Around 6:45 p.m. EST on January 8, 2011, I was standing in a Downtown Indianapolis studio apartment eating a room-temperature chicken wing and watching the fourth quarter of the Seahawks-Saints wild card playoff game.
The Saints, the heavy favorites, were down by four points, but it seemed inevitable they’d come back and win. Then, with 3:38 remaining, Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck gave Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch the ball. Lynch cradled it like it was worth something and ran.
That’s not quite right. Lynch didn’t run. He detonated. He juked. He pinballed. He sidestepped. He was a ballet dancer one moment, a bulldozer the next. Tacklers bounced off him; flew past him; attached themselves temporarily to him before slipping off like loose clothing.
During that run, Lynch defied laws of reason, physics, and basic human decency. When he reached the end zone, he leapt into the air, spun his body to face his failed assailants, and, as a final coup de grace, grabbed his crotch.
Invincibility affords you that kind of arrogance. Just ask the NFL. Just ask Donald Trump. As brands, they live in Beast Mode. No scandal, no gaffe, no PR snafu, can bring them down. They are America’s most bulletproof brands.
How Does a Brand Go Beast Mode?
Marketing guru Al Ries famously posited that a brand must occupy a position in the consumer’s mind to be successful.
So it follows that to become more than successful—to become invincible—a brand must occupy a position in the consumer’s soul.
The most powerful brands in America—Harley Davidson, Oprah, Apple—have bonds with audiences that border on the spiritual. It’s no coincidence that the NFL has co-opted America’s chief spiritual activity.
For centuries, the western world reserved Sundays for churchgoing. But over the past 50 years, the rituals and activities of weekly religious worship have been replaced by the rituals and activities of NFL Sunday.
NFL football is more than a hobby for modern Americans. It’s a form of communion. A Facebook post I recently encountered in response to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the National Anthem included a comment from a fan who complained that the NFL needed to do something, because thousands of families rely on the NFL every Sunday.
The bond between the NFL and its fans resembles not only religious faith, but chemical addiction. People rearrange their priorities, invent convenient truths, and ignore moral imperatives in order to preserve it.
That’s why it’s somewhat surprising that the Kaepernick’s protest caused such a crisis of faith for some fans. After all, the NFL has committed a litany of far more mortal sins. Like a long-running concussion scandal that, by now, is objectively reprehensible. Like multiple cases of violence against women and children on the part of NFL players—and the league’s abominable handling of it. Like a class action lawsuit filed by 1,500 ex-players claiming the league recklessly pushed painkillers on them. Like stadium deals that enrich already obscenely rich owners at the expense of ordinary taxpayers.
Some fans may be genuinely unaware of these facts. But most of us choose to ignore them for one of two reasons:
- Football is an irreplaceable component of our spiritual lives.
- The intense pleasure football provides us blots out all feelings of guilt.
Either way, the NFL wins. Again and again.
How Trump Out-Obama’d Obama.
A year ago, I didn’t believe a cartoonish casino mogul and reality TV star could mount a legitimate run at the American presidency.
Clearly, I’d forgotten the lesson of Barack Obama. You know that whole “Make America Great Again” thing? Barack Obama invented that. He called it “Change You Can Believe In,” but the subtext was the same: “America is broken, and I’m the one guy who can fix it.”
People compared Obama’s followers to a cult in 2008, and they weren’t wrong. Roughly half of America developed a spiritual bond with Obama and his message. They put their faith in him.
In 2016, the same thing has happened between Trump and the other half of America. But what Trump is doing that Obama didn’t do—that he couldn’t have done—is ignore the rules of propriety that have historically governed political speech. The minor kerfuffles caused by Trump’s gleeful flouting of these rules would have capsized Obama’s campaign. But Trump’s supporters not only forgive his routine vulgarity. They celebrate it.
Tribalistic emotion, not logic or reason, binds Trump and his followers. For years, his audience has felt ignored, forgotten, humiliated. Trump recognized their pain and offered a solution. And he did it with the kind of raw passion and fire that titillates the reptilian brain. He has stopped short of declaring himself their savior, but that’s clearly what he’s selling. He will restore law and order. He will defeat the nefarious “Crooked Hillary.” He will build a wall to protect them from immigrants. He will destroy the terrorists.
Through a combination of verbal brute force and mindless repetition, Trump has successfully branded himself as a “winner” in the eyes of his supporters. And, just as crucially, he has borrowed directly from Saul Alinksy’s Rules for Radicals in employing ridicule to brand his opponents as liars, low-energy, and above all else, losers.
To his fans who have felt powerless for so many years, Brand Trump represents a glowing and unassailable monolith of power. A receptacle for their faith. And faith is immune to facts or logic. “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” Trump famously said earlier this year.
It doesn’t get anymore Beast Mode than that.
All Beasts Must Die (Maybe).
In the words of Blood, Sweat, and Tears, “What goes up must come down.” And the bigger they come, so they say, the harder they fall.
The NFL’s ascent was slow and steady. So, too, will be its decline.
Trump’s rise was meteoric. Is he in for a Hindenburg-like demise? It doesn’t look like it. Even seemingly major strategic blunders—such as his recent Twitter rant regarding Alicia Machado—always turn out to be mere speedbumps for Trump. And that’s mostly because his followers are too invested to apostatize now. Yes, he’ll probably lose the presidency. But I (and plenty of other people) suspect that his objective all along has been not to get a job, but to win widespread spiritual adulation while buttressing his brand.
If you can manage to look at it dispassionately—which is admittedly hard to do—the Lynchian drama of it all is mesmerizing to watch. Here, Donald Trump is cradling the future of America in his hands. There, he evades yet another scandal. Here, he sidesteps another charge of hypocritical mendacity. The crowd roars.
As Election Day nears, you can almost hear Trump pondering his Inauguration Day coup de grace. Maybe something involving Rosie O’Donnell on the White House lawn.
Nah. That could never happen. Probably.
Photo by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Donald Trump supporter) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons