America, The Brand – Or, Where is the West if Lewis & Clark Are No Longer Searching?

Donald v HillarySo here it comes, Ali-Frazier `71, Bird-Magic `84.  Really, once his golden escalator eased The Donald and his wife Melania down into the lobby of Trump Tower last June to announce his candidacy, how else would the fates have had it?

Yesterday, with the Indiana primary having delivered the final knock out to Texas Senator Ted Cruz, thumping the snake-handler’s son 53% – 36% with Ohio Governor John Kasich taking a non-competitive 8%, we awoke this morning with Donald J. Trump as the presumptive Republic party nominee for president in 2016.  Wrap your head around that hair ball!

First Cruz, then Kasich, suspended their campaigns in the aftermath, making it look almost certainly like a Donald v. Hillary match up in the general election this fall (Psst, don’t tell Bernie, who beat Hill The Pill again in Indiana).  From a promotional standpoint, though, it couldn’t get any better than this.  Scalpers could work this election cycle. We are already leaning forward, anticipating the WWE/Real Housewives brawl it promises to be, but also wondering what lasting image will have been left when others peer back in 20, 30 or 40 years.

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In 1960 Theodore White penned the Pulitzer Prize winning “The Making of the President”, a deep-dive analysis of the famed Kennedy v. Nixon campaign. Since that time, “The Making” has morphed quite cleanly into “The Selling” as the Brand of the candidates is now more carefully crafted, packaged, and displayed than ever – except for Trump, whose brash brand has been unashamedly on public display for decades, and now been trotted out for the 2016 campaign as a major “f**k that” to the established standards of candidate management.

But before Trump’s unorthodox Orange Wave approach, Presidential campaigns had become increasingly focused on marketing and handling candidates much more than communicating a clear-eyed inspection of public policy needs. It is a branding strategy, no different than what’s been used to move Nikes, Levis or Apple iPhones. That’s what we’ve gradually become America, The Brand, because in truth that is how we consume every commodity, and the presidency is just another.

One World EconomyBut just as one-time brand giants like Sears, Polaroid, and Blockbuster saw their stars fade as new paradigms emerged, and even as the hard right trumpets the loss of borders, language and culture, the reality is that the concept of national borders continues to vex a world more tied together than ever before, one in which businesses hunt for cheap labor and clement taxes as restlessly as sharks cruise the world’s oceans for food.

But this behavior doesn’t make businesses any more the bad guys than the dead-eyed habits of sharks make them demonic. In both cases the behavior is DNA-based, to be expected, and either taken into consideration or caveat emptor.

Business CEOs have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders to maximize profits, and fair enough.  Properly managed, free enterprise has proven to be a remarkably successful, resilient system. But don’t expect that responsibility to extend beyond the narrow channel of self-interest.

Government has its own fiduciary responsibility, as well, one that carries a much broader mandate.  Government must, therefore, engage businesses in a dance of interests and responsibilities, leading to a series of necessary, but non-punitive regulations, knowing that left unfettered businesses will go on a feeding frenzy like they did during the housing bubble that almost popped the entire economy in 2008.

But consider, rather than We, the People, the government has become, Them, the Enemy.  We have systematically removed ourselves from the tenets proscribed in the founding.  We have separated ourselves so uniformly with our identity politics — not to mention our virtual reality smartphones and tablets — that there is no longer a large enough group that can assume the majority. Now add the dangerously insidious effects of Citizens United, which allowed an unregulated flow of money to tilt campaigns to the highest bidder, and the Super Delegates‘ thumb-on-the-scale system that controls the Democratic nomination, and every minority fixes all others with a jaundiced, untrusting gaze.

We have become fragmented, isolated, and increasingly resentful of our perceived losses.  Figure in a diminished primary education system, and its outcome, rampant anti-intellectualism and a proud know-nothingism, and the foundation for self-governance begins to crumble like the infrastructure of roads, bridges and sewer systems around the country.

So we search for brands that will remove our doubts and allay our fears with simple bromides like “Make America great again”.  But what remains of American exceptionalism is asked to support a much greater structure, to the point where the imbalance takes on a topple-quality.

Once in search of mere convenience, we have become a nation of pure expedience, an untethered population which exists almost exclusively in the moment. Previous generations had been taught about sacrifice and duty, discipline and savings. They spent not inconsiderable amounts of time doing things they didn’t want to do, but were expected to do.  Doubt was not a luxury most could afford. Instead they forged a reliance on duty and respect, and trusted that the accommodations of today would produce dividends, of a sort, in the coming accounting.

They knew that anything worth having had a price, which is why you can’t purchase the satisfaction of a thing well done.  People who respect the enterprise, in turn, respect themselves, as well as others so involved. That had always been the message of education (as well as the marathon), the long, hard-fought holding off, the sacrifice of the now for the banking pleasure of the finish snd beyond.  But delayed gratification in a virtual reality world is a tough sell.  People want their fixes fast.

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Sputnik 1, 1957

Sputnik 1, 1957

Ironically, the Soviet Union helped engineer its own demise when it launched Sputnik in 1957. That small beeping satellite eventually led to satellite communications and the unobstructed flow of information. That, in turn, gave lie to the Kremlin’s contention that communism was superior to free market capitalism and democracy. For it was only when the State lost control of information that it also lost hold of its people.

Now the democratic, capitalist world is experiencing something akin to an extension beyond its nation-state model’s capacity to absorb it. The concept of mutually co-existing independent nation states was codified by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 at the end of the Thirty Years’ War.  But after nearly 400 years modern technology is effectively creating a one-world economy, making the old concept a bit of a slog.

At the end of World War II the American economy represented a 50% share of the world’s economic output. Today, that hold has lessened to a still robust, but no longer over-lording 20%. In 1959 the world population stood at 3 billion. By 1999 it passed 6 billion, a doubling that occurred in just 40 years. And though the rapid growth in world population is expected to ease over the ensuing 40 years, it will still be moving upward at a disquieting pace.

These numbers suggest that there are already too many people in too small a place with too finite a number of resources available – and too much waste to dispose of effectively.  Anyone who flies commercially experiences the effects of overcrowding already.  Tempers grow short, incivility flares, and the old assumptions and moderating centers no longer hold. The only question is has it gone too far? Because if it has, how must we all change to accommodate the consequences?

We have already witnessed how anarchy and radical fundamentalism have risen where need and want have been allowed to metastasize, offering only the next world as succor and salvation. It is a spreading cancer with total certainty in its strength, and certainly in its means, a disease that is no longer amenable to suasion or treatment.  And on our own side we make note of the erosion of trust in institutions, the growing divide in educational opportunity, and the manifest demise of empathy.

Like galaxies speeding farther and farther apart, the two sides have lost touch with the common ether that surrounds them. This is the danger, the vacuum between.  And sadly, this is where you would think that unifying institutions like the Olympic movement or World Cup – the universal world sports – would offer moderating linkage, universal physical truths that transcend the political gatherings.

But now with corruption hollowing out those institutions, as well – all but stripping them of a moral center – only cynicism is left, and that’s a hard hustle to hold onto after while, a hard, hard hustle, indeed.

Which means there is only one thing left.  So, on with The Show.

END

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8 thoughts on “America, The Brand – Or, Where is the West if Lewis & Clark Are No Longer Searching?

  1. “At the junction of the state line of Colorado, its arid western one, and the state line of poor Utah I saw in the clouds huge and massed above the fiery golden desert of eveningfall the great image of God with forefinger pointed straight at me through halos and rolls and gold folds that were like the existence of the gleaming spear in His right hand, and sayeth, Go thou across the ground; go moan for man; go moan, go groan, go groan alone go roll your bones, alone; go thou and be little beneath my sight; go thou, and be minute and as seed in the pod, but the pod the pit, world a Pod, universe a Pit; go thou, go though, die hence; and of Cody report you well and truly.”

    -Jack Kerouac

  2. Dang Tony, you’re churning out these blog posts the way Yuki Kawauchi churns out marathon finishes – fast & furious! Soon, your fellow scribes will be lobbying WADA to get you to pee in a cup!

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