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Political PR Follies: Trump Goes Rove in Bid for Presidency

By Aaron Perlut, Founding Partner, Elasticity

George W. Bush is frequently referred to as one of the worst presidents in American history. This is highly subjective, of course. But fair or not, it’s also a rather pervasive opinion. But why do so many think so poorly about President Bush? Were his policies really that bad?

Not really, no. Rather, I believe it to be more about optics. His legacy is the product of the “Karl Rove diplomacy” the Bush administration undertook when facing criticism. Or more clearly: Never considering nor admitting you are wrong.

You see, short of Bill Cosby’s drugging of women and having sex with them, if you are willing to say you made a mistake, Americans typically forgive. Indeed, the highway of the forgiven is paved with people who’ve gotten second, third and fourth chances: President Bill Clinton had sexual relations with an intern in the White House, apologized and is now hailed as a near immortal; former Major Leaguer Steve Howe got busted doing cocaine eight times and kept finding his way back to the pitcher’s mound; Arnold Schwarzenegger had a baby with his house cleaner and he’s raking in some serious bank with the newest “Terminator.”

They all rehabilitated their personal brands rather nicely to say the least. But conversely, those who cannot own up to mistakes suffer long-term, often permanent consequences to themselves and the organizations or brands they represent.

Which brings us to the case of real estate mogul Donald Trump, whom you just may have heard is a candidate for President of the United States. And by now, most of us have also heard what he so eloquently stated about Mexicans as he announced his candidacy at the bottom of a swift escalator ride.

“They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

I’m sorry Donald, what did you say? Oh yeah, he said Mexicans are criminals, drug users and rapists.

Much like we’ve seen in Cosby’s case—particularly after recent revelations that he admitted in court proceedings to drugging women before his emphatic recent public statements to the contrary—Trump’s fallout has been appropriately brutal. NBC booted him from his “Apprentice” franchise, Macy’s nixed their clothing line relationship, the PGA Tour withdrew one of its events from a Trump golf course, Chef Geoffrey Zakarian is canceling plans for a restaurant in a new hotel being developed by him, everyone in the party is working to distance themselves from him, and the list goes on for a trip as long, winding and peculiar as that mess atop Trump’s head.

At some point one would surmise that Trump would say to himself, “You know, I need to tone this down just a wee bit or I may not come back from this.” But alas, all the attention has only seemed to fuel his megalomaniacal fire, and Trump has continued to double down over and over and over again.

On America’s birthday, according to CNN, his @realDonaldTrump Twitter account reportedly retweeted the message: “#JebBush has to like the Mexican Illegals because of his wife.” As Jon Stewart has noted on “The Daily Show” several times since the fiasco began—Trump has been the gift that keeps on giving, as long as you enjoy public relations trainwrecks in your Christmas stocking.

There must, however, be a point where the rubber has to meet the road, no? Trump builds things that people pay to use and he has been paid by others to represent them or their brands. When all of that goes away in a heap of reputational ruin and no one wants to use his golf courses, stay in his hotels, buy his condos, and there’s no more TV shows or clothing lines—well, forgive the phrase, but he won’t have a proverbial pot to piss in.

In short, outside of winning the presidency—which seems as real a possibility as Jean Claude Van Dame being recognized as a great stage actor—there is only one way for “The Donald” to find redemption: He must apologize, then go away. Trump needs to head to the showers for a while, out of the public eye for a sustained period of time, then come back in a year with hat-in-hand, apologize again for the offensive things he’s said about Mexican immigrants. Perhaps he could establish an education fund for young Latinos, as Americans admire charitable endeavors almost as much as they love to forgive.

Otherwise, Trump’s legacy—a relatively credible personal brand that many Americans have admired and invested in for some 30 years—will go down in a heap of Rove diplomacy. Instead of lying on that highway of the forgiven, his ongoing PR gaffe will turn him into just another casualty in a ditch on the side of the road.

Aaron Perlut is a founding partner of digital marketing and public relations firm Elasticity.

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