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Corporate America takes away Trump’s toys

America’s elites got what they wanted from Donald Trump. Now they’re walking away.

In an internal memo reported on by Business Insider, the CEO of McDonald’s condemned the insurrection at the Capitol, stating that it was “an attack on all those things that people cherish and associate with America. That includes McDonald’s.”
Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Saying no to Donald Trump is a pretty effective tactic.

In the wake of the Capitol Hill riots on January 6 — riots incited, in part, by the president of the United States and some members of the Republican Party — there has been a broad-based backlash against Trump and some factions of the GOP. The political reaction has been swift, and Trump became the first American president to be impeached twice by the House of Representatives, with a growing chorus within his own party turning against him. But the corporate and cultural response has also been influential, as institutions that enabled or, at the very least, put up with Trump for years finally turn against him.

Still, it turns out that powerful private institutions and figures actually caring about what’s going on and taking action, well, matters.

The president is facing more tangible consequences than he has in his entire life. Many of those who were complicit with Trump are drawing a line on what is acceptable in society — and revealing that without their support, the man is ultimately weak. It makes you wonder what would have happened had they not fueled his rise in the first place.

Trump has been a powerful force in American politics, but the long-overdue repercussions for his actions and rhetoric demonstrate how powerful his enablers are, too.

A litany of companies have released statements condemning the storming of the Capitol the day the Electoral College votes were to be counted. Those types of statements have become par for the course in recent years — consumers and workers increasingly expect businesses to be on the right side of history. That’s been true including and especially under the Trump administration; the Muslim ban and violence in Charlottesville, for example, elicited many vague comments from brands expressing disappointment.

But this time, finally, feels different. Corporations aren’t just saying they’re sad about the mess the president has made — they’re taking away his toys. And some of his friends’ toys, too.

As Derek Thompson put it in the Atlantic, it’s not the “deep state” that wound up getting Trump in the end but instead the free market, where many players have discovered they can do something about the president after all.

Twitter has permanently banned Trump from its platform, along with many of the scariest right-wing voices that encouraged and fomented the attack on the Capitol. Facebook has barred the president at least through Joe Biden’s inauguration, maybe longer, and is clamping down on “Stop the Steal” content. Shopify took down Trump’s online stores, and Stripe, PayPal, and Square say they’re no longer helping him or his allies process payments. Across the internet, Trump has become persona non grata. Google, Amazon, and Apple have all cracked down on Parler, a social media platform where toxic content spreads.

Deutsche Bank, for years the only bank that has been willing to do business with Trump, says it’s done dealing with him going forward. The PGA is pulling its golf tournament from Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. New York City is ending its contracts with the Trump Organization.

Multiple corporations have paused political donations, and while that’s not a panacea for the problem of money in politics, it’s a start. Powerful backers of Trump and other Republicans who have pushed the limits on casting doubt on the election outcome are expressing regret and rejection.

Trump tried to invite Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, to the White House to give him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Belichick turned him down, citing the “tragic events” of January 6. That’s quite a turnaround from a guy who ahead of the 2016 election wrote Trump a letter wishing him luck for results that would give the opportunity to “make America great again” and spoke about their “friendship and loyalty.”

Some of this matters symbolically — Belichick’s “thanks but no thanks” is probably a blow to the ego. Maggie Haberman of the New York Times reported that Trump, a longtime golf aficionado, feels “gutted” by the PGA’s decision.

But this is about more than Trump’s feelings. A lot of these measures matter in real, tangible ways.

Deplatforming the president, something social media companies long resisted, has been quite effective. It’s not that Trump doesn’t still have plenty of outlets available — say, the White House briefing room, or Fox News — but the fact that he can’t fire off a tweet sending his supporters after critics or inciting more unrest has had a somewhat calming effect. The removed risk of a Trump Twitter onslaught may have had an emboldening effect for those inclined to speak out against him.

To be sure, this isn’t a cure-all for the tensions in America that Trump exacerbated. There is a broader crisis at bay that necessitates an all-hands-on-deck response. Far-right extremists are a continued threat and are planning potentially violent protests and attacks across the country, including in Washington, DC. But the societal repudiation of Trump and his anti-democratic tendencies will have at least some downstream effects — and all these consequences definitely matter for Trump himself.

Trump owes Deutsche Bank about $300 million, and if a time comes when he can’t keep up on payments to those loans, he could wind up having to liquidate or turn over assets. Any bank considering taking on or refinancing those loans would likely face a public relations disaster. Companies and cities deciding to stop doing business with Trump and his businesses is a hit to his wallet. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, estimates the Trump Organization makes about $17 million a year from its contracts with the city. All those dings to the balance sheet add up.

And then there’s the Trump brand, which he for years insisted was worth potentially billions of dollars. It was sometimes a tough argument to make in the past; it’s an impossible argument to make now. Trump’s presidency has been a catastrophe for his brand.

After he won the election in 2016, Trump walked into a New York City restaurant and told a crowd of applauding diners, “We’ll get your taxes down, don’t worry.” And he did. Rich people and corporations got their tax cuts — tax cuts many publicly thanked the president for with gusto back in 2017 and 2018. Now they can walk away, no more applause necessary.

It wasn’t a guarantee this is how Trump’s presidency would come to an end. For years, he’s seemed almost invincible — he himself said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose support. So why this? Why now? Especially in a scenario where most Republican politicians are still hesitant to speak out against him. Trump thought he would be set for life after the presidency. Now he’s cursed.

There’s no single answer, but for one thing, Trump is no longer particularly useful to many of the private forces that supported and empowered him for so long. Republicans are about to be out of power in the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate. Scoring points with the GOP isn’t, for example, going to get tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter very far with Democrats now looking to regulate them.

There’s power in numbers, and every company that comes out against the president, every corporation that puts a temporary pause on donations, makes it easier for the next. Rejecting the president right now, in a lot of circumstances, is good for business, branding-wise, and any actual monetary threats from him have few teeth. In fact, companies are worried Trump is bad for their brands: The CEO of McDonald’s complained in an internal memo that the Capitol attack was “an attack on all those things that people cherish and associate with America,” including McDonald’s.

There’s no longer even the risk of the errant Trump tweet — since he no longer has Twitter — let alone much along the lines of vengeful policies coming down from Washington.

Still, the Great Trump Backlash provides plenty of reasons for pause. It is good that the president can no longer incite violence on social media, especially during such turbulent times; it is also scary that social media companies have been allowed to grow to wield this much power.

And Big Tech always could have taken more aggressive action on Trump and far-right elements on their platforms; it chose not to until it did. How was Trump’s “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” tweet in May 2020 less of an incitement risk than his rhetoric in early January 2021? It wasn’t — the circumstances were. Misinformation and conspiracy theories were allowed to flourish for years, and there’s a real risk that any action now is too little, too late.

Many of those who enabled and supported Trump would like the public to move on and forget.

Nelson Peltz, the billionaire investor from Trian Partners, told CNBC the day after the riots he is “embarrassed” by his support for Trump. He didn’t vote for him in 2016, but he did in 2020 — he observed Trump’s divisive, dangerous actions for four years and apparently decided he wanted more of it. On Wednesday, Ken Langone, the billionaire founder of Home Depot who was a fan of Trump’s economic policies, said he felt “betrayed” by Trump’s role in the riots. “I didn’t sign up for that,” he said. Except he kind of did. It’s not like Trump has been whispering this whole time.

As since-disgraced CBS executive chair Les Moonves said of Trump’s presidential bid in 2016, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Companies like CBS have finally hit the point where the ratings trade-off is no longer worth it.

Moving forward, the country shouldn’t forget how things got so out of control, and who allowed it to get there. Many companies and people will be tempted to go back to business as usual when no one’s looking — in other words, keep an eye on those corporate donations, because they’re not paused forever.

In politics, Trump has positioned himself as the outsider’s insider, the billionaire businessman who knows how to game the system for himself and as president will do it for you. (Over the course of his presidency, he’s continued to do most of the gaming on his own behalf.) But that Trump’s downfall would come, in part, at the hand of insiders is tragically poetic — he has always, ultimately, been an outsider trying to get in.

Before getting into politics, the Queens-born Trump had been desperate for decades to be accepted among Manhattan’s rich and powerful — a feeling that was not mutual. “To most of New York’s elite, whose acceptance he sought, Trump was far too brash and gauche. He was an outer-borough outsider, bankrolled by his politically connected father. He wanted to be taken seriously, but seldom was,” wrote Michael Kruse for Politico Magazine in 2017.

As a politician, Trump has cast himself as a champion of the “forgotten man and woman,” but his entire campaign and White House run have reflected this continued drive to be accepted. The hope seemed to be if you can’t join them, beat them, and then they’ll let you join them.

Trump spent much of his presidency touting the stock market and was laser-focused on the Dow, even though for most Americans, the day-to-day fluctuations of the stock market are meaningless. He made sure the Wall Street crowd was happy, only to discover they didn’t much care that he lost the election. The guy who was only tepidly accepted by Manhattan’s rich and powerful is now being quite roundly rejected — there’s no going back to Trump Tower after this, at least right now.

In the days, months, and years to come, Trump and his allies will spin his rejection as proof of an argument they’ve long made: The elite class is out to get him and, by extension, his supporters. But that’s not really what’s happened. America’s elites went along with Trump for quite some time. Now that they’ve got what they wanted, they’re walking away.

Will this last? Will Trump face real consequences for his actions, or, at the very least, spend some time out of the spotlight? It’s hard to say. A funny thing about “cancel culture” is that most of the people who have supposedly been canceled wind up just fine.

This is a reminder that Trump didn’t orchestrate his dangerous rise on his own — networks always could have stopped airing his hate-filled rallies. They just didn’t.

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