The 2020 Branding Trap

By JOHN M. IMPERIALE | May 01, 2019

Quickly respond to this question: Who will be Donald Trump’s opponent in the 2020 presidential race? I will wait a few seconds while you come up with your answer.

OK, if you said the Democratic nominee, congratulations, you got it right, and most importantly, you have not allowed yourself to be influenced by the president’s “branding campaign.” If, on the other hand, your first thought was “some Socialist,” then you have already fallen into the president’s trap.

Simply put, if the country comes to believe that the choice in 2020 will be between the current president and a Socialist, the current president will win. And that, clearly, is the Republican plan. Brand the Democratic Party and all of its candidates as Socialists, and you win.

Just to be certain, though, go a step farther: Label such “Socialists” as treasonous and traitors to the values of America. A traitor, a treasonous Socialist, or Donald J. Trump? Even I would vote for Trump. But that will not be our choice!

To be fair, the Democratic Party is moving left-of-center. And, yes, some of the freshman legislators are extremists, as extreme as those on the far-right. Also, Bernie Sanders being a self-labeled “Democratic Socialist” does not help. Still, branding the Democratic Party and its presidential candidate a “Socialist” is no more honest than labeling the current Republican administration “fascist.”

Whoever the Democratic nominee is, he or she will advocate expanding healthcare coverage, higher taxes on the wealthy, a return to environmental protection, more corporate oversight, responsible gun legislation, and a host of other policies that fit with a representative government. He or she will then be branded a “Socialist.”

Donald Trump is very good, the best imaginable, at branding his opponent. He became the Republican nominee because the choice was between him and Lyin’ Ted, Low-Energy Jeb or Little Marco among others. Lyin’ Ted Cruz, for all of his unlikability, was never more of a liar than any other politician. Jeb Bush, former successful governor, was never low energy. Marco Rubio had the stature of a U.S. senator. But they were all “branded” by Donald Trump.

He won in 2016 because the choice was between him and “Crooked Hillary.” Hillary Clinton was many things, some good (attorney, first lady, two-term U.S. senator, secretary of state), some not so good (stiff, unlikable, careless, pompous). She was not, ever, “crooked.” The fact that Americans put some credence into that label is a testament to the strength and power of labels, and the effectiveness of Donald J. Trump in branding his opponents.

Much like “fake news” has led too many Americans to distrust well-established, honest media outlets, negative branding has led to the ruination of reputations.

So does the “Socialist” brand have any credence? Socialism, as a form of government, is grounded in the abolition of private property. Nothing close to that will be advocated by the Democratic nominee.

Socialism does embody the idea of a redistribution of wealth by the government, and it will be argued that increased taxes on the wealthy are a form of redistribution. That would ignore the fact that any tax increase promoted by the Democratic nominee would still be far short of the maximum tax brackets that existed for most of our history since the passage of the 16th Amendment 110 years ago. At one point the highest marginal income tax rate was 94 percent, and for over a quarter century in my lifetime, it was over 80 percent. Indexing tax brackets is not socialism; it is fairness.

The community is valued over the individual in socialism. Progressive policies, even left-of-center policies, seek to protect the individual, especially those who need to be protected the most.

Repetition, simplicity and consistency are at the core of branding.

Careful thought, thorough examination and independent evaluation are at the core of intelligent decision making.

The president rolled out his Socialist branding campaign at the State of the Union address, and was quickly supported by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who praised the speech by saying, “We can never allow the United States of America to dim our light by sliding into the failures of socialism.”

Who, exactly, is advocating that? No one in the leadership of the Democratic Party and no presidential contender. Obviously it will be easier to make such a label stick if Bernie Sanders becomes the nominee, but even his positions fall outside the realm of Socialism. Democratic Socialism is, by definition, not Socialism. It is enough, though, to make me sincerely hope that he is not the nominee. Same for Elizabeth Warren. Why make Trump’s branding campaign so easy?

Joe Biden would be the most difficult to brand a Socialist, but he, too, will be saddled with the label given to the Democratic Party: They’re all Socialists! Of course in the biggest bit of hypocrisy and irony ever known in politics, Biden has already been labeled “Creepy Joe.” Did someone just call the kettle black?

Most Americans know very little about the Democrats running for president. That, of course, led to the opening that Donald Trump exploited. Before one can research the policies of a Kamala Harris or an Amy Klobuchar, for example, we are supposed to think they, both U.S. senators, are Socialists. Did New Jersey elect a Socialist as our senator? No. But if Corey Booker becomes the nominee, as unlikely as that is, that is what he will be labeled.

The country spent the 2016 election deciding who not to vote for. Dislike my opponent more than you dislike me, and I win. Such was, and will be, Donald Trump’s strategy. Un-American, traitors, treasonous ... Socialists. Brace yourself for the charges as they come flying out. If we wait until next year to examine the policies of all of the candidates for president in both parties (at least one other Republican is running), it will be too late. The Socialist brand will have won and truth would have lost.

Donald Trump is the only president who has never gotten a favorable rating from at least half of the country in the history of the Gallup Poll. He will not need to if the country believes his opponent is “some Socialist.”

Socialism is an economic system. Democracy is a political ideology. Democracy works only with an informed electorate. Become informed.

John M. Imperiale of Harvey Cedars can be reached at


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