Trumpism and Corporate America

Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzma listens at left as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with business leaders in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 3, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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There are an endless series of divisions in American society which observers have identified as the key to understanding the rise of Trump. White v Black and Hispanic, college educated v non-college educated. Each of these divisions describe the current political polarization. But of course they all overlap. The one that seems most pertinent and illustrative to me for the moment is the division between major cities v small towns and rural areas. And we can see it playing out in contradictory and volatile ways as corporate America (especially consumer facing corporations) tries to find its footing in the Trump Era.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this division. Indeed, it’s been the growing division in American politics for years. On the Democrats’ side this is often referred to as the ‘coalition of the ascendent’. That means not necessarily people who are doing well but those who are doing well under the changing world of the early 21st century and those who expect to be doing better in the future. This is how you get what in many ways seems like an ungainly coalition which includes affluent usually urban professionals along with the young and historically marginalized minority populations.

This is the coalition which won President Obama two elections in 2008 and 2012 and which Democrats believed would win them a third term in 2016 but did not. The best global explanation of Trump’s surprise election is that political demographers underestimated (largely because of over-reliance on exit polls) the degree of white support Obama had in the North and thus how much white support there was left to lose from the Democratic column. But is Trump anomaly or trend? The shift in policy direction brought about by President Trump is so jagged and stark that it raises an obvious question for everyone in the country, which is whether this is the future or some sort of anomaly or transitory backlash. That’s one of the reasons last night’s Super Bowl was an interesting barometer of the bets at least some parts of corporate America are making.

This is not to say that corporate America has any especial significance or value versus other sectors of society. But it’s in the nature of major corporations, particularly those which are consumer oriented, to have few convictions other than the need not to go out of line with its consumers. So it is an interesting barometer.

Before we get to that, almost a 100 companies just signed an amicus brief supporting the lawsuit that led a federal judge in Washington state to temporarily block operation of the President’s immigration ban. But note that the great majority of the companies are tech companies. Tech of course is far from marginal in today’s economy. But it is the most internationalized, science-minded and future-oriented of American industries. It shouldn’t surprise us that they are against the President’s immigration policies and, just as importantly, want to be seen as being so.

Even in the tech sector, however, there are now numerous examples of CEOs trying to curry favor with Trump and facing backlashes from employees or consumers or, more amorphously, elite opinion. Elon Musk got tons of grief for asking people on Twitter to explain their objections to Trump’s immigration executive order so he could take them up with the President at the next meeting of Trump’s ‘business advisory council’. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick felt compelled to resign from the council after a massive backlash and boycott which had competitor Lyft demonstrably donating $1 million to the ACLU and hundreds of thousands of Uber users deleting their Uber smartphone app because of the company’s ties to Trump.

But the Super Bowl is even more of a mass market phenomenon. Football is by far the most popular American sport, with heavy fan participation and viewership reaching deep into different races, regions, socio-economic strata. Certainly football spreads deep into red and blue America.

In response to last night’s commercials Jeet Heer tweeted this.

This seems right to me. It’s not just that a number of major national brands ran commercials during the Super Bowl which seemed openly hostile to Trump’s agenda. I cannot think of any that ran any commercials even remotely supportive. Those that weren’t hostile were simply neutral and apolitical, which is exactly where you’d expect them to be on a polarizing political question.

As I’ve suggested, it doesn’t surprise us that Hollywood despises President Trump. That goes without saying. Corporate America is a different story, though the advertising industry that it speaks through might logically be seen as itself more inimical to Trump. The willingness to be political to this degree is striking. And does suggest advertisers and corporate boardrooms see associations with Trump or his politics as dangerous. It also suggests relatively little fear of damage from opposing him. In recent days a number of retailers have announced plans to drop Ivanka Trump’s eponymous clothing and jewelry line.

Should this surprise us? I would say not. Trump is unpopular and appears to be getting more so. This is the latest Gallup data on Trump’s approval …

Gallup tends to have more GOP leaning numbers than other polls in recent years. But the trend is daunting.

At the same time though we’ve seen that most companies, particularly diversified manufacturing companies and Wall Street (much less consumer facing), being more than happy to curry favor with the new administration and give the President credit for ‘bringing back jobs’ they’d already planned to create. If Company X announced plans to hire 5,000 new workers back in 2015 and President Trump takes credit for it today, expect Company X’s CEO to give Trump a big thumbs up and hope he’ll be happy enough to leave his or her company alone.

In other words, to date it’s basically a mixed picture. Corporations clearly want to curry favor with the new President, both to get advantages and protect themselves from attacks. When it comes to boardrooms and tax and regulatory policy most seem to see him as a potential godsend. Yet they are also extremely wary of being associated with him among consumers. And it is already a rapidly evolving story less than three weeks into Trump’s tenure.

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