The leaders of corporate America launched an unprecedented revolt against President Donald Trump this week, abandoning two CEO councils created by the White House in protest at the president’s comments on the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The rebellion was a breach of corporate America’s traditional stance of public deference to the institutions of electoral democracy. Corporate leaders and Wall Street titans had decided for the first time to pit their power, prestige and vast wealth against the man elected president by the American people just 10-months earlier.
“In American history, we’ve never had business leaders decline national service when requested by the president,” Yale School of Management professor Jeffrey Sonnefeld told the New York Times.
But the CEOs did not just decline to serve on the president’s councils. Several issued statements lambasting the president and repeating false accusations that Trump had defended white nationalists and other racist protesters in Charlottesville. The statements made clear that America’s corporate leadership had taken sides with those on the American left and in the American media who have never relented in their opposition to Trump.
“As our members have expressed individually over the past several days, intolerance, racism and violence have absolutely no place in this country and are an affront to core American values,” the members of the Strategic and Policy Forum said in a joint statement issued after the group had decided to abandon the council.
“I strongly disagree with President Trump’s reaction to the events that took place in Charlottesville over the last several days,” J.P. Morgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon wrote in a memo to employees Wednesday. “Racism, intolerance and violence are always wrong.”
“Racism and murder are unequivocally reprehensible and are not morally equivalent to anything else that happened in Charlottesville. I believe the President should have been–and still needs to be–unambiguous on that point,” Campbell’s Sourp CEO Denise Morrison said.
Of course, Trump had unequivocally condemned racism and the violence in Charlottesville. “Racism is evil,” Trump said Monday. “Those who cause violence in its name are criminal and thugs, including the K.K.K., white supremacists and other hate groups.”
He repeated those condemnations at his fiery press conference in Trump Tower on Tuesday. But he added a condemnation of the violent left-wing antifa counter-protesters, the “alt-left” in Trump’s words, who battled with the white nationalists in Charlottesville, breaking with the mainstream media’s narrative that the violence came only from one side. The New York Times somehow described these statements with the headline “Trump Gives White Supremacists an Unequivocal Boost.”
In the hours after the news conference, executives began calling each other to discuss what would become the corporate rebellion. Every single one reportedly shared the New York Times view of the press conference, regardless of its inaccuracy. On a 45-minute conference call Wednesday morning, the CEOs decided to make their revolt public by dissolving the Strategic and Policy Forum. Trump pre-empted their action by announcing that he himself would dissolve both that council and another focused on manufacturing.
While Wednesday’s defections threw a bright light on the oppositional stance of corporate America, there have been signs of a brewing Corporate Antifa for months. Some corporate executives had already announced their opposition to Trump and dropped off of White House panels over the Trump administration’s policies on immigration and the Paris Climate Accord.
It is not even confined to attacking Trump or his administration’s policies. Corporate America has increasingly been willing to flex its economic might to accomplish political goals that clash with the views of many American, particularly conservatives.
As Greg Ip of the Wall Street Journal writes in a story titled “In New Political Status Quo, Big Business Bucks the Right”:
The dramatic schism that opened up between Corporate America and President Donald Trump this week might look like an outlier, of reputational risk coming to outweigh any benefit business hoped to get from forging a good relationship with an administration that could help them on tax and regulatory policy.
But it isn’t an outlier, and to understand why, look to Austin, Texas, not Washington, D.C. There, a seven-month effort by social conservatives, backed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, to regulate transgender access to public facilities such as bathrooms was defeated Tuesday when a special legislative session adjourned. The principal authors of the defeat were businesses. More than 700 companies and business groups, including many of the state’s largest employers, came together to attack the bill as discriminatory and bad for the state’s economy.
It was a stunning rebuke to the Republicans who control what they boast is the nation’s most business-friendly state. But it illustrates how business has increasingly parted ways with Republicans, including Mr. Trump, on noneconomic issues, becoming, in the process, a check on their policy agenda.
Ip goes on to explain that Corporate America increasingly fears crossing the left on cultural issues. This highlights just how powerful the forces aligned against the Trump administration have become. There is no counter-balancing fear of crossing the right or even openly defying a sitting president.
“This pushback against the right on many issues means Mr. Trump and Republicans can’t count on reflexive support from business simply because they promise to cut taxes and regulations,” Ip writes.
Wednesday’s rebellion, however, did not just show that Trump and his allies cannot count on support from business. It showed that Corporate America is part of the opposition, parroting the oppositions accusations against the president and openly announcing their own opposition.
Corporate America may find that it has overplayed its hand. Trump has already begun to lay the groundwork for a case that some giants of technology, particularly Amazon, have anticompetitive advantages. This could grow into a general case for breaking-up corporate giants that mix communications technology with retail and media businesses. Even without new laws, the Trump administration could act to block AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner or Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods. Just as America regulated the telephone business when it was our primary means of instant communication, we might decide to treat Facebook and Google as public utilities. Efforts to break-up the biggest banks, or make being Too Big to Fail too costly to continue, could gain steam.
“This is a remarkable moment in history,” Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs said Wednesday night. “Everyone of those CEOs is a coward and–the president is exactly right–a grandstander in the service of the left. Make no mistake this is an orchestrated attack against this president.”
When asked specifically about JP Morgan chief’s Dimon, Dobbs sounded more anti-big bank than Elizabeth Warren. The bank, Dobbs said, “is responsible for billions of dollars in fines and settlements for breaking banking regulation. This is man claiming moral highground? People should be in prison right now for what they carried out under the auspices of J.P. Morgan Chase.”
If there is any precedent for this corporate rebellion against democratic political power, it is to be found in the era of the Robber Barons. Railroad mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt once bosted, “Law! What do I care about law? Haint I got the power?”
“He was right. He and his kind did have the power,” socialist writer Leo Huberman wrote in his 1932 American history book We, the People.
Vanderbilt’s son William would go even further, announcing that his motto was “The People be Damned!”
But the people wouldn’t be damned. Within a generation, they were electing progressive politicians who broke up the 19th century equivalents of today’s corporate giants.
This is a clarifying moment in American politics. The confederacy of the media institutions, the American left, and Corporate America has aligned itself against the populist uprising that brought Trump to the White House. The battle lines are clear.
Which side will emerge victorious remains to be seen.