On Monday, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) set off a furious debate when he tweeted the names of San Antonio residents who donated $2,800, the maximum amount allowed, to President Trump’s reelection campaign. Yes, it’s public information. On the other hand, as others have pointed out, these people are not public figures, and releasing their names on social media could set them up for harassment that they are ill-prepared to defend themselves from.
A day later, Shannon Coulter, the marketing and digital consultant who founded #GrabYourWallet, showed Castro a better way — go for the big money. And I mean really big. “This Friday the SoulCycle and Equinox Fitness chairman is throwing a fundraising lunch for Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign. Tickets are $100,000 each. Adding to the list,” she tweeted, with “the list” referring to her campaign to get people to boycott companies doing business with the Trump family, or supporting their politics.
Coulter linked to a Post article discussing a fundraiser that Stephen Ross, the founder and chairman of the Related Companies, and who has an estimated net worth of $7.7 billion, will host for Trump on Friday in the Hamptons. The event will likely raise millions of dollars for the president’s reelection effort. Thanks to Coulter, all of this began circulating on social media, especially in relation to two companies: Among Related Companies’s assets is the popular upscale gym Equinox, which in turn owns PURE Yoga, Blink Fitness and SoulCycle, the high-speed-cycling-meets-positive-affirmations exercise class. On Twitter, #BoycottEquinox quickly trended. Actor Billy Eichner quickly tweeted out he canceled his Equinox membership, while Sophia Bush publicly swore off SoulCycle. I’m guessing neither knew who owned these companies less than 24 hours earlier.
Why the fury? The Related Companies is popularly understood as a real estate company — it is the developer behind New York’s Hudson Yards — but through Equinox, SoulCycle and similar brands, it also invests in companies that make urban life worth living in the view of upscale residents, many of whom identify as progressive. (Hillary Clinton, for instance, received 86 percent of the 2016 vote in Manhattan and 85 percent in West Hollywood.) For companies such as Equinox and SoulCycle, liberal virtues are part of their brands. Equinox gives money to LGBTQ charities, and generally receives applause for it. (See headlines such as “These 50+ Brands are Celebrating Pride By Giving Back to the LGBT Community.”) SoulCycle boasts about its philanthropy. Heck, Chelsea Clinton hosted a fundraiser for her mother at a Tribeca SoulCycle in New York in 2016. Left-leaning city dwellers, who think they are virtuous when they go to these temples of fitness, suddenly realized some of their money might be going to a keep a president they despise in office.
Equinox and SoulCycle quickly went into damage-control mode, releasing a statement saying, “No company profits are used to fund politicians,” and adding “We believe in tolerance and equality, and will always stay true to those values.” The statement also claims that Ross is "a passive investor.” That’s disingenuous: Ross controls the company that controls Equinox, which controls SoulCycle. Ross also issued a statement, claiming “a reason for my engagement with our leaders is my deep concern for creating jobs and growing our country’s economy.” He then described himself as an “outspoken champion of racial equality, inclusion, diversity, public education and environmental sustainability,” which only further begs the question of what exactly Ross was championing when he donated money to Trump and other Republicans who oppose many of those causes.
All this demonstrates just how ridiculous it is to turn to business leaders as saviors from Trump, as so many hoped when he was first elected and during his first year in office. I’ve pointed out again and again that it’s dangerously naive to expect business interests to oppose Trump because he’s corrupt, or a racist, or encourages violence. If there is money to be made by making nice with Trump, it’s all but impossible to expect our business leadership class to take themselves out of the game. They are the end result of decades of taking statements like “greed is good” literally and not ironically.
Americans can be forgiven for thinking they’ve been had, because, well, they’ve been had. One of the great lies of our age of oligarchy is that we can express our politics through what could be termed conscious spending. But, in fact, the only power most people have over businessmen using their money to buy political access is a negative one: consumers can choose to close their wallets. Boycotts, which seem extreme, are actually an incredibly rational response to our political reality. Customers aren’t simply imposing their views on a nonpolitical corporation. Ross, thanks to his donations, is pushing his priorities on the rest of us. In the United States, where money is considered a form of speech, it’s fair to say he did it first.