In many ways, the 2016 election was a victory for capitalism, with an allegedly socialist intellectual president giving way to a real estate mogul whose understanding of business would unleash prosperity. The economy and the stock market are indeed doing well. But though Donald Trump’s administration may be good for capitalists, capitalists are not necessarily good for him.
Many a conservative has been inspired by the hero of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” a brilliant businessman and a model of what she called “the man of violent energy and passionate ambition, the man of achievement, lighted by the flame of his success.” House Speaker Paul Ryan professed to regularly giving the book as a Christmas present and making his interns read it to learn the “morality of capitalism.”
What is easy for those on either end of the political spectrum to forget is that free market commerce is not always — or usually — a force for conservative values. It is often just the opposite, as Nike’s embrace of Colin Kaepernick confirms.
The Republican Party has a large complement of corporate titans in its camp. But conservatives are reminded every day that some of the most successful and innovative companies are led and staffed by people whose worldview is deeply at odds with conservative ideology.
There is Amazon, whose founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post, a frequent target of Trump’s animosity. There is Apple, where CEO Tim Cook has been a vocal critic of racial injustice and anti-gay discrimination. Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg has written, “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.”
Starbucks responded to Trump’s travel ban by pledging to hire 10,000 refugees. After the Parkland school massacre, Dick’s Sporting Goods stopped selling military-style firearms. Google, under pressure from employees opposed to creating “warfare technology,” withdrew from a Pentagon project on artificial intelligence.
But at the moment, the most visible face of corporate liberalism is Nike, whose new ad features Kaepernick, a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback known for kneeling during the pregame national anthem to protest police abuses and racism. The campaign decision provoked a tweet from the president, who asserted, “Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts.”
The company, which sells 120 million pairs of shoes a year, is not likely to take marketing advice from a serial bankrupt. It has a long history of association with black athletes, a group that includes few Trump supporters. It already offers a line of shoes named for LeBron James, who has publicly denounced Trump.
Nike did take a business risk with Kaepernick, and its stock dipped Tuesday. But the company seems to think it will gain more than it will lose from the controversy, and it seems prepared to accept whatever negative consequences ensue.
They are likely to be minor or nonexistent. The right-wing National Center for Public Policy Research claimed, “Nike is appealing to a small, radicalized market that supports Black Lives Matter and apparently hates the police.” But a large minority of the public sides with the kneeling players, and most people think the protests should be allowed regardless. If the Kaepernick ad alienates some conservative customers, it will attract some liberals.
Free markets have a way of dissolving ancient prejudices and rigid customs. Politicians in red states may try to legislate against accommodations for transgender people, but businesses have been among the most active opponents of such measures. Many big companies provided benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of employees before the Supreme Court ruled for gay marriage.
Conservatives are often inflamed by the refusal of corporations to take their side. After Delta cut ties with the National Rifle Association, Georgia legislators exacted revenge by repealing a tax exemption on jet fuel — even though the airline is one of the state’s largest private employers. Delta CEO Ed Bastian replied: “Our values are not for sale.”
What many big companies have figured out is that Trumpism is in conflict with the behavior and attitudes they foster in their employees — and with the beliefs of most consumers. In the current polarized political climate, the striking fact is not how many corporations have challenged Trump. It’s how few have defended him.
The sentiment among many conservatives is that the country is changing in a variety of ways that threaten their values. They’re right, and the companies at the center of modern American capitalism are fine with that.