Writing for the New York Times in February 2000, Donald Trump poured cold water on the notion that his earlier ‘exploratory presidential campaign’ as a member of the Reform Party was done for the purpose of “further heightening the Trump name, helping to sell my book and building even greater awareness of my various real estate developments”.
There are other, slightly more conspiratorial explanations for why Trump may have thrown his hat into the ring – the excellent 2017 documentary, Get Me Roger Stone purports that it may have been motivated by a desire to disrupt the Reform Party and reduce the challenge from the right to the subsequent republican candidate – but the sitting President maintained that he “seriously thought that America might be ready for a businessman president, someone with an eye for the bottom line, someone who has created thousands of jobs and isn’t part of the ”inside the Beltway” buddy system.”
While 2000 came too early for the businessman president – as did 2008 and 2012 for Mitt Romney – 2016 saw the election of Trump, and 7 months into the presidency business lessons are being learned.
We have written before about the difficulties of navigating your business in these times of enormous political polarisation; come out in support of Trump’s policies on trade and people publicly burn your products, continue a long-standing advertising campaign in the Daily Mail or The Sun and risk Gary Lineker turning his ire – and that of his 6.4 million twitter followers – on your business, long-standing sponsorship agreement or not.
Previously, it has seemed that with political beliefs so polarised and more importantly, so entrenched, it is difficult for business to take action with even the smallest political connotation without alienating a sizeable number of potential consumers.
Controversial stances on issues can boost your popularity enormously within small subgroups – see Milo Yiannopoulos – and as we have seen with Trump, these subgroups can be knitted together to create enormous political movements. In both cases, however, we have also seen the dangers in eventually crossing the line. It helps if, like Trump, you have a seemingly unshakeable base; despite a series of unprecedented controversies Trump’s approval has remained at around 35%, and the polarisation of the left and right means that Republicans are less likely than ever to cross the aisle, but it does not mean that he is not losing support in other ways.
For many business leaders, the moral and commercial algebra involved in supporting the President has changed following the response to the incidents in Charlottesville, Virginia this past week. First, the CEOs of Merck, Under Armour and Intel resigned from the President’s main business advisory group, the Manufacturing Jobs Initiative, before both this group and another, the Strategic and Policy Forum – comprised of the bosses of the likes of General Motors, IBM and PepsiCo – agreed to disintegrate; hours before the president announced that he himself was ending both.
There is a new and powerful obligation for businesses to be political, but our polarised politics mean that it has never been more difficult to occupy a safe centre ground. With inaction an action in itself, making decisions is incredibly important, but has never been more risky. Keeping your finger on the pulse, both of the nation, and of your target markets, will be crucial in making the best decisions for your business, as will the understanding that you’ll never please everyone.