Why you should care
Because a party divided against itself cannot stand.
It was late March 1988 and the Democratic Party was coming to terms with the possibility that the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had just beaten favorite Michael Dukakis in the Michigan caucuses, might well become the party’s nominee. And so Clark Clifford, the 81-year-old lion of the Democratic establishment, had convened a Beltway breakfast between the upstart Jackson and the party’s power brokers. Looking out over a room filled with detractors and veterans of the party’s failed campaigns of the past, Jackson famously quipped that “sometimes you can make energy out of trash.”
Jackson’s wry remark elicited a good chuckle, but for many Republican insiders in 2016, another surprise front-runner’s power play is no laughing matter — and turning trash into energy is precisely what Donald Trump must figure out how to do if he is going to unite his party and win in November. The media has been buzzing about Trump’s “hostile takeover” of the party, but how might Trump, whose campaign declined to comment and is busy with today’s primary battle in New York, actually chart a path toward reconciliation that will draw insiders and voters back into the fold? Some potential strategies can be found in a few areas that Trump is familiar with: television, brand management and, yes, corporate takeovers.
1. Tone Down the Chest-Thumping
That’s one of the recommendations Tim Phillips and Rebecca Clare make in their recent book Game of Thrones on Business, which offers “strategy, morality and leadership lessons” from the hit television show. Like a chest-thumping silverback gorilla, once some executives have reached the top, they feel pressure to justify their position by showing their competitors that they are “bigger and stronger.” But, as Game of Thrones’ ambitious patriarch Tywin Lannister tells his grandson Joffrey: “Any man who must say ‘I am the king’ is no true king.’”
Translation: If Trump really wants the GOP kingdom to line up behind his throne, then making amends and toning down the personal attacks goes a lot further than shows of strength like threats to sue or boasts about how little exercise or sleep one needs.
“Any man who must say ‘I am the king’ is no true king. I’ll make sure you understand that when I’ve won your war for you.” — Tywin #gotquotes— Game Of Thrones (@GameOfThrones) Aug. 4, 2013
2. Make Assurances by Naming Your Team and Co-Opting Your Rivals
Still, hard feelings are inescapable with a hostile takeover. Which is why, to maintain customer and employee loyalty in the wake of one, according to Bruce Abramson, a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, the new ownership must make assurances that the organization’s underlying brand will be preserved. One of the best ways to do this, and to move beyond brand acquisition to brand management, says Abramson, is to integrate the leaders of the acquired outfit and “provide assurances about who is going to be running things.”
In the election context, this means not only bringing aboard vanquished foes like Chris Christie and Ben Carson and their followers but also naming your prospective team. And whether it’s suggesting Carson for surgeon general, Christie for attorney general or Carl Icahn (a Trump friend somewhat familiar with hostile takeovers) as trade representative, putting forward a group of trusted party leaders as your advisers and potential Cabinet members could go a long way to relieving some of the uncertainty surrounding what a Trump presidency might look like.
3. Devour the Whale One Bite at a Time
Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Republican Party won’t be conquered in one either. One of the biggest obstacles facing an ambitious executive like Trump is having the patience to manage the micro-side of organizational integration. When it comes to the increasingly contentious battle for delegates, and winning GOP hearts and minds more generally, the true war is going to be won in fits and starts, one person at a time. “That’s how you devour a whale,” Frank Underwood reminds his chief of staff in House of Cards, “one bite at a time.”
That’s how you devour a whale. One bite at a time.— House of Cards (@HouseofCards) Aug. 12, 2014
4. It’s the Real Enemy, Stupid
The hostile atmosphere surrounding a takeover can results in a lot of us-versus-them thinking within the ranks of the new tribe. The key is to focus that energy elsewhere, because, as sociologist Daniel Rigney writes in The Metaphorical Society, “the bonds of group solidarity are often strengthened by the threat of a common enemy.” Or, as Rupert Murdoch tweets: “Both ‘establishment’ Republicans and Trump need to cool it and close ranks to fight real enemy.” Luckily for Trump, Hillary Clinton is someone who unites conservatives like no other common enemy. Luckily for Clinton, the last time Trump tried to rally an angry group of deep-pocketed power brokers against a formidable common foe, the NFL handily quashed Trump and the other team owners in the upstart USFL.
Both “establishment” Republicans and Trump need to cool it and close ranks to fight real enemy. Trump, Rubio, Kasich could all win general.— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) Feb. 28, 2016
5. Change Your Brand Promotion
Donald Trump knows a thing or two about branding, but mostly within a narrow market segment. “Luxury goods have edgier ads than mainstream consumer goods,” Abramson tells OZY. “Ferrari doesn’t care about offending a few people — what they want are passionate supporters within a specific niche.” Trump’s candidacy has followed a similar strategy, but you can’t win a presidential election with a niche brand. And if Trump is going to successfully pursue a broad market branding strategy in the general election, says Abramson, then he will have to fly his flag below the flagship Republican brand that conservative voters have come to trust.
Whether Trump is psychologically capable of sublimating his own personal brand is another question, but the billionaire does appear to understand the value of seeing the bigger picture. “When I had troubles in the ’90s,” Trump reflected in a 2011 interview with AOL Jobs, “I … focused on the solution, and not the problem. I refused to give in to difficult circumstances.”