As I write this, Donald Trump has just won the Indiana Republican primary, and has now become the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States. My Political Science professors from the distant past at Brown must be rolling over in their graves (unsurprisingly, they were nearly all Marxists!). This now sets up an almost indescribably delicious election cycle, as Trump and Hillary Clinton will duke it out during the next six months for all the marbles in what may be the most intense heavyweight boxing match in the history of American politics.
High theater indeed! But I must confess that I have a palpable sense of unease as I consider the potential ramifications of all this, and I must say that the potential impact on fourth quarter retail jewelry sales is deeply disturbing. In this context, let’s look at the Trump phenomenon, with an eye towards building a game plan that will properly navigate what may be stormy seas ahead.
To say that the political pundit class misread the possibility of Trump’s potential success would be a major understatement. The problem, I think, is that America’s political elites collectively failed to adequately understand a fundamental shift that has occurred in the American political scene. This shift has been brought about not so much by Trump’s rhetoric, but rather by the constant drumbeat of President Obama’s narrative about America itself. So let’s consider the Obama narrative.
From President Obama’s perspective (and indeed, from the perspective of the liberal New England intelligentsia that shaped his world view), America was founded by a group of white slave owners who overthrew British rule so as to further their own selfish ambitions. In this narrative, our Founders and their descendants “stole” the North American continent from the indigenous native American population, and in so doing destroyed a legitimate, socially and environmentally responsible aboriginal society (hence the current obsession with removing Columbus Day as a National Holiday). Indeed, from the Obama perspective, the whole notion of America’s “Manifest Destiny” was actually the self-serving mantra of a malevolent imperialist empire seeking to establish hegemony over an increasing section of the globe’s oppressed masses. And this President has made it abundantly clear that in his view, the notion of American Exceptionalism is a mirage.
According to the Obama narrative, America’s mischievous acts on the global stage repeatedly produced misery for indigenous populations, as our country replaced the declining British empire as the world’s foremost oppressor. Every move that America made (often motivated by selfishness and greed) resulted in the destabilization and destruction of beneficent political structures, as we cultivated international arrangements that furthered our selfish economic ambitions.
At home, our ongoing experiment in “Social Darwinism” allowed the elite and powerful to “steal” the value of labor from the working class, while systemic racism prevented generation after generation of the nation’s African American population from participating in the creation of wealth in American society. And it’s not that the social welfare programs of the ‘60s, combined with decades of Affirmative Action, failed because they were wrong-headed, entrapping an entire sub-culture through the destruction of the black family and creation of a sense of entitlement and victimhood. Instead, from President Obama’s perspective, the problem with the Great Society programs was that they were insufficiently redistributive, failing to adequately shift massive amounts of wealth from one group of Americans to another to compensate for past inequities. In fact, President Obama views the notion of American society as a “meritocracy” as not just abhorrent - it’s plain silly. “One of my pet peeves,” he recently said, “is successful people not realizing that they were just plain lucky.”
The perpetuation of this narrative over the past eight years, combined what appears to have been surrender, if not downright complicity, on the part of Republican elites, has had, in my view, an extraordinary, unprecedented impact on American political culture. We have now witnessed the unchaining of the two main political parties from their philosophical roots, subsequently creating a scenario where the Republican and Democratic parties appear no longer to be aligned under “Conservative” and “Liberal” ideologies.
Instead, for many, the Republican party has now acquired the mantle of the “Pro-America” party by default, as the constant negative drumbeat of Obama’s “Progressive” narrative has had the effect of redefining the Democratic party as the “Anti-America” party. Simultaneously, Trump’s nationalistic, anti-establishment message “trumped” the more traditional, Reagan-esque conservative platform that in others years would have led someone else to the nomination. So if you’ve been wondering how in the world someone as outrageous and decidedly un-conservative (at least as traditionally defined) as Donald Trump could become the Republican nominee, I believe this new philosophical delineation between the two parties is the answer.
If you’ve persuaded yourself that Trump is unelectable (and yes, his unfavorables, especially with women, are ridiculously high), then you’d better consider how this redefinition of Republican as the pro-American party will play out as November draws near. Also, recognize that national polls are meaningless in trying to anticipate the outcome of the Presidential elections. It doesn’t really matter how far Trump is underwater in highly populous, massively Democrat-leaning states such as California and New York. What really counts is what’s happening in the electorate of just six or seven states, the so-called “Battleground” or “Swing” states, because that’s where the election will be decided. And in these States, being the Pro-America party is going to compensate pretty significantly for some of Mr. Trump’s idiosyncrasies. So rather than being a Democratic rout, as many commentators are currently predicting, I suspect that the coming Presidential race is going to be a real nail biter, with Trump rapidly closing the gap, and perhaps even leading after the post-convention bounce in July. Which, at least for the period from mid-September until election day, bodes very poorly for retail sales in the jewelry sector.
Yes, if the election were pre-ordained to be a Democratic rout, while this might be very depressing for many self-employed business people, the mere predictability of the outcome would diminish the toll on jewelry sales. But if, instead as I believe, a highly competitive race emerges with an unpredictable outcome, this will cause Americans to become mesmerized, focusing almost exclusively on the daily campaign news, and effectively sitting on their wallets.
Exactly why Presidential elections cause people to stop spending “until we know who the President is going to be” is unclear, but it’s the way things are likely to be as we approach the fall, so if you’ve been waiting for a good excuse to take an extended vacation, this October will be a good time to do it. It will also be virtually impossible to buy advertising as we near the election, because of the massive amounts of political advertising expenditures that will displace routine advertising. Furthermore, with consumers taking a time out as the election unfolds, the period from mid-September until November 8 might be a really good time to place your advertising expenditures on hold.
So what should be your strategy, given the scenario described above? Expect a serious decline in sales from mid-September until mid-November. So save up your advertising dollars, and then ramp things up aggressively as soon as the election is over. Plan an event of some kind for the weekend after the election, since consumers who haven’t spent money on anything for 6-8 weeks may be ready to treat themselves. Most importantly, increase your advertising spend dramatically on trend items in December.
In the event that Hillary wins, disappointed affluent consumers may not spend much on jewelry in December, which may diminish your sales of “staple items”, particularly in higher price points, but trend-setters will still want to be the first in their social group to own trendy items, so I suspect that this will be the one jewelry sector that will be reliable as Christmas unfolds. Above all else, resist the natural urge to go into a defensive shell. Christmas will not be canceled, regardless of who wins the election, so prepare to deploy the advertising resources necessary to capitalize on the opportunity that the Holiday gift-giving season presents.