Don’t look now, but Donald Trump is casting himself as the hero of the pandemic. That’s right, not only is he not culpable for mishandling the deadly virus; he’s the comeback kid. At least, that’s what you’ll believe after seeing this very good ad created by the Trump campaign.
In politics, there’s a saying that you should “hang a lantern” on your problem. Instead of pretending your mess doesn’t exist, turn that lemon into lemonade. Trump takes this rebranding advice to another level, squeezing his many lemons into a cure-all called TrumpAde©️.
What is clear is that Team Trump realizes the message they hoped to run on (a great economy) will no longer fly, and they have found a plausible new story to tell. It’s unclear whether it will work, but you would be hard-pressed to find a more flattering way of casting Trump’s predicament.
First, it’s visually dazzling. Aesthetically, it’s just superb. There is stirring music, quick and beautiful shots of military aircraft buzzing by (he’s a “wartime president!”), frontline workers with masks giving a (gloved) thumbs up, flashes and sounds of the shutter flash, a gazillion American flags! Images of Trump saluting (and being saluted) by military personnel, and, as always, Trump’s narrated greatest hits, which (if edited properly) sound like Reagan meets Churchill—it’s morning again in America, we will never surrender, and more.
The ad begins with ominous music (setting up the problem). But halfway through, in a style reminiscent of a Rocky training montage, the music swells and one gets the sense that our hero has turned the corner—that the pandemic has been vanquished.
Here, Trump’s team employs a particularly disgusting maneuver: the use of what I think could fairly be described as “hostage videos” of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and California Gov. Gavin Newsom saying complimentary things about the federal government’s response. Never mind that they might have been under some sort of duress when, realizing ventilators and masks and tests are doled out by a guy who loves to be praised, those words were uttered.
If it seems like I’m going into a lot of detail here, that’s because there’s so much going on that it’s impossible to catch and process it all in one viewing. For example, I didn’t notice the video of Nancy Pelosi tearing up Trump’s State of the Union speech, followed by the printed words, “TORN UP,” “MOCKED,” and “ATTACKED,” until my third viewing. There’s another photo (this one, I actually did notice right away) of Pelosi standing in front of her stainless steel ice cream freezers. And there’s a quick snippet of Joe Biden (apparently) accusing Trump of “xenophobia” (which by the way Politifact rated as “mostly false”).
For casual viewers, this may have a somewhat subliminal effect. Perhaps after their hundredth viewing, they will be unable to explain why they feel like Democrats are mocking them?
But if the attacks on Pelosi and Biden are somewhat cloaked, the deification of Trump is front and center. “We built the greatest economy the world has ever seen, and we’re going to do it again,” Trump boasts.
This isn’t a new line, but it is a very good one. Rather than pretending the economy is still good (which wouldn’t pass the smell test), Trump suggests that he magically created it the first time—and, therefore, could easily do it again.
In a way, this new narrative gives Trump a more interesting story to tell. It’s hard to embrace a guy who wins all the time and doesn’t face any real adversity (I don’t put sparring with Democrats in the same league as battling a war or pandemic). His is now an underdog story. It’s a comeback story. And who doesn’t like those?
Along the way, Trump’s ad-maker deserves credit, also, for shoehorning every possible positive thing Trump has done this year into one spot. For example, he wants to make sure to remind you that Trump shut down travel from China early. This was probably done to please an audience of one: Donald Trump.
Yes, we should give credit where due. But here, I am reminded of George Costanza, who said, “If you take everything I’ve accomplished in my entire life, and condense it down into one day, it looks decent.” Likewise, if you take everything Trump has accomplished in the last four months, edit out all the bad, and condense it down into a one-minute ad, it looks... passable.
One thing is for sure, an accurate recounting of Trump’s “accomplishments” won’t win this re-election. That’s why this is such an impressively devious messaging strategy.
Still, it’s worth asking whether ads even matter. TV commercials do not exist in a vacuum. If the world still seems to be falling apart in November, no amount of spin or propaganda will fix that. Additionally, for better or worse, earned media has supplanted paid media. Trump’s ability to generate buzz by virtue of his Twitter feed and rallies has proven to matter a lot more than any ad that goes up on TV or is served to us on Facebook.
When Hillary Clinton was outspending him in 2016, this phenomenon benefited him. But now that Trump’s campaign has created a financial juggernaut and a visual masterpiece they are reportedly going to spend seven figures on, they may wish that paid ads matter more.
But what happens the next time Trump suggests that ultraviolet rays can be injected into a person’s body—or attacks “that woman” in Michigan? When it comes to garnering attention, Trump’s biggest competition is himself, and his insane comments and tweets threaten to cannibalize his scripted lines.
It’s unclear whether ads selling Trump’s alternate reality will be enough to overcome his real reality. What is clear is that Democrats should not bet against the power of propaganda. They should not take Trump’s re-election chances too lightly.