Opinion

Is getting on President Trump's bad side actually good for business?

Maybe corporations don't have to fear Trump's wrath after all

Corporate CEOs are said to live in fear of President Trump's Twitter account. Woe unto those whose decision to outsource jobs or automate a factory should draw that 140-character Eye of Sauron. Companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Toyota have been the target of a Trump tweet and seen a quick drop in their stock prices.

But maybe Trump's ability to punish corporations that grow wicked in his sight is overblown. Maybe they don't actually have much to fear from him. Maybe they can even stand up to him, and come out perfectly fine.

That certainly seems to be the case with Nordstrom, the department store that made the fateful decision to stop carrying Ivanka Trump's clothing line — not for any political reason, they said, simply because sales were weak. Once their move became public, the administration swung into action. On Wednesday, the president tweeted, "My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person — always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!" Then Kellyanne Conway went on Fox & Friends the next morning to do her part. "It's a wonderful line. I own some of it," she told the viewers. "I'm going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody." Sure, endorsing products like that is a violation of government ethics rules, but they're shaking up the old Washington system!

Then the inimitable Sean Spicer brought his special brand of indignation to poor suffering Ivanka's cause. "This is a direct attack on his policies and her name," he said. "She is being maligned because they have a problem with his policies." The only appropriate thing to do, it would seem, is to stock those clothes in your store whether anyone's buying them or not. Spicer may have been right, just not for the reason he thought: Sales of Ivanka-wear may well have declined because of her father's repellent run for president, even if Nordstrom was just making a pure business decision.

Either way, Nordstrom is suffering the terrible consequences, right? Well...not exactly.

Nordstrom's stock price actually rose immediately after Trump's tweet, and so far seems to be suffering no ill effects. And while there are probably some die-hard Ivanka fans out there who will refuse to cross the threshold of a Nordstrom ever again, there are also probably an equal number of liberals who will patronize the store more often now, for the same reason. Action, reaction.

Consumer choices have been getting more and more politically charged in recent years, a trend that will only intensify in Trump's America. You probably haven't forgotten how Chick-fil-A incurred the wrath of liberals, and efforts to shut it out of major cities, when the ultra-conservative social views of its owners became widely known. So what happened? Visiting a Chick-fil-A became a handy way for Republican politicians to signal cultural affiliation with religious right voters, and plenty of conservative voters became even more bonded with the company, which continues to grow.

That's just one case, and of course there are plenty of examples of successful boycotts. The most effective ones, however, are usually those that have a particular thing they're asking the company to do (or stop doing). Lately liberals have been pressuring companies to stop advertising on Breitbart, the white nationalist website that used to be run by Stephen Bannon, Trump's senior adviser — with considerable success. That's an easy step for a company to take to rid itself of a headache; it's much harder for a boycott to get consumers to abandon a brand for good.

Just look at what happened around the Super Bowl. A number of the ads contained subtle or not-so-subtle digs at the president's policies, including one that portrayed a mother and daughter's journey north to America (from a lumber company) and another for Budweiser that told the immigrant story of the founder of parent company Anheuser-Busch. After it was unveiled, some conservatives tried to organize a Bud boycott, which went precisely nowhere, just as previous similar efforts had. Remember when religious right activists vowed to bring Starbucks to its knees because their Christmas cups were just red, without an appropriately Christmas-y image, like perhaps Jesus on the cross? Starbucks, too, is still standing — and it recently announced, in response to Trump's refugee ban, that it would hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years.

I'm pretty sure that when a huge company like Anheuser-Busch considers airing a potentially controversial ad at the Super Bowl, they do some very careful thinking — and polling and focus-grouping — before going ahead. Which tells us that an implied dig at a president elected with a minority of the vote isn't necessarily such a risky move. And if Trump were to hit back, would it make any difference in the long term? Probably not.

To be clear, I don't mean to suggest that it isn't spectacularly inappropriate for the president of the United States to single out an American company for scorn based on little more than something he saw on Morning Joe. But these days, being on Donald Trump's bad side may not necessarily be bad for business.

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