariffs, Mr. Trump said in a tweet on Monday morning.
The rest of this item details how Canada and Mexico were outraged. They don’t want to start the NAFTA talks all over again, and they say that they are not America’s enemies. They never were. They too have had enough of the Trump brand, and there was this:
President Trump rattled markets and irked U.S. allies last week when he moved to impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, insisting such imports are a threat to national security. Now, a growing chorus from the defense industry has come out against the move.
In an interview on CNBC Friday, the head of one of the largest industry associations said the tariffs have the potential to increase costs for the military and hurt U.S. exporters.
“This is going to impact companies big and small in the aerospace and defense world and more importantly we’re worried about retaliation,” said Eric Fanning, chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association, which represents more than 300 aerospace and defense manufacturers and suppliers.
But wait, there’s more:
Fanning went a step further when he argued that the tariffs could indirectly hurt U.S. national security by putting a damper on economic growth. The strong U.S. economy has long been a primary driver of the country’s military pre-eminence, with the U.S. government spending more on defense than any other country.
“Economic security is an important part of national security,” Fanning said. “We can see how the markets are reacting, we can see how our allies are reacting, so I’m concerned about some negative impacts that this might have on national security.”
There are real concerns:
It is not out of the question that a foreign government would revoke a U.S. supplier’s business over tariff dispute. That’s what happened last year when Boeing, Lockheed’s closest competitor in the government aerospace market, initiated a tariff action that would have levied 300 percent import taxes against Bombardier, a Canadian competitor in the commercial aviation market. The Canadian military responded by publicly excluding Boeing from its fighter jet competition.
The Trump brand – bold and decisive and defiant – wasn’t selling up there. He’s just a strange old man, who is getting stranger:
President Donald Trump questioned Monday morning why the Obama-era Justice Department launched an investigation into his campaign in the midst of the 2016 election, positing that then-President Barack Obama had sought to kneecap the Trump campaign and bolster that of Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“Why did the Obama Administration start an investigation into the Trump Campaign (with zero proof of wrongdoing) long before the Election in November?” Trump wrote on Twitter, leveling allegations that dispute previously reported details. “Wanted to discredit so Crooked H would win. Unprecedented. Bigger than Watergate! Plus, Obama did NOTHING about Russian meddling.”
What? Martin Longman sighs and responds:
Briefly, I can answer the president’s questions by pointing out that his top foreign policy adviser secretly took tens of thousands of dollars from the Kremlin to appear on Russian cable news programs which, as a former military officer, he was not allowed to do. That means he was subject to blackmail. Trump’s campaign chairman and deputy campaign chairman ripped off a mob-connected Russian oligarch for about $16 million and were desperate to pay him back. They changed the Republican platform and offered him free clandestine briefings in lieu of cash while they committed rampant bank crimes to try to raise the money they needed to avoid whatever happens to people who owe Russian mobsters millions of dollars and don’t pay up. All of these gentlemen have been indicted and two of them have pleaded guilty.
In addition to this, one of the president’s foreign policy advisers told an Australian ambassador in London that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton and would be releasing it. Another foreign policy advisor traveled to Moscow and Budapest and met with top Russian officials.
Then there’s the crazy ass stuff the president was saying about Putin and Russia which made no sense whatsoever. The U.S. intelligence community was a little slow on the uptake during the election, it’s true. But they eventually sniffed out the basic outlines of what was happening.
And, to answer your last question, the Obama administration didn’t do nothing. What they did would have been stronger if Mitch McConnell hadn’t refused to show a united front. Instead, McConnell threatened to accuse Obama of being political if he went to the American people and told them what the Russians were up to.
Longman knows nonsense when he sees it, and there was this:
Former CIA Director John Brennan took to Twitter on Monday to voice his displeasure with President Donald Trump.
In a tweet directed at Trump, Brennan called the president’s morning tweet a “great example of your paranoia, constant misrepresentation of the facts, and increased anxiety and panic,” toward special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
“When will those in Congress and the 30 percent of Americans who still support you realize you are a charlatan?” Brennan added.
That’s a good question. There’s now something wrong with Trump’s brand. Always a bit tacky it’s been further tarnished, and Michael Gerson sees this:
Here is a question at the crossroads of psychology and political philosophy: How can a leader so enamored of authoritarianism be so allergic to order?
Donald Trump rose to prominence on the promise of a firm hand. “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square,” he once said, “the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.” At another point: “I think Vladimir Putin’s been a very strong leader for Russia, he’s been a lot stronger than our leader [President Barack Obama], that I can tell you.” And recently, in a reportedly joking manner, about China’s Xi Jinping: “He’s now president for life. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”
But for all this, Trump seems utterly incapable of ruling even the 18-acre kingdom of the White House. Recent reports describe “chaos,” “tumult,” “disarray” and “pure madness.” With the policy process completely broken, staffers seem to occupy their time with blood feuds, leaking and legal consultations. Trump himself – “brooding,” “isolated and angry,” “mad as hell” – takes it out on Jeff Sessions and Alec Baldwin.
Trump his hardly bold and decisive and defiant:
The president’s self-generated governing crisis is disturbing. But when paired with authoritarian envy, it is pathetic – an exercise in autocratic jock-sniffing. Other would-be strongmen have turned to Karl Marx for inspiration; for Trump, it is more like the Marx Brothers. Absurdly stereotyped characters – Anthony Scaramucci, Sebastian Gorka, Stephen K. Bannon – pop randomly in and out of well-appointed rooms, while the main character feeds chaos all around him. It is the Duck Soup dictatorship.
Gerson has comically rebranded Trump, but he’s not happy about it:
Don’t get me wrong. Trump’s attempts to delegitimize institutions that check his power – the FBI, the mainstream media – are doing lasting damage. His constant lies have unleashed the irrational in American public life. His reliance on conspiracy theories and Fox News to solidify a core of unthinking allegiance is dangerous. It is sobering to see how a revolt against authority has been channeled into a movement of docility and submission. If Trump did not have blind support, he would have no support at all.
But this isn’t authoritarianism:
Trump approaches governing like a spectator, often acting as if someone else is really in charge. He seems most comfortable commenting from the sidelines, like an old Fox News viewer yelling at the television. Trump doesn’t know how to do the actual job of president and doesn’t seem aware that he doesn’t know. And few people around him know any better.
In short, no matter how big the gold lettering is, cheap junk is still cheap junk:
Being president, it turns out, actually requires certain skills. Presidents gain influence through rhetorical leadership – with the tools of inspiration. They gain influence through policy innovation and legislative leadership. They gain influence through motivating the permanent bureaucracy to accept and pursue their agenda.
As a matter of rhetoric, Trump will be remembered for an endless string of demeaning and incoherent tweets that force us to question his stability. As a matter of policy, he has either deferred to congressional priorities or acted through executive orders that can be easily undone. Rather than leading the bureaucracy, he has alienated it, depopulated it and sent some of it into resistance.
Everyone may soon be doing what that fellow in Panama just did, and Eugene Robinson adds this:
This deeply aberrant presidency threatens to cost the nation much more than even some of President Trump’s harshest critics may realize.
From 1988 to 1992, I was the Washington Post’s correspondent in Buenos Aires, covering all of South America. It was a time when countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Chile – emerging from years of authoritarian rule – were struggling to reestablish democratic norms, and I learned one important lesson: It’s easy to lose the habits and values of democracy, but incredibly hard to get them back.
Perhaps most difficult is to recover lost faith in the rule of law. That is why Trump’s very public desire to use the legal system as a weapon against his political opponents is so damaging. “Lock her up” is more than a call to imprison Hillary Clinton. It is, potentially, a tragic epitaph for the consensus view of our legal system as a disinterested finder of fact and dispenser of justice.
Robinson is doing his rebranding too, and it isn’t pretty:
Trump and his family have refused to divest themselves of their businesses or even draw more than a flimsy veil between their official actions and the impact those actions have on their personal finances. Does the administration’s policy toward Panama really have nothing to do with a bitter dispute over the Trump-branded hotel in Panama City? Does the administration’s tough new attitude toward Qatar really have nothing to do with that nation’s refusal to invest in Jared Kushner’s debt-laden real estate company?
It’s not the potential answers to those questions that are so corrosive; it’s the questions themselves. As in many countries whose governance we scoff at, Americans must now wonder whether policy is being tailored for our leaders’ personal gain.
Robinson just rebranded Trump as a South American banana republic grifter, with this twist:
When the rule of law and financial probity can no longer be assumed, the vacuum is filled with conspiracy theories. The president himself is a conspiratorialist par excellence; he was, after all, the chief purveyor of the birther nonsense. Since neither his words nor those of his press office can be believed it is natural – but incredibly damaging – to assume that the real story is being hidden from us, for reasons that must be nefarious.
This will not end well:
I came to cherish the long American tradition of civilian control of the military. Now we are forced to rely on three current or retired generals – Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and national security adviser H. R. McMaster – to keep an ignorant and impetuous president from triggering Armageddon.
Despite his recent joke about making himself president for life, Trump won’t be around forever. But the damage he is doing will remain – and it may take years of hard work to repair.
The folks at Cadillac know all about that. They make pretty snazzy cars now, but people still remember those big wallowing land yachts with brocade upholstery, driven by strange old men. Somehow that’s still the brand. And somehow that’s still Donald Trump, the strange old men driving America around, to nowhere.