Off Brand

The Real Reason So Many Companies Are Ditching Trump

Corporate America’s sudden change of heart has less to do with politics and more to do with chaos

A mat with a photographic print as part of the ‘Jump Trump’ photo installation by artists Thomas Mailaender and Erik Kessels. Photo: Ander Gillenea/AFP/Getty Images

We appear to be living through an unparalleled moment — a turning point, perhaps — in the relationship between business and the political system. The big social media companies de-platformed the president; Apple, Google, and Amazon effectively crippled the hard-right Twitter knockoff Parler by taking away its access to app stores and web hosting; and payment processor Stripe has pulled its service from Trump’s campaign website. And that’s just the beginning.

This goes beyond the imperative for companies and brands to leave behind the usual stay-neutral, apolitical business tradition and articulate a point of view that I discussed mere days ago. These are examples of major enterprises demonstrating genuine power. You can see why some observers see the development as potentially unnerving: Does this reflect a new and rawly partisan attitude from business?

Actually, that’s not really what’s going on here. Sure, “business” writ large has a bias, but it’s not a monolithic pro-Democrat or anti-Republican one. It’s anti-chaos.

And to understand how sweeping that bias is, consider one of the more overlooked corporate dictums of recent days: Cumulus Media, employer of Mark Levin, Ben Shapiro, and other popular hard-right talk-show stars, “has told its on-air personalities to stop suggesting that the election was stolen from President Trump — or else face termination,” according to the Washington Post.

When a business largely built around courting outrage starts issuing orders to dial it back, that’s not because of some ideological shift or political epiphany. It’s because of a recognition that outright chaos is bad for the bottom line.

You don’t have to be a financial wizard to determine that the spectacle of armed maniacs looting government buildings and leaving death and desecration in their wake is not accretive to earnings.

That’s always true. But what many businesses appear to be telegraphing right now is the concern that we are closer to outright chaos than some game-playing politicians realize. And they are saying so with their actions — and their dollars. JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, and Citigroup are pausing all political donations; Blue Cross, Dow Chemical, and Marriott reportedly say they will for now stop donating to Republicans who challenged 2020 presidential election results. The message is clear enough: Stop stoking mayhem.

This goes deeper than signaling values to consumers or disassociating from the increasingly toxic Trump brand. It’s existential.

That said, this formidable-looking corporate response still carries risks. The Wall Street Journal editorial page argues that the perception of political bias will add fuel to the fire: “Dissenting opinion won’t vanish because tech CEOs ban it. The views will go underground, perhaps become radicalized in frustration, and eventually burst into the open in the streets.” An American Civil Liberties Union lawyer cautioned the New York Times that “we should recognize the importance of neutrality when we’re talking about the infrastructure of the internet.” Some prominent tech company shares have fallen lately, suggesting to some observers concerns of a “mounting backlash.”

Presumably, these companies believe the risks are worth it given the stakes. The most high-profile de-platforming decision — Twitter’s shuttering of Trump’s account — explicitly warned that “plans for future armed protests have already begun proliferating on and off-Twitter, including a proposed secondary attack on the US Capitol and state capitol buildings on January 17, 2021.” An FBI report warns of similar assaults coinciding with the January 20 inauguration.

“The business of America is business,” Calvin Coolidge supposedly said in 1925, a sentiment famously echoed by Ronald Reagan — and, indeed, by Trump. And much of the past four years has been good for business (lower taxes, fewer regulations) even if it was awful in many other ways. But you don’t have to be a financial wizard to determine that the spectacle of armed maniacs looting government buildings and leaving death and desecration in their wake is not accretive to earnings. So if tech companies and other businesses are taking every action they can to avoid that future, it’s not partisan, let alone personal — it’s just business.

Senior writer at Marker on intersections of design, consumer culture, branding & business. Longtime NYT contributor. Author The Art of Noticing. robwalker.net

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