Paul Holmes 16 Aug 2017 // 11:45AM GMT
If you work for Johnson & Johnson and you’re not a white supremacist, you have to be at least a little embarrassed right now.
I am certain that Alex Gorsky, the J&J chief executive who remains a member of President Trump’s “manufacturing council” is not a Nazi himself. But as long as he continues to provide his company’s implied endorsement to the man who is doing more than anyone else to encourage and empower the racist right, questions must be asked about his values and those of his company.
In January, a few days after Trump’s inauguration, I wrote an article suggesting that “for American companies, neutrality is not an option.” Following the events in Charlottesville, Va., this weekend, that’s even more true. Companies that have not made the explicit choice to denounce the current occupant of the White House have by now made an implicit choice to support—or, equally damning, ignore—his white nationalist policies and sympathies.
That's a failure of moral courage unlike anything I have seen from corporate America in 30 years of writing about the relationship between business and society.
Trump had angered many with his initial response to the violence in Charlottesville, in which he failed to condemn Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and white supremacist groups, instead criticizing “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
It is not insignificant that former KKK leader David Duke had described the rally as a demonstration that white racists would “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” or that protesters chanted “Heil Trump” among their anti-Semitic and racist slogans—nor is it churlish to point out that even during his “do over” press conference three days after the violence, the president failed to express any discomfort with the use of his name in that context.
But it was Tuesday’s extraordinary tirade—during a press conference on infrastructure spending—that removed any doubt about the president’s true sympathies. First, he suggested a direct moral equivalence between racists and those who oppose racism. Then he parroted the term “alt-left” (a term used pretty much exclusively by the alt-right) to suggest that only far left extremists could possibly be opposed to Nazi demonstrators.
Then he suggested that many of those marching with the Nazis were “very fine people.” (“There is a meaningful distinction, he suggested, between a white supremacist and someone willing to march alongside white supremacists to preserve a white supremacist symbol,” Slate’s Katy Waldman helpfully explained).
Perhaps most offensively—to those who care about American history and American values—he concluded by suggesting that he sees no difference between George Washington, an American patriot and one of its most revered presidents, and Robert E Lee, whose sole claim to fame is the he waged war against the United States on behalf of the most abhorrent cause imaginable.
This was not merely a dog whistle to white nationalists; it was a fulfilment of all their fantasies. David Duke thanked the president for his “honesty and courage.” On social media site Gab, known as “Twitter for the alt-right,” there was jubilation: “Trump came through for us,” said one user. Added another: “I was fist pumping!!”
It was therefore reassuring, given their acquiescence to so much that went before, to hear so many Republican Party leaders denounce Trump’s apologia for the racist right. Mitt Romney: “No, not the same. One side is racist, bigoted, Nazi. The other opposes racism and bigotry. Morally different universes.” John Kasich: “Let's get real. There is no moral equivalency to Nazi sympathizers.” Marco Rubio: “Mr. President,you can't allow #WhiteSupremacists to share only part of blame. They support idea which cost nation and world so much pain.”
More relevant, to a publication that cares deeply about the reputation of corporate America, it was a relief to finally get the answer to the question, “Just how overtly racist does the President need to be before American business leaders will repudiate him?”
Merck chief executive Ken Frazier (who many moons ago headed the company’s public affairs function) was the first business leader to quit the manufacturing council in response to this weekend. “Our country’s strength stems from its diversity and the contributions made by men and women of different faiths, races, sexual orientations and political beliefs,” Frazier tweeted. “As CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”
Frazier was promptly the subject of a characteristically petty retort from a President who was quicker and more strident in his reaction to an act of conscience than he was in his response to racist violence.
Within hours, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank had issued a statement indicating that he was stepping away from the council and Intel CEO Brian Krzanich followed suit, saying: “I have already made clear my abhorrence at the recent hate-spawned violence in Charlottesville, and earlier today I called on all leaders to condemn the white supremacists and their ilk who marched and committed violence.
He added, in what many interpreted as a response to Trump’s criticism of Frazier: “I resigned because I want to make progress, while many in Washington seem more concerned with attacking anyone who disagrees with them.”
Scott Paul, the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, quit on Tuesday morning, saying “it’s the right thing for me to do.” And Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO president, finally walked away from the council later the same day. “We cannot sit on a council for a president who tolerates bigotry and domestic terrorism,” he said.
Even Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart—which many would consider among the reddest of red state companies—had harsh words for the president. “As we watched the events and the response from President Trump over the weekend, we too felt that he missed a critical opportunity to help bring our country together by unequivocally rejecting the appalling actions of white supremacists,” said McMillon, in an internal memo that quickly became public.
When you have lost Walmart (though McMillon stopped short of resigning from the president’s “strategic and policy forum”) it seems fair to say that you have lost middle America.
So what to make of those who stand steadfastly by the president's side?
"Ours is an important voice on healthcare, one that global leaders at every level, in and out of government, need to hear," Gorsky said in a statement, explaining why he would continue to serve on the manufacturing council. "If we aren't in the room advocating for global health as a top priority, if we aren't there standing up for our belief in diversity and inclusion, or if we fail to speak out when the situation demands it, then we have abdicated our Credo responsibility. We must engage if we hope to change the world and those who lead it.”
Studiously avoiding any criticism of the protestors' apologist-in-chief, that’s a curious interpretation of the J&J Credo, which made the company such a respected leader in the public relations realm for so long. The company’s response to the Tylenol crisis became a template for crisis management; if Gorka had been CEO back then, would he have urged consumers to look at things from the point of view of the poisoner (a domestic terrorist, surely) or invited the perpetrator to “engage?”
It’s worth noting that other CEOs have broken with Trump even before the latest outrage. Technology companies—Apple, Google and Microsoft among them—were in the vanguard, filing legal briefs that challenged Trump’s clearly bigoted immigration ban. Elon Musk, the high-profile chief executive of electric vehicle pioneer Tesla, and Robert Iger, CEO of Disney, both announced that they would be withdrawing from the president’s business advisory council as a result of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate change accords.
But while immigration and climate policy are legitimate business issues, white supremacy is purely an issue of values—and one with only one right side.
Companies like J&J—and Campbell Soup (see update below), Dell, General Electric, General Motors, and Whirlpool—that continue to lend their credibility to the Trump administration are likely to face increasing pressure. Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change, makes the case: “You can’t take our money by day and make us feel unsafe by night. These corporations should decide what side of history they are on. They talk about diversity, they target our community.”
It’s probably too late, at this stage, for these companies to get any reputational credit for their decision to repudiate racism. But perhaps they can still avoid the stigma that attaches to those who find themselves on the wrong side of history.
Public relations people should be thinking long-term and providing their CEOs with a sense of moral urgency around this question. Global Strategy Group has been producing research that makes the case for corporate activism for several years now: the most recent study found that 81% of Americans believe corporations should take action to address important issues facing society.
PR people can also point to Weber Shandwick’s recent CEO Activism in 2017: High Noon in the C-Suite report, which found that 47% of Millennials believe CEOs have a responsibility to speak up about issues that are important to society and 51% say they would be more likely to buy from a company whose CEO spoke out on an issue they agree with—these are the consumers and employees of the future and they are not going to forget where companies stood on these issues.
This research suggests that Americans, more than ever, expect companies to take a stand. And surely CEOs and their PR advisors cannot be sitting around, making cynical calculations about which side to take: how worried can companies be about losing the business of white supremacists and Nazi sympathizers?
There are certain qualities that ought to be the bare minimum for business leaders: among them are empathy, integrity, courage. In lending the credibility of their brands to a president who is the antithesis of those qualities, corporate CEOs are demonstrating the absence of those qualities, the moral bankruptcy of big business, and ultimately their unfitness for the offices they hold.
UPDATE, 8/16: On Wednesday morning, 3M's Inge Thulin became the latest CEO to resign from the manufacturing council. His statement included this explanation: "I joined the Manufacturing Jobs Initiative in January to advocate for policies that align with our values and encourage even stronger investment and job growth—in order to make the United States stronger, healthier and more prosperous for all people. After careful consideration, I believe the initiative is no longer an effective vehicle for 3M to advance these goals.”
He added that sustainability, diversity and inclusion are “my personal values and also fundamental to the 3M Vision.… I am committed to building a company that improves lives in every corner of the world.”
UPDATE, 8/16: A few minutes after Thulin's announcement, Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison issued perhaps the strongest statement to date: "Racism and murder are unequivocally reprehensible and are not morally equivalent to anything else that happened in Charlottesville. I believe the President should have been–and still needs to be–unambiguous on that point. Following yesterday’s remarks from the President, I cannot remain on the Manufacturing Jobs Initiative."
There are also reports that the president's "strategic and policy forum" of CEOs may be on the verge of disbanding. This seems likely to test Trump's boast that "for every CEO that drops out of the Manufacturing Council, I have many to take their place."
FINAL UPDATE, 8/16: Well, that escalated quickly. Trump tweets his decision to shut down both the strategic and policy form and the manufacturing council. He did so "rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople" and not, you know, because they were completely disintegrating.
My final thought on this subject: We saw enough evidence, before the president picked up his ball and ran home, that business leadership in America is not an oxymoron. Kudos to all those companies that repudiated racism and fascism. The ignominy of those steadfast supporters will, I trust, be remembered for a long time.
OKAY, REALLY THE FINAL UPDATE THIS TIME, 8/16: In the interests of fairness, and because I made J&J the focus of this story, I should note that at about the same time Trump was tweeting the shutdown of these groups, Alex Gorsky finally did the right thing. “The President’s most recent statements equating those who are motivated by race-based hate with those who stand up against hatred is unacceptable and has changed our decision to participate in the White House Manufacturing Advisory Council,” he said in a statement. Better late than never? I guess.