Donald Trump’s emergence as the Republican Party’s all-but-inevitable presidential standard-bearer deepens a growing ideological rift between the GOP and its traditional allies in the business community, who have long been the party’s leading political donors.
The damage incurred by Trump, whose inflammatory rhetoric has deeply alienated women, Latinos, and young voters, among others, will play out on many levels. But in the practical sphere of campaign financing, Republicans are already feeling the pinch. Having championed Supreme Court rulings and government regulations that permit corporate donors to spend freely on elections, Republicans in this election have been abandoned by a long list of big GOP contributors put off by Trump.
The latest sign that the GOP is in trouble with some of its traditional corporate allies is the soul-searching now going on among business associations and trade groups, as well as among many major corporations, over the Republican National Convention that will take place in Cleveland this July. Some companies have flat-out decided not to attend. Others are considering whether to scale back their activities. Amid a boycott and petition drive led by ColorOfChange, companies now assessing their GOP convention plans include Apple, Google, and Walmart.
“As a major leader in the business community, a commitment on the part of your company to refrain from sponsoring a Donald Trump-led Republican National Convention would send a strong message to the public, the RNC, and other companies that Trump’s demagoguery and intolerance is not acceptable,” read a letter submitted to a half-dozen companies by ColorOfChange, America’s Voice, MoveOn.org, and several other progressive groups.
The letters went out to Adobe Systems, Coca-Cola, Google, and Xerox, among others. Coca-Cola has reportedly given just $75,000 to the GOP convention this time, compared with $660,000 in 2012. The petition has garnered 178,144 signatures, 89 percent of the groups’ 200,000 goal.
The Wall Street Journal has decried the progressive organizers as a “censorship posse.” But just as companies have a right to promote their products, consumers have a First Amendment right to urge others not to purchase them: The Supreme Court decided that the Constitution protected peaceful consumer boycotts in its 1982 ruling NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co.
Not that there won’t be plenty of big corporate money flowing to the Republican National Convention, as well as to the Democrats’ July shindig in Philadelphia. Thanks to a rules change slipped into an omnibus spending bill in late 2014, the national political parties may now raise super-sized contributions to help pay for their conventions, as well as for special recount and building accounts.
Republicans have dramatically outraised Democrats so far when it comes to these special new convention accounts, pulling in $11.8 million through March, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, compared with Democrats’ $3.5 million. Six-figure GOP convention donors include billionaire businesswoman and philanthropist Diane M. Hendricks; Elizabeth Uihlein, president of the packing and shipping company Uline, Inc.; and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
The host cities for both the Republican and Democratic conventions are also raising millions from corporate and other big donors through little-regulated tax-exempt accounts.
It’s the first time both conventions will be staged with no public funds whatsoever, thanks to a surprise move by GOP leaders on Capitol Hill in late 2014 to eliminate the federal convention subsidy once made available through the federal public-financing system.
Nevertheless, Trump’s effect on the GOP’s donor class, including the party’s erstwhile allies in the business community and on K Street, is potentially toxic. On acknowledging his status as Republicans’ presumptive nominee following Tuesday’s Indiana primary, Trump once again lashed out against free trade, assailing Hillary Clinton for backing the North American Free Trade Agreement that he said had caused “carnage” for American workers.
Trump’s unpredictable and freewheeling attacks on women, Latinos, Muslims, and even on fellow Republican candidates and leaders sit poorly with an American business community focused more on the bottom line than on ideology. Some predict that corporate America will increasingly align itself with Democrats on key issues. And in some recent civil-rights fights, such as the battle over LGBT bathroom laws in North Carolina, progressives have found themselves shoulder to shoulder with some of the very corporate heavyweights that they so often vilify.
The New York billionaire must now pivot from his incessant attacks on campaign donors, and his boasts that self-funding has put him out of the reach of special interests, to building an actual campaign operation that will pay for staff, polling, ads, and get-out-the-vote activities. He’s also gearing up to help the Republican National Committee raise large sums—notwithstanding the insults he’s lobbed at both the RNC and big GOP donors. Some leading Republicans are beginning to rally behind Trump, and plenty of donors will eventually pony up. But many longtime conservative business donors will stay far away from the Republican convention and from the GOP this year. The only question is whether they will ever return.