US President Donald Trump. Picture: AFP/MANDEL NGAN
US President Donald Trump. Picture: AFP/MANDEL NGAN

When Americans go to the polls these days, no matter what election they are voting in, be it for the Senate, governor, Congress or local government, they end up voting for or against Donald Trump.

For better or worse (often worse) he has dominated the American political landscape to such an extent that every election of any kind is actually a referendum about him. This dynamic means that the actual Republican party itself plays a very small role in how votes are cast. People are voting for, or against him, rather than for the Republicans or Democrats.

He has done this by imposing his personality onto the US political landscape. He is everywhere. His opinions are everywhere. His tweets are everywhere. His hair is everywhere.

He has made himself the story.

While there is, perhaps, very little else that Cyril Ramaphosa can learn from Trump, when it comes to personality politics there are clues to how he can achieve electoral success in the 2019 elections. As a decent and modest man, his instincts will probably be to avoid the “presidential-style” campaigning America has invented and Trump has super-sized.

But a delicately pursued strategy of using Ramaphosa to be the face of the ANC electoral campaign is probably the only way to achieve the electoral win he needs.

The ANC brand has been pummeled by ongoing scandals of astonishing breadth and murkiness. The state-capture gang has dragged this proud liberation organisation through mud of every conceivable colour and texture. Indeed, they seem to have invented new kinds of mud through which to drag it.

Ramaphosa’s brand, however, seems to reflect the character of the man: modest, honest and hardworking.

Until now, the needs of the party have always come first. Hardworking cadres avoided the limelight and any pursuit of personal profile was frowned upon

So while he will (thank god) never be an unstable late-night tweeter, it would be good marketing to push him and what he stands for to the front of the ANC’s campaign, and to try and make the election a referendum on  Ramaphosa and his leadership.

Every piece of communication needs to feature him. The narrative needs to be about him and the party needs to be secondary. This represents a profound change for the ANC. Until now, the needs of the party have always come first. Hardworking cadres avoided the limelight and any pursuit of personal profile was frowned upon. Party discipline was paramount and the story was always about the party rather than individuals.

Celebrity status

This has traditionally been how leftist parties have worked. The Labour party in the UK worked in a similar way until Tony Blair re-invented that dynamic and led the party to victory after years in the bleak wilderness of political irrelevance.

But politics has changed since the 1990s when the ubiquitous nature of the 24/7 media cycle created a media environment where voters now feel they “know” politicians in the same way that they “know” celebrities. In fact, politicians now are celebrities — whether they like it or not.

And Ramaphosa, one suspects, does not like it. He seems like a man who does not crave the spotlight like a Blair or a Trump. But given how the world of media has changed, the spotlight, unfortunately, likes him.

The ANC’s brand is in bad shape, and his brand is in great shape. So it’s common sense that his brand needs to be front and centre.

By taking a (tiny) leaf out of the Trump playbook the president can secure the convincing win that he, and the ANC, need. That (and that) alone, is what our president can learn from the tweeter-in-chief…

• Davenport is chief creative officer for Havas SA.