By Charles Okwir
London – 7 Nov 2016: The campaigns for what is arguably the greatest political prize on the planet are all but finished. While uncertainty reigns about who will pick up the keys to the White House, one thing is certain: if America were a person, it would agree that the bitter campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has grievously injured its super power brand and image as a mature democracy.
Let’s be clear: there is nothing to suggest that the brute bitterness and acrimony of this election cycle will cause perceptions about America’s greatness to completely vanish – not at all. In fact, a mere 16 month ago, a Pew Research Centre survey on ‘America’s Global Image’ showed that “…America’s overall image around the world remains largely positive.”
Indeed, US First Lady Michelle Obama seemed to have a pretty good idea of what a “largely positive” American image means when she said at a recent rally that: “our democracy is revered around the world, and free elections are the best way on earth to choose our leaders.”
But it’s not just about having a democracy that is revered around the world. America has the strongest and most robust economy in the world, and its decisions on business and trade impact global markets – markets that affect billions of lives. It also spends more on defence than any other country on the planet, and has the most powerful army in the world with nearly 800 military bases across the globe. In other words, it’s as far as can be from a banana republic – it essentially leads the world.
That is the brand and image that is at stake for America – and a few prominent Americans know that that brand and image is now facing mortal danger.
Indeed, in a direct response to Donald Trump’s claims of “an establishment plot” to rig the elections, and his threat to reject the results, Michelle Obama warned that, “when a presidential candidate threatens to ignore our voices and reject the outcome of the election, he is threatening the very idea of America itself…” And she is not the only one who holds that view.
US Secretary of State John Kerry added even greater credence to the establishment’s worry about the risk to America’s global brand and image when he said: “Everywhere I go, every leader I meet, they ask about what is happening in America. They cannot believe it. I think it is fair to say that they’re shocked. They don’t know where it’s taking the United States of America. It upsets people’s sense of equilibrium about our steadiness, about our reliability.” Mr Kerry affirmed.
When John Kerry talks about upsetting “people’s sense of equilibrium” about American “steadiness” and “reliability”, he is in fact talking about the risk of destroying the “settled perception” of American greatness that billions of people around the world have. And he is right – because who would have thought that in this, the 21st century, an American citizen would declare to the world that “I think we are on the verge of a civil war, a racial war. This (election) could be the spark that sets it off.”
For many foreigners, 300 years of being fed on the “America is great” narrative makes the possibility of an internal American civil war almost unfathomable – too much to even contemplate. Emilya, a 29-year old from Azerbaijan seemed to have felt that exact bewilderment when she asked: “Isn’t America all about equality and liberty? – adding that, “what strikes me the most is how Trump represents the complete opposite of America’s fundamental values.”
It is, for my money at least, a very serious brand and image problem for a country whose president is, rightly or wrongly, viewed as the leader of the so-called “free world”. Perhaps that is exactly what was going through Michelle Obama’s head when she said: “I can’t believe I am saying that a candidate for president of the United States has bragged about sexually assaulting women.”
In fact, to appreciate the danger to America’s global brand and image even more, we must detach the person of Donald Trump from the picture and ask ourselves whether it is the America we know that is now feeding us on news about its potential president bragging about sexually assaulting women.
America, after all, is the country that is known for lecturing other world leaders about the nobility of respecting fundamental human rights, about gender equality, about the unquestionable wisdom of educating girls, and about the hopeless futility of resorting civil war to resolve political disputes? How can it be that it’s the same America threatening civil war to resolve its own political dispute?
The more you think about it, the more you invite uncomfortable questions that threaten to shatter our “settled perception” of American greatness. When America threatens to completely shift its focus and wealth to itself, and when America threatens to shut its doors to foreigners, isn’t America giving up on the very idea of the “American Dream” that it has boasted about for centuries?
This is not, and should never be about Donald Trump the man – it’s about the coveted place that America occupies in the minds of global citizens. It’s about American greatness – greatness that Newton Karanja, a Kenyan on Twitter, sadly thinks is about to fall on its sword. “Trump is a racism candidate. If they elect him, America should kiss ‘super power’ title goodbye.” Karanja predicted.
When a potential president of the United States of America talks about an urgent and burning need to “make America great again”, isn’t that an implicit admission that “American greatness” may in fact have been an embellished psychological fraud crafted to procure unfair global advantage for America? Isn’t America in effect talking down its own “greatness” before our very own eyes?
It reminds me of British Labour party leaders who, perhaps spell-bound by their deep dislike of their leader, spent hundreds, if not thousands of man-hours this summer touring radio and television studios telling British voters that they are “not ready for government” with Jeremy Corbyn as party leader.
Katie Stallard, the Asia Correspondent for Sky News summed up America’s public relations quagmire beautifully when she said this (election) has been “excellent public relations for authoritarian rulers everywhere.” The profanity inherent in the suggestion that an American presidential election has served as some sort of “we are not alone” justification for authoritarian leaders is extraordinary.
As former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said, “a week is a long time in politics” – so long in fact that it now allows one to legitimately argue that the “largely positive” overall image of America that the Pew Research Centre found in its June 2015 survey may, over the last twelve months, suffered a catastrophic public relations haemorrhage that has left it on its death bed fighting for dear life.
It is almost like America has done something so morally repugnant that our minds are refusing to remember the good socio-political values it stood for. If ever there was a time for ‘America PLC’ to invest in crisis management communications, then that time is now. END
Charles Okwir is a Senior Communications Consultant with www.afroinsights.com Twitter – @COkwir