Trump is running an 'It's a Tide ad' presidency

Key Points
  • The most brilliant ads in the Super Bowl were the Tide commercials that effectively hijacked our attention from other spots.
  • In many ways, Donald Trump is the "It's a Tide ad" president as he and his opponents effectively insert him into every aspect of our politics and culture.
  • This is mostly good news for President Trump's political fortunes, but bad for our democracy.
It's a Tide Ad.
Source: Tide

This is an editorial column, not a Tide ad.

It feels like that needs to be said that after Procter & Gamble pulled off the most brilliant Super Bowl campaign probably ever. The company did it by first airing an ad with David Harbour of "Stranger Things" fame:

Then, it broke into what looked like ads for other products with the same pitchman informing everyone that they too were actually Tide ads. It effectively hijacked the attention away from every other commercial that followed as you had to wonder if they too were Tide ads... at least for the first few seconds.

This genius Super Bowl stunt is a clear representation of our current political climate: Donald Trump is effectively running the "It's a Tide ad" presidency.

It doesn't matter if the discussion topic is politics, sports, or popular entertainment; sooner or later it becomes about President Trump.

Much of this is the result of President Trump's extreme desire to grab and keep the spotlight. His refusal to back down from almost any fight, whether he starts it or not, ensures his name remains prominent in our confrontation-focused news media. His regular use of Twitter as a sounding board for his own genuine voice keeps him connected to the public without any buffers. And he gets plenty of help from his opponents in keeping the national focus on himself.

Of course, this focus on President Trump personally has a steep downside for the nation as a whole. At no time in American history have we drifted further from the Founding Fathers' efforts to make our nation less about monarchistic cults of personality and more about constitutional rights.

America has been sliding into personality-driven politics over ideas for decades. The Trump obsession proves many of us wrong who thought the focus on the individual in politics had reached its heights when Democrats and even many moderates were almost worshiping the very image of President Barack Obama. No constitutional democracy can really be safe when elections and political debate effectively become a referendum on an individual candidate's likability or lack thereof. But that is definitely where we are right now in America.

President Trump uses several tools, especially Twitter, to insert himself into almost every aspect of American life. He takes credit for the economy in a more pervasive and insistent way than any president before him. He weighs in on the NFL national anthem protests and TV news program ratings. He bashes celebrities. Like the Tide ad pitchman interrupting what looked like commercials for other products, President Trump seems to be always there.

But this isn't all on President Trump. None of this would be possible if his opponents didn't feed into this singular focus on the man himself. And boy are they focused on him. Just try finding any real message or policy proposal from the Congressional Democrats that isn't essentially just a "resist Trump" campaign.

Policy wonks in academia and the Washington think tanks somehow tie most everything to the Trump name. And those seeking a respite from the Trump-focused political rancor in entertainment have to endure multiple mentions of President Trump on everything from sitcoms to the Grammy awards.

Let's paint the picture clearly in this context. Imagine if every other Super Bowl advertiser felt compelled to waste some portion of their extremely expensive time by telling the viewers this was not a Tide ad for 15 seconds or so? That's effectively what President Trump's opponents are doing every time they make whatever attention they've grabbed away from his voice and still dedicate it to discussing President Trump.

Most of this singular obsession with all things Trump helps his cause. Politics at its core is a lot about name recognition, and President Trump has taken that to a new level. He also is able to use this obsession with his personal fortunes to get the Democrats to take their eyes off the ball legislatively.

The GOP's ability to pass the tax reform bill and its repeal of the Obamacare mandate had a lot to do with that. The Democrats were distracted during that process as they were putting much more of their attention on attacking President Trump and hyping special counsel Robert Mueller's probe of alleged Trump campaign collusion with the Russians.

Just as importantly, the focus on Trump allows him to control the narrative. When he presents a coherent message and makes a logical case for a policy, it gains the kind of attention other politicians could only dream of attaining.

It sure seems like that's what happened after last week's State of the Union address. Initial polls of voters who saw the speech were strongly positive for President Trump. Rasmussen Reports' daily presidential tracking poll shows his overall approval rating has enjoyed a major boost since the speech, now rising to 49 percent and dead even with his disapproval rating in that poll.

Another aspect of this obsession with Donald Trump on a personal level is that it essentially lowers the bar he needs to clear to soothe many voters' fears. Last month's massive focus on Michael Wolff's "Fire and Fury" book about the Trump White House gave birth to several days of news media discussions about President Trump's mental health.

Now that was surely embarrassing and damaging in one sense to the president. However, it also allowed him to shut down an argument against him simply by acting sane and collected in public. President Trump tackled that during several public appearances following the book's release, including conducting an hour-long on-camera cabinet meeting, speaking at Davos, and then delivering that long but clear State of the Union address.

This is most similar to the demonization of President Ronald Reagan as a unhinged war monger who would plunge the world into a nuclear holocaust. That narrative became pervasive in politics and the entertainment culture during much of Reagan's first term. But his public personality eased the public more and more over time, as did the fact that no nuclear or even conventional war broke out. That, coupled with an improving economy, ensured a historic Reagan re-election win in 1984.

It's not all good news for President Trump. He becomes an automatic and almost bipartisan target for ridicule with every Twitter typo or malapropism. The result is even President Trump's ardent supporters usually have to start every defense of him with the, "I know he often says something stupid, but..." line. That kind of embarrassment can erode support and voter turnout on Election Day even if it doesn't convince supporters to vote for another candidate.

Also, one of his opponents is likely to eventually be smart enough not to take the bait, respond to him personally, and make his or her message simply about opposing this president. It's very hard to find such a person in politics. Almost all of the Democrats and plenty of Republicans have indeed found it impossible not to vie for the position of chief Trump-basher from time to time. Perhaps that's why celebrities who have generally avoided mentioning President Trump by name — think Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Oprah Winfrey — have so much buzz attached to them these days. Winfrey has found that buzz so intense she's had to say she's not running. Johnson is being more coy.

But even that option is just more of the same personality driven problem. Like it or not, Trump dominates American politics and culture, and his supporters and detractors can't seem to stop feeding into it. Perhaps President Trump's re-election slogan can seize on the genius of the Tide Super Bowl campaign and go from "Make America Great Again" to "America: Yeah, it's a Trump thing."

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

Related Tags