Targeting Trump Businesses as a Response to Conflicts of Interest

Many people, myself included, believe Donald Trump’s failure to place his assets in a blind trust is more than just problematic. The full extent to which President Trump may be abusing public power for private gain—that is, engaging in corruption—is unknowable, so long as his business empire remains opaque and his tax returns stay buried. Even where Trump’s business interests are out in the open, a “shadow of corruption” hangs over the actions he takes as an ostensible public servant.

Some of the people who share these concerns are exploring ways in which they might engage in consumer activism as a response to Trump’s conflicts of interest. Consider two organizations that are leading broad boycotts against the Trump Administration. Don’t Pay Trump is a web browser extension that allows one to, in their words, “keep your money out of Trump’s tiny hands.” It alerts the consumer when he or she is making an online purchase from a business that sells Trump products. A second initiative, #grabyourwallet, is a more established and exceedingly low-tech enterprise which also calls for “flexing consumer power.” #grabyourwallet maintains what looks like an excel spreadsheet that displays companies ripe for a Trump boycott. It provides the necessary tools to the activist consumer: name and number of the company, reason it should be boycotted, suggested sample of what to say, and updates on successes. #grabyourwallet received credit for the recent Nordstroms decision to drop Ivanka Trump’s produces from its stores, which earned Nordstroms a Presidential tweeted complaint on February 8th.

Both of these organizations attempt to decrease the profitability of Trump businesses, albeit for different reasons. Don’t Pay Trump seeks to weaponize consumer power to affect administration policy, while #grabyourwallet is explicitly motivated by the Trump family’s conflicts. It is difficult to say how effective the anti-Trump boycotts might be, given the absence of direct analogies to the current situation. Nonetheless, we might be able to draw some lessons from past corporate boycott efforts:

First, organizing is key. In general, corporate boycotts that are not led by advocacy groups tend to fizzle as consumers lose interest. Moral indignation can be difficult to sustain, and boycotts disrupt normal spending habits, so people become fatigued. Cooperative, sustained advocacy can be vital for success. For example, in the 1990s, a global boycott targeted Nike for using child labor in sweatshops. The activism was largely successful in prompting a significant shift in Nike’s corporate culture over the following two decades. The Nike boycott succeeded because it was a professionally managed, enduring campaign with a fairly well defined goal, directed by a transnational coalition of advocacy groups. Compare the Nike boycott with the Trump supporters’ Budweiser one, which followed its Super Bowl commercial celebrating the immigrant roots of the founder. Partly because it was poorly organized, the Budweiser boycott had no effect on the company.

Secondly, boycotts are powerful if they negatively affect brand value. After Trump’s first Executive Order banning citizens from seven majority Muslim countries, pro-immigration activists launched a boycott called #deleteuber, which encouraged customers to unsubscribe from the service by erasing the application. The effort was a response to Uber apparently profiting by undermining a New York City taxi strike that had been called to protest the Order. The Uber boycott caused CEO Travis Kalanick to leave Trump’s Business Advisory Council and pledge $3 million to help those negatively impacted by the ban. Unlike Budweiser, Uber took an immediate, powerful hit to its brand value, particularly as compared to its main competitor, Lyft, whose CEO condemned the ban immediately and pledged to donate $1 million to the ACLU. #deleteuber enjoyed speedy results because Uber could track in real time as it lost hundreds of thousands of customers.

Drawing from these cases, we can say a few things about the Don’t Pay Trump and #grabyourwallet boycotts:

  • The Nike case shows that organization, coalition building, and supplementing the boycott with other activism tools is a sound strategy. Both anti-Trump boycott platforms should collaborate and build partnerships with other types of activists. Nike’s brand is ubiquitous, which may have ironically helped to keep public attention. Americus Reed (a Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School of Business) recently wrote in the New York Times that when it comes to Trump, who is in the public eye constantly, a long-term boycott might be sustainable. This is good news for both organizations.
  • The Uber example demonstrates that direct hits on brand value can cause significant, rapid shifts in organization behavior. This suggests focusing on specific consumer-facing brands, one at a time, to punish bad actions/support of certain policies. #grabyourwallet should selectively focus on egregious examples of exploiting the office for private gain, while Don’t Pay Trump has a broader selection of potential companies that might be more vulnerable to brand degradation.

The problem for both Don’t Buy Trump and #grabyourwallet is that Trump’s brand survived the turbulent election. And while some of his private interests might dry up, others will benefit from self-dealing, or, like Mar-a-Lago, from doubling rates and advertising themselves as Presidential. During the campaign, there were indications that some of his hotels were suffering, and Trump’s brand value plunged after audio leaked in which he bragged about sexual assault. However, after the election Trump’s brand power is doing better than ever, particularly for country clubs and luxury condos, although the same is not true for retailers that market to younger voters. Importantly, none of this addresses any business interests the Trump family might have which are not consumer facing. Conglomerates are just about impossible to boycott because they are so amorphous, and Trump may well have investments that are invisible to consumers.

As long as Trump’s brand is not suffering, he will continue to derive private benefit from his public office. While he is clearly aware his businesses are being targeted for political reasons (and no doubt irritated by it), the annoyance alone is unlikely to be enough motivation to force Trump to divest and place his assets in a blind trust. Nevertheless, these boycott campaigns may have some success, especially if they improve their collaboration efforts and manage to keep the public eye on Trump’s conflicts.

11 thoughts on “Targeting Trump Businesses as a Response to Conflicts of Interest

  1. Obviously your interests in writing this article are much more motivated by the popular political hatred of Trump than concern about alleging conflicts of interest and corruption which serve only to attempt to somehow hurt Trump financially. Why does one have to assume that he needs to profit from public service when he is already a billionaire? We should hope that he is motivated by what he says is his incentive…the indisputable decline of the USA during the last two or more decades.
    The election is over. It is too early to accuse Trump and associates of corruption. If it later results, then will be the time for accusation and investigation. There is never a time for unfounded allegations. No wealthy person, no matter how capable will ever again seek the presidency after the way Trump has been publicly mutilated by accusations even before he has had time to perform his duties or prove his competence. You should be ashamed of your attack upon the recently elected President of the USA. This now very popular type of unbridled discriminatory hatred only results in contributing to the further decline of the country. Masquerading your political hatred in the clothing of antii-corruption is despicable when there is so much really obvious corruption that needs to be investigated and punished.

    • I should let Michael speak for himself, but I have to say I find both the vitriolic tone of your comment, as well as the substance, quite puzzling.

      First of all, Michael correctly points out that it’s difficult to gauge the extent of Trump’s possible conflicts of interest due to his failure to fully disclose the extent of his financial interests, raising at the very least concerns about the appearance of corruption. Michael also points out, correctly, that the extent of the Trump family’s private holdings, and is failure to place his assets in a blind trust, is unprecedented in the modern era. Michael then goes on to describe and assess a particular tactic that those who share these concerns might deploy to put pressure on Trump to divest or otherwise resolve these conflicts. These are entirely reasonable points, couched in careful language. So I’m baffled that you denounce his post as a “despicable” manifestation of “hatred,” of which he should be “ashamed.” There are other people towards whom such a charge might be directed — me, for example. But to my mind, the fact that you’d offer this kind of response to Michael’s measured and thoughtful post, one mainly devoted to the assessment of a political advocacy tactic, is itself telling.

      Second, the idea that we need to wait and see before raising concerns about corruption and conflict of interest in the Trump administration — which I’ve heard you and others raise several times in different places — strikes me as, if you’ll pardon the strong language, silly. The point that we don’t know for sure what he’ll do until he does it is true but banal. It’s not like Trump is an unknown quantity: It’s entirely reasonable to use the information we have to make predictions about what might happen going forwards. It’s not like Trump was a blank slate. Indeed, his entire prior history suggests that he’s a serial con man who is focused solely on increasing his own personal wealth an power — whenever someone like that takes power, there are good reasons to be on guard against possible corruption, especially when, to repeat the point made above, the person in question refuses to genuinely divest. And as Michael points out, the fact that Trump has been so opaque about so many aspects of his financial dealings is by itself sufficient reason to raise these concerns. Moreover, Trump has _already_ engaged in conduct — after becoming President — that raises concerns about corruption, or at the very least serious conflict of interest. Shortly after becoming President, he received valuable trademarks from China, and soon after seemed to soften his stance on certain aspects of US China policy; as has recently been reported, Jared Kushner’s s family company is in the process of doing a major real estate deal with a group known to be close to the Chinese military and leadership, and Kushner is known to be influential with Trump on foreign policy; foreign governments continue to attempt to curry favor with the administration by booking rooms and events at the Trump hotel, in possible violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause and near-certain violation of the terms of the lease of the DC hotel; Trump’s promise to donate all proceeds from foreign governments to charity has not been fulfilled; Malania Trump’s defamation complaint against a tabloid explicitly referenced the unique opportunity as first lady would give her to increase her brand’s value; the president’s spokeswoman made a blatantly unethical pitch to the American public to purchase the President’s daughter’s products; the President himself attempted to use his influence to damage the reputation of a retailer who dropped his daughter’s products; the President retained a financial interest in a firm that stands to benefit from the Dakota Access pipeline, which the President has pledged to authorize; and then there’s Russia, where there’s ample circumstantial evidence that the President is taking a softer, more conciliatory line, possibly because of financial dealings with the Russian government or firms close to the Russian government; and indeed Trump’s first campaign manager is under investigation for outright corruption in connection with the Russian-backed Yanokovych regime.

      Third, the claim that Trump doesn’t “need to profit from public service” because he’s already “a billionaire”–which trots out a talking point that had been briefly floated with respect to some of Trump’s appointees as well–is even more inane. What, we think billionaires can’t be greedy, and would never, ever sell out their country’s interest to get even richer? Do we not have any examples of super-rich businessmen who decided they would profit from public office? Ever heard of Silvio Berlusconi? Thaksin Shinawatra? Joseph Estrada? And the list gets even longer if we throw in folks who became super-rich while in office and then saw no reason to stop.

      Fourth, though this is a side point, the claim that the US has been in “indisputable” decline over the past 20 years is false. I, and many others, can and do dispute it. Over the last eight years, at least, despite the deep recession caused by the 2007 financial crisis, the US has not been in decline according to many of the most important measures: per capita GDP and private sector job growth are up; the crime rate is way down; health care coverage is way up (thanks, Obama); acceptance of and opportunities for traditionally disadvantaged groups (blacks, Latinos, Asians, gays and lesbians, etc.) are far, far better today than they were 20 years ago. Are things perfect? No. Wage growth for some demographic groups remains stagnant, inequality is far too high, etc. And sure, if you want to say the US is in decline, I may disagree with you, but you’re entitled to that opinion, and we can have a civil, fact-based debate. But the fact that you claim that the US has “indisputably” been in decline for 20 years suggests a grumpy narrow-mindedness, and perhaps the “political hatred” that you seem so quick to denounce in others.

      Finally, the worry that no super-wealthy businessman with no political experience and no interest in separating his public role from his financial self-interest will ever seek the presidency again, given the way Trump has been treated, strikes me as overly optimistic, but I very much hope you’re right.

      • jimwes, if you bother reading Matthew Stephenson’s thorough response, you would find a number of examples in which the Trump family has already financially benefited or attempted to financially benefit from the public office of the Presidency. If there ever was a time to wait and see, that time has since passed.

        You accuse me of trying to “hurt” Trump’s bottom line. The fact that he is vulnerable at all to such attacks is itself the problem. To illustrate– let’s say that Trump has some golf course in Bulgaria. His children, on paper, might be in charge of its management, but he is aware of how it’s performing and makes money off the course. Bulgaria, for whatever reason, decides to pass some new environmental laws that force the closure of the course. Trump gets upset, starts tweeting about Bulgaria, and asks his staff to figure out a way to get back at Bulgaria. Trump cuts off all imports and delays all visa applications. There are about 100,000 American citizens of Bulgarian descent, plus tens of thousands of students. Now a hundred thousand Americans can no longer have their family members visit, and the US loses millions-billions in terms of economic benefits that derive from hosting Bulgarian students.

        Do you see this as a problem? Do you understand that what is best for Trump’s businesses is NOT best for America? If Trump resolved his conflicts, he would neither be vulnerable to financial harm, nor capable of enriching himself through the office.

  2. Pingback: Targeting Trump Businesses as a Response to Conflicts of Interest | Matthews' Blog

  3. Interesting post. Especially informative regarding the key factor to successful campaigns being their organization. I was not aware of the campaign against Nike being professionally managed. You bring up the sustainability of boycotts as a function of convenience. The level of obscurity between Trump and his business connections that he can achieve will have an effect on how sustainable people’s will to boycott is as well, and to that end, educational campaigns in tandem with the examples you provided above may aid the effort you propose.

  4. I agree with Craig, this is certainly an interesting post. Consumer activism as a tool to ignite change is powerful. Even if boycotts may not necessarily result in major immediate changes, keeping Trump’s conflicts in the headlines and encouraging collaboration will increase awareness and hopefully, drive change in the future.

  5. I wonder how the global nature of the Trump brand impacts the boycott strategies you describe. I’m interested in the extent to which international growth in Trump’s brand may offset any domestic losses he faces. While I suspect Trump may be facing losses in some other countries as well (Germany for one), his brand has definitely grown or been promoted in countries that stand to, or seek to, benefit from Trump’s presidency. There has been some evidence of this already in the Middle East and Asia. If Trump is motivated by his own bottom line (one of the things a blind trust would help prevent), American losses and foreign gains may increasingly drive policy in concerning ways, as Trump’s interests might no longer be synonymous with American economic growth.

    • I completely agree Susannah. It’s interesting how such advocacy strategies can be employed outside of the boundaries of the nation state, but also how the globalized nature of his brands means that even if you had agreement among US consumers, foreign consumers could undermine American efforts. Along similar themes, if you’re interested Prof. David Kennedy teaches a class that considers the role of transnational advocacy organizations in global governance. There’s also an article by Robert Malley, Jean Manas and Crystal Nix called Constructing the State Extra-territorially, 103 Harvard Law Review 1273 (1990).

      On balance, I am not particularly optimistic that these boycotts could outweigh the benefits Trump can extract- see, e.g., doubling the rates at Mar-a-Lago. However, I think they can be one of many tools employed by the anticorruption advocate which, taken together, might have some measurable impact.

  6. I’m curious if such tactics have been used in other countries with similarly conflicted leaders (e.g. Berlusconi, Shinawatra, and Estrada). Are there examples of mass consumer activism in other countries, either successful or ultimately ineffective, that we can learn from? Separately, it seems worth noting the role of technology and social media in generating momentum for such a movement. Organization and movement coherence are certainly as necessary as ever, but maybe not professional management of the sort that kept the Nike boycott going.

    • I wasn’t able to find examples of boycott tactics in other countries, but that certainly doesn’t mean there weren’t any. The problem might be that the successful deployment of a boycott would stick in the news, but ineffective efforts might not necessarily be reported on.

  7. Pingback: Shareholder Proposals as a Response to Trump’s Conflicts of Interest | GAB | The Global Anticorruption Blog

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