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Trump’s nightmare performance may force CEOs off the sidelines

Business leaders have traditionally avoided the messy arena of presidential politics. This time, Bradley Tusk argues, they may be forced to take sides.

Trump’s nightmare performance may force CEOs off the sidelines
[Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore (Trump; Biden); Flickr user Community Archives (protestors)]

Over the past four years, corporate America’s public response to the chaos of the Trump presidency has been uncomfortable silence. Save for a few high-profile incidents, such as the Muslim ban or Charlottesville, big-name CEOs have strived to preserve diplomatic relations with the president, sitting on his White House advisory boards or allowing their companies to be used as backdrops to Trump factory visits and chest-thumping press releases.

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But now, as the Trump presidency unravels in increasingly obvious ways, it’s becoming harder for business leaders to stay quiet. Amid a botched pandemic response that has killed more than 100,000 people, a cratering economy, and explosive social unrest, image-conscious corporations can’t just worry about triggering Trump or alienating Republican customers. They also have to think about what it means to be on the right side of history.

Consider the dilemma for Tim Cook or Satya Nadella. Apple and Microsoft are two of the most valuable companies in the world. Their primary responsibilities are to ensure that shareholders make money, not enemies. No surprise, then, that Cook and Nadella, like most CEOs, avoid political controversy wherever possible. There’s little upside to engaging. On almost any given issue, half the country feels one way, half feels the other. No matter which side you choose, you’re going to make a lot of customers mad. Why get involved if you don’t have to?

And on most issues and in most elections, that’s probably the right approach. Even the slickest politicians will emerge tarred and feathered on a regular basis. The wise executive knows to keep his or her head down, keep profits up, and avoid the mudslinging.

But maybe not this year. While major CEOs are under no legal obligation to pick sides in the impending election, they will have to weigh the risk, perhaps for the first time ever, of sitting on the sidelines. Every time Trump does something truly asinine, like promoting bleach as a coronavirus cure or accusing an elderly protester of being an antifa plant, it becomes harder and harder to stay silent.

Over the last 20 years, virtually every presidential election has come down to the wire. We’re conditioned to expect a very close outcome. But that may not be the case this year. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll has Biden up by 7. The latest Hill/HarrisX poll has Biden up by 10. CNN has Biden up by 14. The latest swing state polling reflects the same trend.

We know that the vast majority of international leaders oppose Trump. We know that, outside a few conservative outlets, the media abhors Trump. And that means there’s an extremely good chance that Trump is judged very poorly by history. If you’re Mary Barra or Jamie Dimon or Michael Dell, at what point do you say to yourself, “I’m not going down with the ship?”

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Executives may think they aren’t making a statement by saying nothing. But in times like these, silence also speaks loudly.”

Maybe you can avoid the decision for a while. But what happens if a cavalcade of GOP leaders all decide not to support Trump? The New York Times has already reported that George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and Cindy McCain are unlikely to vote for the president. Colin Powell told CNN that he won’t support Trump, and Lisa Murkowski said she is “struggling” with the same decision. Let’s say that Condoleezza Rice, John Boehner, Paul Ryan, Charlie Baker, and Larry Hogan join them. Now what?

What if a hundred living Nobel laureates come out against Trump? What if 200 top retired military officials declare him a threat to the Constitution? What if Trump threatens a war with China, or tries to impose martial law in California?

These are not abstract questions for those who lead public companies. They’ll hear from shareholders. From employees. From customers. From reporters. From advocacy groups. They’ll see the cost of inaction in their focus groups, their market research, their consumer surveys. And there’s never going to be a point where things die down enough to stick your head in the sand. Trump’s divisive nature, his demand that Americans take sides, ensures that’s impossible.

Ironically, Biden doesn’t really need the public support of major executives to win. Voters typically don’t care about endorsements. Sure, deep-pocketed CEOs can donate and raise money for the Biden SuperPACs, but Hillary Clinton massively outspent Trump in 2016 and it didn’t make a difference. Every single voter is already aware of this election. Virtually every voter already has a set view of the incumbent, good or bad.

For business leaders that want to cozy up to Team Biden, the sooner they endorse, the better. That’s a basic adage of politics. But this isn’t about positioning or political favor—it’s about finding yourself at a pivotal moment in history. Executives may think they aren’t making a statement by saying nothing. But in times like these, silence also speaks loudly. Employees, shareholders, and customers will be listening.


Bradley Tusk is a venture capitalist, writer, philanthropist, and political strategist. 

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