TTP: The Moment Never Dies

One moment, one event, can live a long, long time. And if it happens on a public stage or in the public eye, the staying power can take on even greater magnitude.

Once more, we have a shared point between POTUS 7 and POTUS 45. Well before any action they took in the White House, this moment had, in the public’s mind or at least the collective minds of their followers, made Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump into who they were and always would be.

For Jackson–the Battle of New Orleans against the British in early 1815.

For Trump–the Apprentice, a reality television show appearing from early 2004 to 2015.

The two things aren’t equivalent as American events. They are, however, similar as a source of leadership identity.

Jackson’s experience with the Battle of New Orleans had two layers. One layer was his personal conduct as a leader. In both the run-up and execution of the battle, he was a whirlwind of action, slashing and supportive at the same time, open to ideas yet unwavering in his resolve, willing to work with people who were very different from himself, and capable of nearly unimaginable tenacity.

The other layer of Jackson’s moment in early 1815 was circumstantial. In terms of establishing an enduring reputation among Americans, the circumstances proved as vital as leadership. The victory was against the British, who at that time still embodied everything the United States had been established to resist and defeat. Also, Jackson’s status as a rugged frontiersman was, to Americans, a delicious contrast to aristocratic British officers and professional soldiers. It was a timeless story of a motley crew of misfits destroying their well-heeled, condescending opponents. The religiously inclined cast it as a rustic David slaying a privileged Goliath.

The battle’s timing was perfect for Jackson. The entire War of 1812 was a disappointment to Americans; it was a divisive war lacking in clear American victories. The war included the shocking humiliation of British Redcoats burning the White House and attacking Washington DC. The words of “The Star-Spangled Banner” honored a victory of survival, not a hard thrashing of the enemy.

Jackson’s victory at New Orleans blazed like a torch against the grayness of the war. So striking was the outcome that it allowed Americans to regard the war as an overall victory, which is certainly wasn’t. No one cared about trifling detail–American saw the war was a success because the Battle of New Orleans was a success. And they attributed its success to a singular leader they henceforth called “The General.” It was a ready image and reputation for Jackson to tap into the rest of his life.

So deep did this feeling run that Jackson was still receiving awards and mementos from the battle almost twenty years later as POTUS. Americans still recognized the anniversary of The General’s extraordinary day.

Like Jackson before him, Trump had slugged it out on a frontier of his own choosing. The Trump frontier affected the onset of his Battle of New Orleans. He had spent years in the business of massive real development deals, many of which involved lifestyle, leisure, glamour, and wealth. He took risks, gambled on results (often losing), and marketed countless ancillary products and ventures. Trump was one of the foremost advocates and innovators of the power of brand.

But it was a particular experience–played out one television season at a time, for eleven seasons, in front of millions of Americans–that cemented a reputation upon which he later built a camp of followers, his foot soldiers for 2016.

The Apprentice was Donald Trump’s Battle of New Orleans. the show featured Trump as the pre-eminently successful business person, the center of a fabulous lifestyle, dressed in an expensive suit, seated in a softly-lit and dark-paneled conference room, face-to-face with eagerly aspiring executives, and holding court until his cryptically-worded, clear-cut decision: “you’re fired.”

Trump was engaging, interactive, attentive to detail in producing and performing for the show, and keen to sense what would be popular and appealing without any real training or preparation. And all of it fed into a single outcome–the burnishing of the Trump brand.

Thirteen years before Trump entered the White House, The Apprentice began to collect a core band of loyalists who followed him tirelessly. After the first show aired, NBC public relations director Jim Dowd said, “People on the street embraced him. He was mobbed. And all of a sudden there was none of the old mocking…he was a hero and had not been one before.”

As a source of reputation, The Apprentice demonstrated its power for Trump in outlasting the Great Recession. It was a sign of his identity’s new endurance that as a symbol of business wealth and lavish living, The Apprentice protected Trump at a time of financial collapse and economic misery. That was a sign of the reality show’s Battle of New Orleans-like endurance for Trump’s identity as a leader.

Jim Dowd observed to Forbes Magazine that the show “was a bridge to the 2016 campaign.”

The resilience of the bridge reached back to another time.

Like the Battle of New Orleans, The Apprentice was an ornament. The show symbolized an assumption of victory and success for those who pursued them as either a self-possessed commander or a self-made billionaire. Jackson was the general many Americans wanted to be–raw, inspirational, courageous to an extreme, unfettered by professional schooling. Trump was the business magnate many Americans wanted to be–bold, confident, swift to decide, unafraid to speak frankly, surrounded by opulence. And as sources of what people could choose to believe about the leader they admired, both the Battle of New Orleans and The Apprentice would depict the person they wanted in the Presidency, regardless of what transpired in the White House.

Whether in raccoon-skin hats or Maga caps, the strongest supporters of the President see the leader as an extension of the unique defining moment.

If you’re a leader, you have a formative experience (maybe more than one) that has shaped your leadership. You filter and sort many of your challenges through that experience. That’s a given. That’s absolutely OK.

But not all formative experiences are the same. Some are witnessed in a public way and widen in awareness among your followers, among other people. In this type of experience, in your own Battle of New Orleans or Apprentice, you’ll find a reserve of steady loyalty and support in the future. Be careful, though, that you also don’t find a trap, a deep hole from which you need to escape but may find it difficult to do so.

Sorry for the length. Thanks for reading. All the best, Dan