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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Living in a Post-Institution Age: The Presidency

What happens when we let a mere brand try to substitute for an institution?

November 13, 2016



Me and Apple are going through a tough time right now.

I recently had to buy a replacement Apple TV for a unit that crapped out at 14 months, past its warranty, but long before the expected life span. My MacBook Air – admittedly after over five years of extremely hard use – has reached the point where the battery holds no more than 40 minutes charge and I cannot simultaneously listen to iTunes and use a web browser without the fan sounding like a C130 on takeoff.

The blue-shirted Genius at the Apple Store told me my model is too old to qualify for their battery replacement service ($129).  I may have growled at the nice young man with the interesting facial hair when I got that news.

When I opened the Apple TV box and the first thing to fall out was the Apple insignia stickers they include with every product, I though, eff that. I am not in the mood to be your brand ambassador.

I’ve been looking at Chromebooks, since I could buy four of them for the price of a single MacBook Air replacement.

That said, has there been a more successful brand of the last decade than Apple? I can’t think of one.

When Apple was flying highest, they met the most important criteria of a successful brand, desirable image, backed by good products, a virtuous circle. Slap one of those stickers on my forehead for all I care. Heck, make it a tattoo.

But the Apple brand has encountered some recent turbulence. The Apple Watch is “meh,” and when it comes to the iPhone 7, you’ll have to pry my dedicated headphone jack out of my cold dead hands.

Still, I’m not worried about Apple’s fortunes. The brand is at least built on something, and a few product missteps can be rectified.

A potent brand can be so powerful that they take on the outward appearance of an “institution,” but even a successful and enduring corporate institution with a seemingly indestructible brand can collapse if the brand is either irreparably tarnished, or fails to deliver the product or services people want, i.e, Kodak.

Then there are the truly empty brands that rise and collapse because there was little to nothing behind them but a hope and a wish. Remember Groupon?

Or how about Theranos, the brainchild of one-time wunderkind CEO Elizabeth Holmes that promised to diagnose disease with a pinprick of blood?

Theranos went from a $9 billion valuation to almost zero, once it was exposed as essentially fraudulent, a company that did and made nothing.

Theranos was a brand built on a sales pitch, and when the pitch proved to be hollow, collapse ensued.


Colleges and universities are brands, but to be successful, they must first be institutions built on enduring substance. Higher education exists not to sell things, but to do things.

This is why Harvard remains the most desirable college destination in the country, while Donald Trump is subject to a class action fraud lawsuit for Trump University.

But as I argued last week, more and more energy inside our schools is going towards the brand, with less care for the work of the institution. It is now more important to look good than to do good.

But long term, institutions only survive by doing. A good brand alone isn’t sufficient protection for institutional collapse.

Most of our institutions have not become Trump University (an outright scam), but at what point will we cross a line to servicing the brand at the expense of students and learning?

Has it happened already?


Political campaigns have always involved branding the candidate and message – Reagan’s “Morning in America,” George W.’s “compassionate conservatism,” Barack Obama’s “Hope,” for example – and those brands gave rise to a kind of sales pitch, but in each previous case, those potent brands and successful pitches have been rooted in coherent underlying philosophies backed by at least somewhat doable governing promises (the politician’s version of product).

One of the reasons Donald Trump’s electoral victory may have surprised many is because we (including myself here) thought, that at some level, the presidency, as an institution, would be resistant to a candidate who was all pitch and no product.

This thinking was obviously wrong. The presidency can indeed by won[1] on pure, unadulterated sales pitch, otherwise known as B.S.

I believed that many aspects of the Trump brand were inconsistent with the institution of the presidency. How could boasting of sexually assaulting women, playing coy with white supremacy, outright rejecting core principles of American pluralism, displaying near total ignorance of international affairs, and cozying up to a hostile foreign power not be “disqualifying?”

Presidents don’t do that stuff, or so many thought.

If that wasn’t enough, surely voters would see through the policy promises that were impossible – Mexico paying for a border wall, and the U.S. government rounding up and deporting between 5 and 13 million undocumented immigrants, for example - and reject the candidate.

The Clinton campaign’s primary communication strategy was to hammer Trump on his unfitness to the office of the presidency, almost always using his own words.

And it worked. Exit polls show that 63% of voters didn’t think Trump has “the temperament to serve effectively as president.”

But one of the reasons Donald Trump is our next president is because 20% of the people who think he’s not capable of being president voted to make him president.

In a post-institution age, the pitch is all that matters. I thought that the presidency was one of the few solid institutions remaining that enough people, regardless of circumstance or ideology, would protect it for someone they (63%, remember) believed to be unfit.

I was wrong.

We have gone from candidates making campaign promises – pledges that the candidate will attempt to fulfill[2] - to what Trump confidant Newt Gingrich recently called campaign “devices” while distancing Mr. Trump from his promise to build the Mexican border wall with Mexico’s money.

The difference is perhaps subtle, but deeply meaningful. No promise was made, so no promise can be broken.

The question now is what happens when we get the product home. Early indications aren’t encouraging. Trump himself seems less than interested in the work of governing, already asking how many nights he can sleep in his Trump Tower penthouse, and suggesting that he mostly wants to continue to do large rallies, though it’s not clear what those rallies would be for, other than to give President Trump something fun to do.

All those lingering campaign “devices” leave the nascent Trump administration in something of a bind, having pledged something for everybody. A Michigan voter interviewed by the New York Times voted for Trump to give Washington a “kick in the rear.” At the same time, she doesn’t want to see the Affordable Care Act repealed because her daughter is receiving subsidized care at $50 per month.

She indicated that she thought that Donald Trump was “bluffing” about ACA repeal.

Workers at a Carrier plant near Indianapolis believe President Trump will save their jobs, rather than see them exported to Mexico.

This is not going to happen.

The transition team is reportedly having a hard time finding national security staffers who will work in a Trump Administration. The list of possible cabinet members and White House staffers come from so many different political philosophies that it’s difficult to know what will come out of his White House.

President-elect Trump is described by his own people as a tabula rasa on policy, one that sometimes erases himself like an etch-a-sketch, as seen yesterday when he sent out a Tweet denying he’d spoken favorably  about nuclear proliferation, even though he’d done so several times.

On November 11th, President-elect Trump said we’ll have a “deportation force.”

November 13th, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said fears of a deportation force are “unfounded.”

I am deeply distressed by the fact that so many racists and white supremacists and “white nationalists” seem suddenly emboldened by a President Trump, including the one who is going to be one of his “senior counselors.”

I am fearful of the potential damage of a Trump Presidency’s policies, particularly when it comes to the rights of the vulnerable.

But maybe I’m most worried that Donald Trump stands to break the most important and influential institution we have.

What happens when you elect a sales pitch to run an institution, when you open the box and find nothing inside except the sticker (or hat)?

We’re about to find out.

[1] Albeit with a needle-threading electoral college victory and robust popular vote defeat.

[2] Studies of these promises show that presidents actually fulfill over 2/3 of the promises they make while campaigning.

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