Chicagoans are reportedly wincing over the appearance of “T-R-U-M-P” in 20-foot-foot tall letters on the façade of the Trump International Hotel & Tower, facing the Chicago River. “Trump is the hottest brand there is,” offered The Donald, by way of explanation. His answer reveals more than he realizes.
The desire to stamp our name on things may be second only to our desire to name things. The latter is part of the cultural mandate, our God-given job description. The former speaks more of hubris, or possibly of fear. When I was young, my mother wrote G-R-E-U-S-E-L in black marker on every article I took to camp - as though my clothing would have appealed to anyone else. Her fear of potential loss motivated an aggressive act of branding. And if we look past branding as a business buzzword, fear of loss - or theft – is at its origin.
So what are we to make of Chicago’s Trump stamp? Surely he isn’t afraid of someone stealing his building. No, I think this act of branding has to be understood in light of Matthew 22 and the account of Jesus and the imperial tax. Jesus’ famous words, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s” are most commonly used to justify Christians paying their taxes to civil government. But it is the second half of Jesus’ remark that applies here.
Whose image and inscription is on the coin? Caesar’s, of course. So whose image and inscription is on the Pharisees - and on you and on me? God’s. Jesus’ profound point is that just as coins belong to Caesar, we belong to God. We are all branded, not out of fear, but out of love.
We are all branded, not out of fear, but out of love.
So is branding imitative of God? Yes, but I think it’s imitative in a bad way, just like accumulating unchecked power images God negatively. Branding Trump-style says, “This is mine,” or worse, “I made this.” It’s the opposite of President Barack Obama’s humbling “You didn’t build that” line. It speaks of pride, vanity and in the worst cases, foolishness. It’s the sin of the bigger barns.
Signage is always in some sense a failure of design. Surely the Statue of Liberty doesn’t need a 20-foot-tall caption to tell us who she is. Neither does the Empire State Building. A 400,000-square-foot royal blue box would probably be recognized as an Ikea store without any sign at all. So unless your design is really weak, branding should be unnecessary. And Chicagoans apparently liked the Trump building just fine before it got TRUMPed. Adding the sign is sort of like wearing a jewel-encrusted necklace of the word “bling.” Kind of redundant, right?
Ultimately, I suspect that Trump’s “hottest brand there is” remark is driven by fear: not of theft, but of mortality. You’ve only got threescore and ten to make your mark, and Trump wants to make his even more indelibly than my mom’s black marker on my white t-shirts. He’s making a bid for immortality, via a 92-story building with his name on it. Those of us who call on the name of Jesus should have something more substantial on which to stake the meaning of our lives.