The ad in question? A Humphrey Bogart impersonator hawking insurance. Tacky? Sure. Worthy of a boycott, even jokingly? Eh, probably not.
The next year, Trump’s efforts turned more political. He encouraged a boycott of Glenfiddich Scotch after the company had the gall to honor as Scotsman of the Year a farmer who had opposed Trump’s efforts to expand a golf course in that country. A few weeks earlier, Trump had endorsed a boycott of Scotland broadly because the country planned to install wind turbines off its coast within sight of Trump’s property.
Over the course of Trump’s time in politics, wobbly little boycotts emerged and faded with regularity. One might argue that Trump became president because of one of those boycotts, if indirectly: When Macy’s and Univision ended business deals with Trump’s company following his anti-immigrant comments at his campaign launch in 2015, Trump demanded that supporters avoid the companies. It probably didn’t do much to affect business, but it elevated Trump’s rhetoric to a national platform and unquestionably helped attract Republican primary voters.
Trump is still playing the game of using demands for boycotts to engage his supporters. On Saturday, he issued one of his Twitter-style news releases to call for boycotts of Major League Baseball, Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, JPMorgan Chase, ViacomCBS, Citigroup, Cisco, UPS and Merck — all companies that had spoken out about a new law reshaping Georgia’s election system. His boycott call was coupled with standard Trumpian rhetoric about how the 2020 election that he lost was “stolen,” which it wasn’t. He then accused Democrats of trying to “boycott and scare companies into submission,” which is a weird thing to decry a couple dozen words after calling for boycotts of nine companies.
There are about nine directions in which we can take this from here, so let’s.
It is obviously incongruous for the de facto leader of a party that has spent months railing against “cancel culture” to demand that companies expressing a political view suffer as a result. Like so much of political sloganeering, “cancel culture” as a term doesn’t mean anything hard and fast, but it seems clear that, in one context, demands that people not buy Coke products because of an action the company took would count. That’s the point Trump makes: Democrats are cancel-culture types who call for boycotts to punish companies who step out of line — so punish Coke for stepping out of line.
Or, at least, when you are posing for a picture, slip your Diet Coke behind the telephone so it’s harder to see.
It’s the spasmodic nature of the Trump/Republican boycotts that makes them generally impotent. As any organizer can tell you, boycotts don’t work simply by calling for them to happen. They work only when there’s repeated pressure for the boycotts to be upheld — a slow, tedious process that depends on the public seeing a real motive for the boycott and on a willingness to do without the product. Even Trump fans aren’t going to go out of their way to boycott Merck simply because the former president asked them to: “Sorry, Doc, I had to stop taking my Gardasil because I’m engaged in a punitive boycott against the manufacturer’s stance on an election law in Georgia.”
Put simply, successful boycotts demand a concerted, vocal effort with dedicated resources. They require the demonstration of a viable threat. Trump and his friends tweeting disses about MLB might get a few people to stop watching games, but without such an effort to pressure the sport over a period of months, it will fizzle out like all of Trump’s other boycotts.
That pattern is a key reason that these “boycotts” are unlikely to work. If you’re MLB, you know Trump waged attacks on the National Football League and other companies in the past — and that they soon faded out. You know, too, that a lot of your advertisers may want to target demographic groups that are less likely to be concerned about what Trump is complaining about.
When a number of companies endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody last year, they were making a statement about their corporate values, reflecting in part a political shift that has taken place among business executives. But they were also making a bet on what the consumers they’re most interested in want to see.
“They’re taking a stand, hopefully, because it’s moral, but also because they understand the long-term economic game,” Wharton’s Americus Reed told the New York Times.
Part of the challenge for Republicans in calling for such boycotts is that they’ve invested so heavily in giving corporations a larger platform in American politics.
When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says, as he did this week, that his advice to CEOs was “to stay out of politics” and not to “pick sides in these big fights,” it is very easy to find occasions on which he has said very much the opposite — as when he sued the Federal Election Commission to try to overturn a ban on unlimited corporate political contributions, or when he gave a speech to the American Enterprise Institute in 2012 in which he fervently defended the rights of corporations to be heard in politics.
“Corporations should, like individuals — all corporations, not just those that own The Washington Post or the New York Times — should be free to express themselves,” McConnell said then. “I mean, who’s afraid here? Let’s all have a big conversation about the future of the country. You make your best arguments, I’ll make my best arguments. Butt out, government.”
This should itself serve as a reminder to the left that political bedfellows can be transient. But it is also a reflection of what the always pragmatic McConnell understood to be the value of corporate speech back then: Businesses would express themselves by showering mostly Republicans with money. That has changed.
There are a lot of ways in which complaints about “cancel culture” are insincere or overheated. It is true, though, that the left is much better at leveraging cultural power to influence corporate actors. Part of that is because key marketing demographics tend to skew younger than Trump’s base of support. Part of it is the changing corporate leadership.
But a lot of it is that the left, unlike the right, has decades of experience in trying to pressure corporations to make change. It understands that doing so takes more than three days of tweets.
There is more to talking than just words, as Humphrey Bogart once said.