No topic has so dominated public discussion over the past week like Donald Trump’s call to indefinitely ban Muslims from entering the U.S. Editorial pages have raged, talk shows have engaged, even leaders of his Republican Party have forcefully rejected the proposal. One group of national leaders, however, has said little: corporate chiefs.
A few, it is true, have spoken in broad terms, usually without mentioning Trump. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, wrote on his Facebook page that Muslims should know they are always welcome at Facebook “and that we will fight to protect your rights and create a peaceful and safe environment for you.” And Jeff Bezos has offered to ship Trump into space on his new rocket after the candidate insulted The Washington Post, owned by Bezos.
But representatives of the country’s biggest banks – including Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Charlotte-based Bank of America – declined to make executives available for comment. The same occurred in other industries.
The sense is that, like many at the top of the Republican Party, corporate leaders are afraid of getting into a Twitter war with the GOP presidential candidate and alienating his many followers, despite distaste for his statements.
“Businesses will sit on the sidelines unless there’s something truly profound that is threatening their brand or their industry or their product,” said John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
In this case, Hudak noted, Trump’s policies could affect tourism, consumer spending and foreign investment.
But Wendy Schiller, a political scientist at Brown University, said corporations are probably engaged in a risk assessment, measuring Trump’s following within their clientele and wagering that he could still end up irrelevant. It is still early in the presidential race, she argued, so the backlash for not speaking out is minimal.
“Let’s say you do a lot of business in the Southeast. The first primary in South Carolina isn’t until February, so why not wait and see how he does?” she said in a phone interview. “Companies still have some time before they have to really go out on a limb and denounce Trump.”
Schiller added that while companies have time, the Republican Party doesn’t and that, too, can affect business executives, many of whom are supporters of the party.
How Much Damage?
“The question is, if you’re a business person, how much damage do you let Trump do to the Republican party brand?” Schiller said. “Do you want to be the party of hate and prejudice or the party of fiscal discipline, economic growth and military strength?”
Trump’s provocative statements haven’t been limited to Muslims. In a speech announcing his candidacy in June, Trump called Mexicans “rapists” causing NBCUniversal, Univision Communications Inc., Grupo Televisa SAB, Serta and PVH Corp. to break ties with him.
Trump ridiculed Senator John McCain for having been captured and tortured in Vietnam, made fun of fellow candidate Carly Fiorina’s appearance and claimed that thousands of people in New Jersey were celebrating the Sept. 11 attacks. He has also dismissed concerns over global warming.
Michael Garland, CEO of wind-power developer Pattern Energy Group Inc., said Trump’s skepticism toward climate change has given more conservative electric utilities pause over signing renewable-energy contracts to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.
“If Hillary gets elected, they figure it’s game over – they’ll figure out a way to make the Clean Power Plan” happen, Garland said at a Wells Fargo investor conference Wednesday in New York. “With Trump, they don’t know what the hell is going to happen. They’re kind of sitting there, dazed like all of us.”
Trump’s language has galvanized supporters and enemies alike but many are simply afraid of the maelstrom it has created.
“His comments from the perch that he has are leaving people speechless, unsure how to respond,” Hudak said. “Most people in America just want Donald Trump to go away and criticizing him has not done that. So I think there are some people who are hoping perhaps ignoring him will.”