Trump’s Overt Racism Has Put Corporate America in a Bind

Corporate America’s junior partner. Photo: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post via Getty Images

Virtually no one in the United States believes that corporations deserve a tax break. Despite the fact that one of the nation’s major parties spends every election cycle loudly decrying the IRS’s oppression of corporate America — while the other evinces a quieter sympathy for big business’s plight — only 9 percent of Americans think that corporations pay “too much” in taxes, according to a Gallup poll from April. Some 67 percent believe corporate America pays “too little.”

This puts major corporations in a bit of a pickle. On the one hand, they really want to pay less in taxes. On the other hand, the U.S. is a representative democracy (albeit a poorly functioning one). And taxation is hardly the only issue where popular sovereignty creates problems for big business. On financial regulation, the environment, the minimum wage, entitlement reform, and many other issues, the consensus positions in America’s c-suites differ substantially from those on the country’s Main Streets.

This isn’t a new problem for our job creators. And over the past few decades, they’ve developed a number of strategies for overcoming it. Among the most successful of these was the business community’s decision to enter into a coalition with the reactionary whites and fundamentalist Christians who were repulsed by the racial and social progressivism of the post–Civil Rights Era Democratic Party.

Evangelical Christians were never going to mobilize in support of Exxon’s god-given right to a higher share of its pre-tax income — but they would in support of a fetus’s right to life. White working-class Southerners weren’t going to abandon the Democratic Party out of anxiety about how higher taxes undermine investor confidence — but they would out of anxiety about how civil rights would undermine their status within the region’s age-old caste system.

So, the Chamber of Commerce made common cause with the most reactionary elements in American society. (The degree of allegiance is clear from the campaign contributions of the Chamber’s political action committee: 96 percent went to Republican candidates in 2016.) For half a century now, the party of business has consciously courted the votes of white racists.

But it did so respectably. Appeals to racial animus were refracted through coded language about “states rights” and “law and order.” Sometimes, these appeals could even be expressed through the enactment of the corporate wing’s policy priorities — shrinking public spending could be sold as a means of cracking down on “welfare queens.”

Although a minority within the GOP coalition, the business elite retained dominance over much of the national party’s apparatus. And this allowed them to minimize the tension between the reactionary social views of their political allies, and the ascendant cultural liberalism of the young, urban professionals whose disposable incomes powered the profits of many consumer-facing brands.

And then, along came Trump.

The president has been a loyal servant of corporate America’s financial interests. While legislatively impotent, the Trump administration has proven highly effective at repealing nettlesome public-interest regulations — and making it nigh impossible for the federal bureaucracy to enforce the ones that remain on the books.

But Trump never got the memo from H.R. about the GOP Establishment’s social-media policy. The demagogic reality star has no interest in camouflaging his party’s reliance on white racism. Trump discovered that the racist stuff gets the most applause. And at the end of the day, that’s what he’s in politics for. Well, that and kleptocratic graft.

And so, when neo-Nazis with assault weapons and Trump-Pence signs descended on Charlottesville, Trump had little interest in insisting that his party — and those people — had nothing to do with each other. Instead, the president praised the “very fine people” who carried tiki-torches meant to evoke the Ku Klux Klan — and chanted “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” — for their touching commitment to American history.

This was inconvenient for the CEOs on the president’s strategic and manufacturing councils. Several such executives promptly resigned. Those resignations put pressure on the remainers (and their p.r.
departments). Eventually, a critical mass started heading for the exits and Trump “disbanded” both councils before they could disband themselves.

But even before Trump broke the first rule of public relations (don’t praise Nazis), corporate America was already in a bind: This president has made the reactionary nature of their political allies garishly transparent, even as their consumer base has grown more socially liberal than it’s ever been.

There’s a reason most major, consumer-facing brands align themselves with a toothless kind of “wokeness”: Young, progressive city-dwellers are more likely to try new products than your average elderly person in rural America — and the former’s brand loyalty is more coveted, since they are less likely to die soon. What’s more, we’re living in an age of global capitalism; no brand wants to cater to white American nationalism at the expense of overseas sales.

Trump has done America’s business elite many favors, as the stock market’s performance over the past six months shows. But he has also done them the great disservice of making their complicity with racial reactionaries conspicuous.

And that act of exposure may be one of the few genuine services that this president does for the broader public.

Trump’s Overt Racism Has Put Corporate America in a Bind