Companies are increasingly departing from their traditional apolitical stances and the 2018 midterm election in the United States was no exception. While many companies encouraged their employees to vote, others extended this message to their partners and the general public. Some companies wore their social conscience on their sleeves while others actively endorsed environmentally concerned candidates.
Many are disgusted with the president’s hate speech and his penchant for sewing division. Some resist Trump because of his trade policies and specifically his tariffs which have been devastating in some sectors, while others decry his hard-line immigration policy or support for the NRA. Companies are being forced to respond to public outcries. Earlier this year Publix supermarket chain ended its support for a Republican candidate for Florida governor due to his ties with the NRA.
People resist this presidency for a number of reasons. Trump’s sexism, racism, and deceit are a few examples that explain why Americans are coalescing against this president. Although it has yet to achieve critical mass, environmental and climate protests are at the heart of this growing resistance.
The Trump name has become toxic. Trump’s public facing brands have been subject to boycotts forcing buildings to remove the now infamous name and retail outlets to drop Trump labels. Even companies that contribute to Trump’s political campaign can find themselves in hot water. LL Bean was swamped with complaints after it became known that a member of the Bean family is one of Trump’s financial supporters.
The social conscience of companies was tested just before the midterms when journalist Jamal Khashogg was murdered by operatives working for Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Many companies decided to Boycott Saudi Arabia’s Future Initiative conference in Riyadh (aka “Davos in the desert “) on October 23rd.
Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser, explained why he decided not to attend in a Linked in post.
“As soon as I heard of his death, it was clear to me that we couldn’t simply move on and do business as usual,” he wrote. “We in Germany should know from our history what it can lead to if people stay out of trouble and don’t speak up till it is too late.”
Dozens of other corporate leaders cancelled their trips to Riyadh. Representatives from JPMorgan Chase, Uber, HSBC, Blackrock, PepsiCo and Six Flags amusement parks also opted to boycott the event.
Trump made it clear that he did not want to jeopardize trade ties with the kingdom. Other nations and sectors shared Trump’s view. The murder did not stop Russia, China and the fossil fuel industry from attending. Aramco said it alone signed memorandums of understanding worth $34 billion with companies from around the world. The highest profile CEOs who attended was Patrick Pouyanné, the chief of French oil company Total (TOT).
Companies also encouraged voter participation in the US midterms. The Civic Responsibility Project handed out free toolkits to make it easier for companies to increase voter turnout among their employees and customers.
World leading sustainability focused outdoor gear giant Patagonia encouraged their employees, patrons and stakeholders to vote with the planet in mind. Patagonia has challenged some of president Trump’s decisions especially the virtual eradication of protections for much of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. The company launched a campaign titled “The president stole your land”. Patagonia is also part of a coalition of companies that have also filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration.
Consistent with its effort to protect wilderness areas Patagonia also supported Senate candidates Jacky Rosen in Nevada and Jon Tester in Montana. Rosen defeated the Republican incumbent Dean Heller and Tester also won despite being singled out and targeted by Trump.
CVS Health, Dow Chemical and Southern Company indicated that they would acquiesce to public pressure over racist comments and stop donating to a pro Trump organization.
Other companies are taking issue with some of the xenophobic rhetoric coming from the Republican party. This includes corporations like Land O’Lakes and Purina, both of which rescinded their support for Iowa Representative Steve King due to public outcry over his racist remarks.
Judd Legum, writes the political newsletter Popular Information and leads a social media campaign, urging companies to abandon King. “Corporations have just gotten used to idea that they wouldn’t be accountable for any of this,” Legum is quoted as saying by CNN. “These companies sell products in King’s district, but they also sell products around the country and the world.”
It is not easy to be hopeful in the political environment created by Trump and his minions in the GOP. Yet hope is an essential part of auguring change. “A lot of people feel powerless in this political environment,” Legum said adding, holding firms to account for their political activity, “is a way for people to make their voices heard.”
While Richard Levick, the CEO of LEVICK, a Washington-based public relations firm, holds the traditional view that companies should be apolitical, so as to be welcoming to patrons on both sides of the political equation. However, this may be based on an outdated calculus that may prove a dangerous game and a gamble that could lose big. This presidency will only get worse and those who supported it may find themselves on the receiving end of a public backlash.
The only businesses that can afford to play it safe the way Levick suggests are those that exclusively court rural patrons. Even here these patrons may not appreciate apolitical positioning they may demand that everything they buy comes with a side of MAGA.
The midterms make it clear that Democrats received the vast majority of support allowing them to flip control of the House. Even in Senate races Democrats won by more than 12 million votes. While the math makes a compelling case there are also moral considerations.
It may be more important to take a stand for what is right rather than try to accommodate – or turn a blind eye – to highly dubious statements and policy postures. One way or another the Trump presidency will end and history may cast aspersions on firms that failed to take a stand. They may even be viewed the way collaborators were perceived after World War ll. History can be a harsh judge.
While corporations have benefited from tax cuts companies increasingly see social and environmental action as an important part of being good corporate citizens. This by definition pits them against this regressive administration.
In the past companies avoided overt politics like the plague. In the era of Trump resistance may be unavoidable. It is likely that part of that effort will of necessity involve speaking out against politicians who are at odds with social and environmental realities.
Unless you are selling swastikas or other white power paraphernalia, pandering to Trump supporters is a risk.
Many companies are asking themselves if they can afford to resist this president, a more fitting question may be can they afford not to.
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