Politics is a multifaceted business. To those interested in policy-making, the often vapid marketing central to campaigning can grow tiresome. Nevertheless, politicians have to capture the imagination of voters through soundbites and slogans that leave little room for in-depth issue analysis. The truth is, average political observers have short attention spans and need to get a general feel for what a candidate believes before they even contemplate policy – if they ever do so at all.
Consider the slogans of two Republican presidential frontrunners: Donald Trump and Marco Rubio. Trump rests his reputation on being a businessman who can allegedly fix the problems politicians he deems “clueless” can’t. “We don’t win anymore,” says Trump of the United States, invoking a nostalgia that appeals primarily to working class, predominantly white voters who feel left behind in a changing global economy. Thus, Trump promises to “Make America Great Again,” pushing protectionist ideas such as border walls and import tariffs with the, frankly unattainable, goal of keeping foreign competition from our nation’s shores.
Marco Rubio on the other hand, takes an inverse but equally emotional approach with his “New American Century” slogan. As a few keen political observers have pointed out, this branding invokes the neoconservative “Project For a New American Century,” headed by Washington’s most hawkish intellectuals, which existed between 1997 and 2006 and played a large role in shaping President George W. Bush’s foreign policy. While these views are in line with Rubio’s and play into what his campaign is promoting, the PNAC reference is an obscure one, and not what the vast majority of voters think of when sizing up his campaign.
Instead, Rubio’s “New American Century” slogan invokes an optimistic and inclusive look at the future in a context much broader than foreign policy alone. Rubio’s forward-thinking rhetoric ties well into his family story. A staple of his stump speech, Rubio is fond of telling voters that his Cuban immigrant parents were working class: His mother, a housekeeper, his father, a bartender. “Only in America,” says Rubio, “can their son grow up to be a United States Senator.” Rubio’s focus on extending the American Dream to those who seek it as a means to create a prosperous future is in direct conflict with Trump’s retrograde, wall-building rhetoric.
Ultimately, these slogans reveal the fault lines between perhaps this cycle’s loudest faction – what National Review’s Kevin Williamson calls Grow The Hell Up Conservatism – and the rest of the Right. As Williamson noted this past summer, “Trump brings out two of the Right’s worst tendencies: the inability to distinguish between entertainers and political leaders, and the habit of treating politics as an exercise in emotional vindication.” I agree, but would go a step further and say Trump brings out an uglier side of the Right as well; the tendency among some to engage in a form of soft bigotry, often without realizing they’re doing it.
This is the trouble with a slogan like “Make America Great Again.” On its face, there’s nothing wrong with the words, or even what it’s meant to invoke. It’s understandable that countless people yearn for the return of a time rife with abundant manufacturing jobs and livable working class wages. Trump of course, in promising unrealistic economic protectionism, won’t achieve this, but his rhetoric certainly stokes the emotions of many. As my Facebook friend Ben Kilpatrick astutely noted on one of my posts, “[Trump is] playing to the people who think there is some sort of economic magic that can restore the time when China and half of the world were Communist, everything in Europe had been destroyed, and most of the rest of the world was an undeveloped backwater. In other words, a time when the US didn’t have any competition and people could get skilled labor pay rates for unskilled jobs.”
What Trump is also doing, whether he realizes it or not, is alienating virtually everyone for whom returning to a bygone era is a nightmarish proposition. There’s a faction of largely older white voters – many of whom are Democrats and independents as well – who yearn to return to a time that for them, was prosperous; hence the appeal of “making America great again.” Perhaps what they haven’t considered is how that sounds, for example, to a black voter. Does “making America great again” entail returning to a time when people of color were legally segregated and terrorized? And what of young females? Does “making America great again” mean living in a society where women weren’t welcome in the workplace?
This is the danger, in my view, of elevating nostalgic conservatism over opportunity conservatism. While for most people who ascribe to it, rhetorically nostalgic conservatism isn’t meant to invoke segregation or misogyny – though incidentally, white supremacists seem to think Trump is speaking for them – conservatives would be remiss if we blind ourselves to how that branding feels to those who fall outside of older, white categories. This is why what Rubio is doing from a marketing perspective – promoting an inclusive opportunity conservatism – matters. I’d wager that it goes a long way toward explaining why Rubio is the Republican who polls best against Clinton.
As Greg Sargent recently noted at the Washington Post, “The NBC/WSJ poll’s toplines are that Rubio holds a 48-45 lead over Clinton among adults nationally, effectively a tie. By contrast, Clinton leads Donald Trump by 50-40.” Sargent then goes on to explain what could very well be at the root of Rubio’s success. “Recall that the Rubio campaign is actively building its long term strategy around the belief that a GOP candidate must make inroads among Dem voter groups to win … Rubio is trying to strike hopeful, optimistic tones, and repeatedly says that a new generation of leaders is required … Rubio’s apparent performance edge over Trump and Cruz among young voters is another sign that nominating Trump or Cruz might be self-destructive demographic folly for the GOP.”
Sargent’s point about Rubio’s hopeful tone is crucial. While he isn’t my candidate of choice, primarily due to his extremely hawkish foreign policy views, I strongly believe that conservatism needs more of Rubio’s branding, and less of Trump’s. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with nostalgia as a motivating factor, the Republican Party needs to appeal to voters beyond its aging white base if it’s to survive as the 21st century unfolds. Trump’s rhetoric moves conservatism backwards while Rubio’s pushes it toward the future. Policy aside, branding matters. On this front, Rubio is undeniably doing something right – and Republicans who want to win in today’s political climate ought to take notes.