Why There Is No President Klein

CAMBRIDGE, Ma. -- It’s not as though this is all new, this Trump insanity. We’ve seen it all before. You just have to know where to look.

Don’t waste your time rooting around the history of American electoral politics. If you’re looking for the template for the Trump campaign you will not find it in the rhetoric of Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, Father Coughlin, Millard Fillmore or any of the populists, nativists, nationalists or demagogues who dot the nation’s timeline.

Nor the philosophers and schemers behind the commotion. Not Karl Rove. Not Thomas Paine. Not Saul Alinsky. And if you’re looking for martial analogs, don’t bother with that, either. Sun Tzu has no dog in this fight. If you wish to understand Trumpmania, pay attention instead to Brooke Shields.

“You know what comes between me and my Calvins?” she notoriously asked in a 1980 TV commercial. “Nothing.” 



Yes, before there was clickbait, there was jailbait. Shields was 15 when the camera creeped lasciviously across her splayed legs and tight be-jeaned crotch. Whether you imagined the child’s purred words to be a graphic double entendre or a mere statement of underwearlessness, it was deliberately incendiary -- and I use that word advisedly.

Calvin Klein isn’t a marketer so much as an arsonist. He sets blazes, then stands by and watches patiently as the media ladder trucks and pumpers race to the scene, sirens wailing. And, of course, a world of onlookers steps onto the porch in their bathrobes to see what all the excitement is about. Over and over and over.

Menage a trois in 1985. Mark Wahlberg’s skivvies crotch grab in 1992. Child pornography in 1995. Orgy in 2009. Sexual violence in 2010. 

Never does the outrage fail to outrage. Never do the media have the self control not to be manipulated. Because who can resist a conflagration? 

Now, go to March 2011. Contemplating a presidential run, Trump war-gamed the Calvin Klein strategy by resurrecting the imbecilic “birther” theory: that Barack Obama was born not in Honolulu but in Kenya. Sure enough, even though the official birth records were clear, and though such a conspiracy would have had to begin when Obama was a fetus (a phony birth announcement planted in the local paper!), the mouth breathers latched on. And the media with them, offering blanket coverage of a paranoid delusion.

And for the last year, more of the same. Over and over and over. Mexican wall. Ugly Carly Fiorina. Banning Muslims. Menstruating Megyn Kelly. Torturing suspected terrorists. Killing terrorists’ families. Beating up peaceful protesters. 

And we cannot avert our eyes. It isn’t just spectacle, it’s become Obsession by Calvin Klein. Except for one thing -- one very important thing, which happens to be the difference between brand marketing and electoral politics. Calvin Klein never had, nor ever needed, more than a few points of market share. If all you require is a modest slice of an enormous pie, you can infuriate as many people as you wish. Offend the many in order to impress the few. It’s bad manners, but demonstrably sound niche marketing. Luckily for the republic, presidential politics are not niche marketing. And the Calvin Klein strategy at some point triggers the law of diminishing returns. 

Which suddenly dawned on me here, at (ahem) Harvard. Moderating a panel at the Center for American Political Studies Political Analytics Conference 2016 here at Harvard, we were considering what the media should have done with an arsonist such as Trump, knowing that each appalled description of him would yield more fires. The question -- did I mention this took place at Harvard? -- was “Have we created a monster?” and the answer, manifestly, is yes. The epiphany, though, is that before it is all over with, we will have destroyed it. 

To be given exposure, after all, is to expose. When Trump told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews “There has to be some sort of punishment” for women who have abortions, suddenly the benefits of media attention were swamped by the liabilities. No, it was no more incendiary than any other asinine thing he has said in public during his campaign, but it happened to set fires in both the pro-choice and anti-abortion camps. The so-called pro-life movement demonizes Planned Parenthood and abortionists, but not the patients themselves.

Naturally, Trump keeps on yapping. He has issued five conflicting statements on the subject over three days, reported by the press in headlines such as “Donald Trump took 5 different positions on abortion in 3 days.”  Will this be the fatal conflagration? If not this, surely the next, or the next. The presidency is not selling jeans and underpants. It is not a niche business. You need 270 electors to win, and Trump is burning his bridges to them one outrage at a time.

Come to the porch and watch. Next you will see the arsonist consumed in his own blaze.  

14 comments about "Why There Is No President Klein".
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  1. Nina Lentini from MediaPost Communications, April 4, 2016 at 8:10 a.m.

    Bob, how do you do it. You have perfectly encapsulated Trumpmania. My hat is off to thee. Thanks.

  2. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, April 4, 2016 at 10:15 a.m.

    Very clever, mostly true, but Trump was not the first, current Presidential campaigner to raise the birther issue. That would be Hillary Clinton, if you care to check. Her defense after 2008 was, oh, that was just some of my supporters saying that ( -- but she was coy ("as far as I know") when asked directly.   Her campaign adviser Mark Penn was a little more blatant:

  3. Jeff Sawyer from GH, April 4, 2016 at 11:54 a.m.

    One can sum up the Trumpf campaign in two words drawn from his own rhetoric: Abort! Abort! 

  4. Randall Tinfow from CLICK-VIDEO LLC, April 4, 2016 at 12:29 p.m.

    Laughing and weeping.

  5. Dennis Ryan from Fetrow Ryan & Partners, April 4, 2016 at 12:46 p.m.

    Great piece--really, really insightful Bob. But tell me because I may have missed it; where were you invited to speak?

  6. Bob Garfield from MediaPost, April 4, 2016 at 1:20 p.m.

    Oh, right. How careless of me. I should have mentioned. It was at HARVARD.

  7. Mark Paul from Mark Paul, April 4, 2016 at 1:41 p.m.

    I wish I could share your optimism. Each time he outrages, the coverage returns to business as usual within a week or so. I still can't get over that he doesn't know what the nuclear triad is. He probably thinks it's a phrase from the brief for a Klein campaign.

    There's still a possibility that a hyper-ambitious GOP prosecutor worms his way into the phony Clinton investigations and actually finds a way to persuade a grand jury to issue an indictment.

    Don't forget Florida in 2000. And in 2008, Kerry's war record was trashed while everyone forgot that there's still this blank spot in GW's service records.  

    The fat lady hasn't even begun to warm up. 

  8. Michael Blumfield from Michael Blumfield Business Communications, April 4, 2016 at 2:47 p.m.

    It's not just that he says stupid things. It's that he's obsessed with attention. He loves the limelight so much that he's happy to sit for interview after interview, stay up late at night commenting on Twitter and otherwise have the world focused on him that he increases his odds of being caught saying something utterly insane. If he's consumed in his own blaze, it's helped by the fact that he can't help but play with matches, day in and day out.

  9. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 4, 2016 at 4:03 p.m.

    The emporer has no clothes and those who support this maniac will drive everyone into nakedness. Caveat emptor.

  10. Patrick Scullin from Ames Scullin O'Haire, inc., April 4, 2016 at 5:11 p.m.

    Great column, Bob.
    Have you ever been to Harvard? You should go!

  11. Jon Sinton from Progressive Agenda, April 4, 2016 at 5:55 p.m.

    To paraphrase Jackson Browne, brightly burning bridges light his future. 

  12. Robin Hafitz from open mind strategy, April 5, 2016 at 3:48 p.m.

    Great column, Bob.  You've been getting better and better as you get angrier.  One note on the difference between political and product "branding," though:  You suggest Calvin can afford to aim for a small segment, while turning off the marjority, and contrast this to the broad support a candidate needs.  But candidates DON'T need broad support.  There's much talk of how they play to a small but passionate "base" during the primaries, but it's also why negative ads work so well in politics but can be disastrous in product marketing.  If Calvin were to trash Chanel, overall participation in the fragrance category might fall -- and they'd both get hurt.  It matters how many "votes" each gets, because "votes" are dollars.  In politics, the number of votes doesn't matter; just who wins.  When a politician trashes a rival, it may indeed depress participation in their "category," but someone still wins.  It's a winner-take-all category, which makes it very different than product marketing.

  13. Esther Dyson from EDventure, April 13, 2016 at 6:28 p.m.

    I thought you might enjoy this Medical PR Horror Story, emailed to me under the subject line Medical Tourism Horror Stories.  Note especially item 2. Amazing she lived to tell the tale!

    In 2015, there were more than 26 medical tourism horror stories reported on the news, and the number continues to rise this year. Both women and men are traveling internationally to seek cheaper cosmetic surgeries. While everyone is looking for the next best procedure to help them stay youthful, many people aren't willing to pay the price. In this instance, people are traveling far and wide to receive MAJOR surgeries for half the price. Although this may sound like a good idea in theory, it actually couldn't be more of a bad idea. Dr. Norman Rowe, NYC-based board certified plastic surgeon has helped hundreds of patients looking to correct their botched surgeries.

    To give a better understanding of what type of procedures are being done overseas, please see below for some of the worst medical horror stories:

    Leg Lengthening: Iran

    A man in his late 20's hated being 5-foot-6 so he traveled to Iran for a leg lengthening operation. After returning home, he noticed screws protruding from his right leg, and X-rays showed broken nails in both legs. He needed two more surgeries to correct the botch job.

    Cosmetic Surgery: Thailand

    A woman decided to get a breast lift and tummy tuck. Within five days of being discharged she developed an infection in her abdomen and left breast. The doctors offered to readmit her, but at her own cost. While her budget was depleted, she headed home gravely ill, with deep wounds and a fatal infection. It took several rounds of revision surgery to fix.

    Skin Tucks: Costa Rica

    A women from New York had lost 100 pounds and headed to Costa Rica to tuck and tone the excess skin. During her surgery, she endured massive blood loss and they needed to do an emergency secondary operation. That doctor diagnosed her with anemia, but operated anyway. She returned to New York with a raging infection which resulted in a skin graft from her though to her stomach along with 8 additional surgeries to fix the damage.

    Fertility Treatments: Romania

    A woman from Israel was mid-surgery when Romanian authorities broke into the clinic and arrested three doctors who were allegedly running an illegal egg-trafficking business that involved overstimulating patients' ovaries with drugs for extraction and sale on the black market.

    These horror stories emphasize the dangers of seeking inexpensive plastic surgery abroad. When it comes to your health and wellbeing, it's important to stick to a reputable, board certified surgeon in your home country to ensure successful results. Please let me know if you're interested in speaking with Dr. Rowe directly, as I would be happy to coordinate.

  14. Michael Giuseffi from American Media Inc replied, April 20, 2016 at 1:59 p.m.

    Oh,  so this is Donald Trump's plan to repeal and replace Obamacare!!

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