White House

Business Is Betting on a Future Beyond Trump

Corporate messages on morality are really about the bottom line.

Look away.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

North Face, which calls itself the "world's leading outdoor brand," last week launched a marketing campaign "aimed at making the sport of climbing more accessible and inclusive."

Nothing political there. Yet the company went ahead and made its rollout overtly political anyway. The new campaign, the company said in its press release, "asks people to rethink the way we look at walls."

The purpose of walls, it turns out, is not to divide one place from another. Nor are walls intended to safeguard nice people on one side from "bad hombres" on the other. "Walls," the statement reads, "are places where people in the climbing community come together to test themselves, build trust and strengthen communities. Walls aren't meant to divide us, they unite us. Walls are meant for climbing."

The North Face Inc. is a California-based company whose products are targeted at affluent consumers and marketed for use in unspoiled spaces. It stands to reason that the company would lack enthusiasm for a president who wants to burn coal indiscriminately and open protected sanctuaries to extractive industries. Many of its customers no doubt loathe President Donald Trump.

Still, smacking the president upside the head on his signature immigration issue seems a pretty gratuitous provocation.

An essay published last weekend in the New York Times made the case that, in an era of ethical and moral abandon in Washington, corporate leaders are becoming moral leaders, "adapting to meet new social and political expectations in sometimes startling ways."

Corporations are, first and foremost, remarkable organisms of self-interest. The self-indulgent whining of Wall Street leaders during Barack Obama's presidency, just after an orgy of greed and recklessness had wrecked the economy and destroyed the livelihoods of millions of innocents, suggested that self-reflection, a necessary predicate to morality, was in short supply in many executive suites.

But the bad faith that permeates Trump's business-loving presidency has perhaps altered the corporate landscape. Last week's exodus of executives from Trump administration advisory councils, after Trump equated swastika-draped neo-Nazis with protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, was a "stunning rebuke for the first CEO president," Bloomberg News reported.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, a member of Trump's now dissolved Strategic and Policy Forum, issued a memo last week reacting to the president. "It is a leader’s role, in business or government, to bring people together, not tear them apart," Dimon said. "Racism, intolerance and violence are always wrong."

On Monday, JPMorgan Chase & Co. followed up with an announcement that it would donate $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. In case the political vector of the beneficiaries isn't sufficiently obvious, the Trump-allied website "American Greatness" has said that the SPLC, which is vehemently opposed to Trump policies and rhetoric (and doesn't much like Nazis), "exists mainly to spread hatred, incite violence, and grow their fundraising base."

If Trump's malice were tempered by competence, perhaps CEOs would show more deference. Back in March, when the president was no less ignorant, amoral or malignant than he is today, Dimon raved to Bloomberg TV that Trump had inspired confidence in markets and "woken up the animal spirits.”

Corporations are led by human beings, most of whom have conventional moral values and allegiances. Yet if more companies are now keeping distance from Trump, it likely has less to do with morality than markets. Subtle expressions of contempt for Trump represent corporate bets against the prospects of Trumpism. He has successfully stoked white racial grievance and given permission to white racists to parade their symbols and flaunt their insecurities. After much cultivation, he has likely expanded the universe of whites who harbor racist sentiments.  

What Trump has failed to do is convince the nation's most market-sensitive businesses that his misshapen politics has a viable future. Procter & Gamble Co.'s recent video on endemic racism, or a Johnnie Walker ad summoning the Hispanic-American experience, show corporate marketers aligning themselves decisively with the multiracial future, not Trump's racially exclusive past. North Face perceives that a clear stand against Trump puts the company on the right side of the marketplace, as well as history. And even Wall Street must be mindful of customers and employees for whom Trump's politics represent a dagger pointed at their American Dream.

The people who study and influence the vast American marketplace are reacting to what they see. This is a difficult hour, and U.S. politics remains volatile and uncertain. But corporate executives seem pretty sure of one thing: Tomorrow does not belong to Nazis.     

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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