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Trump's hostile takeover of the GOP

Donald Trump continues to rewrite American politics. The Republican nomination is now within his reach but by no means certain; the calendar makes him unlikely to reach it prior to June 7. That gives him nearly three months to unify a party in active and open rebellion against his nascent leadership. He will be racing against Ted Cruz — unpalatable to the GOP establishment, but far more popular with many mainstream Republicans.

It is an understatement to say that party unification will require Trump to shift strategy, but unification is critical if he hopes to assume the presidency. A metaphor from the business world may prove instructive.

"Republican," "Democrat," and "Trump" are all valuable brands. Until recently, few would have mentioned them in the same sentence. The former two, tarnished though they may appear, are the premier political brands in the United States; the third is a mark of wealth, entertainment and celebrity.

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump stands between his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski (L) and his son Eric (R) as he speaks about the results of the Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Illinois and Missouri primary elections during a news conference held at his Mar-A-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, March 15, 2016.
Joe Skipper | Reuters
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump stands between his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski (L) and his son Eric (R) as he speaks about the results of the Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Illinois and Missouri primary elections during a news conference held at his Mar-A-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, March 15, 2016.

Over the past nine months, Trump has grown his brand into a new market. His supporters, whose pre-Trump politics are hard to define, seem far more committed to "Trump" than to "Republican." His entry has thus disrupted what had been a comfortable, predictable political market.

Trump's entry was brilliant. He identified "Republican" as a brand in trouble, with a growing rift between management and the customer base, and a large line of solid niche products unable to catch fire. He arrived with his own dedicated consumers to pitch his highly differentiated Trump product as the new Republican flagship. Should he win the nomination, Trump will secure control of the Republican brand.

"Trump's focus must now move beyond brand acquisition to brand management."

A brand, however, is a hollow asset. Mismanagement of a flagship product can deflate brand value quickly. Trump's focus must now move beyond brand acquisition to brand management.

Given the bad feelings inherent in any hostile takeover, Trump must move quickly to reassure the management, workers, and customers of the acquired Republican brand that the new ownership will preserve everything that drew them to it in the first place. The most common way to provide such assurance is to integrate the leaders of the acquired brand into the post-merger board and top management.

As a successful CEO, Trump possesses precisely the background necessary to provide that reassurance. Unlike President Obama, whose hubris and professorial mien led him to insist that he knew more about everything than the experts he hired to assist him, Trump knows that an effective CEO sets direction, identifies talent, and lets gifted, experienced people do their jobs. The presidency is an enormous job requiring an entire Executive Branch.

Trump's outreach to Republicans should begin immediately with discussions of his cabinet — not promises or pledges, which would be illegal, but public musings about the talented Republicans whose advice and contributions he would value. Along the way, he could thank Harry Reid for eliminating the filibuster on Presidential appointments, and promise to have his entire cabinet in place by the end of next January for the most efficient, businesslike transition in American history.

Trump would also thus confront one of the greatest challenges he faces as a candidate: uncertainty about governance in a Trump administration. Uncertainty breeds discomfort and fear; the less certain voters are about Trump's governance, the more likely they are to believe the harshest accusations hurled against him.

One major impetus driving the "NeverTrump" movement is that many of the leading Republicans who dislike the tenor of Trump's campaign also fear the unknown of his program. By discussing his likely cabinet choices, Trump would gain seriousness and stature, replacing one of the most ambiguous putative presidencies in memory with one of the most certain.

This would go a long way to allaying the fears provoked by a suddenly manic and vocal white supremacist fringe attracted to Trump's nationalist rhetoric. Trump may personally stand apart from them but he has not disowned them; that would have been political suicide in the primary. Giving the voters a glimpse of his team would divert attention away from the rabble, or at least put it in perspective.

A stream of well-timed announcements would keep the media focused on Trump's handling of presidential concerns like appointments, personnel, and policy. Each new announcement would reassure parts of the Republican base who know and admire the potential designee.

This unconventional move would fit neatly into Trump's unconventional campaign. By beginning this discussion soon, Trump would begin integrating Republican consumers into his merged brand during the primaries, improving his prospects for securing the requisite 1,237 delegates and for enlisting allies at the convention.

Perhaps most importantly, these discussions would address what marketing research has identified as Trump's greatest weakness. While the Republican brand outpolls the Democratic brand at the generic level, and many individual Republican products outpoll the likely flagship Democratic product "Hillary Clinton," both the Democratic brand and the Clinton product outpoll Trump. Trump must thus change his marketing post-merger. Rather than promoting the Trump brand with "Republican" in small letters, Trump must run as the Republican-branded flagship product, relegating the Trump branding to the smaller font.

The man looking to become the Party of Lincoln's newest leader surely knows that a house divided against itself cannot stand — much less win elections. To heal the division, Trump must undertake the tough work of retaining consumer loyalty following a hostile takeover.

Commentary by Bruce Abramson, Ph.D., J.D. and Jeff Ballabon. Abramson is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, and director of policy at the Iron Dome Alliance. Ballabon is CEO of B2 Strategic where he advises and represents corporate and political clients on interacting with the government and media. He previously headed the communications and public policy departments of major media corporations including CBS News and Court TV. Follow them on Twitter @bdabramson and @ballabon.

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