It is sometimes said that corporate America is a battleground in the culture wars. This has taken on ugly new meaning in the case of Target, which just announced that it will pull some LBGTQ-friendly merchandise from shelves after experiencing threats that affected its employees’ “sense of safety.”
Target’s surrender — which came after concerted attacks from MAGA media personalities — points to a bigger story: The anti-woke right is increasingly wielding heavy-handed tactics — including state power and violent threats — to block corporations from making their own decisions about how to adapt to social change. Though the right is losing this battle at large, it is innovating and having some success.
It’s unclear which items Target will pull. But right-wing figures had claimed Target was selling “tuck-friendly” swimwear — as part of its pride month collection — to kids. As the Daily Beast reports, those figures labeled Target CEO Brian Cornell a “pervert groomer” and even called for Republican attorneys general to investigate him. One Arizona man threatened disruptions at Target stores, warning that LGBTQ people are “not safe.”
The right’s claim appears to be false. As the Associated Press reports, Target sold this swimwear — which allows trans women without gender-affirming operations to conceal genitalia — only to adults. But Target backed down, admitting that the threats were in response to the pride collection and explicitly promising to remove items that triggered “confrontational behavior.”
This is part of a trend. Right-wing activists and Republican politicians have repeatedly sought to make it harder for corporations to embrace liberal social change. Recently, for instance, the right opened fire on Bud Light for prominently sending a personalized beer can to a transgender influencer. The company put the executives behind the move on leave.
On another front, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis openly used government power to retaliate against Disney’s opposition to DeSantis’s “don’t say gay” law restricting classroom discussion of sex and gender. Other Republicans across the country are trying to use government power to limit investors from adopting social considerations in their investment decisions.
It would be overly simplistic to say that in these cases, corporations, executives and investors are simply ministering to majority opinion and that the right represents an angry minority. In the case of Bud Light, the resulting backlash reportedly cut into sales, meaning untold numbers of customers were unhappy with the decision. DeSantis was also reelected by a large majority of Floridians well after his war on Disney began.
Nevertheless, the right’s telling of the story is all wrong. In its reading, woke corporate elites are scheming in boardrooms to push the culture in a more progressive direction against the wishes of disempowered, silent culturally conservative majorities. That’s why right-wing figures have trained their fire on “woke corporations,” often insisting this justifies the use of state power against them.
In reality, corporations are acting in response to the broader culture. They are making self-interested decisions about how to profit off cultural shifts, and while such decisions do reinforce that evolution, they are a reaction to real, on-the-ground change.
The Bud Light gesture toward trans people was deliberately conceived as an effort to reach new customer constituencies. Disney’s opposition to “don’t say gay” was driven in part by discernible movements in public sentiment on LGBTQ issues as well as opinion among rank-and-file employees.
“One thing businesses are very good at is determining the public mood,” Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse told me. “They adjust themselves to that.”
Kruse sees parallels to the 1950s and 1960s, when big companies felt pushed by the civil rights movement’s groundswell for change. They found themselves caught between those forces and reactionaries who didn’t want them to evolve. Similarly, in the 1980s and 1990s, the religious right railed against gay-friendly corporate behavior. But corporations kept changing, reinforcing ongoing evolution.
“Corporations wind up deepening those trends,” Kruse said.
Kyle Edward Williams, author of a forthcoming book on political battles over corporations, notes that these calculations are often complicated. Big corporations want to appear in step with causes of the moment to give them a “personality” and a “moral conscience,” Williams said.
That has made them responsive to broad-based progressive social causes, such as the environmental and Black Lives Matter movements. All this has intensified as people increasingly identify consumer choices with political leanings, creating what Williams calls a corporate “arms race to show that they care about issues.”
This is what the right’s rearguard actions are really arrayed against. The goal is to extract pain from — and in some cases wield state power against — corporations to stop them from making profit-oriented decisions that reinforce cultural evolution already underway.
“That’s a new development within the right,” Williams told me, adding that the right is adopting ever more aggressive efforts to “protect and shore up conservative cultural interests.”
These campaigns are having successes here and there, as seen in Target’s case. But the changes that corporations such as Target are responding to are happening in the real world among ordinary people everywhere, far beyond “woke elite” boardroom suites. No amount of bullying and threats will make them disappear.