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Can the GOP’s Big-Business Brand Survive Donald Trump?

While corporate America embraces diversity, Trumpism is moving the Republican Party in the opposite direction.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“I’m a businessman with a brand,” Donald Trump writes in his latest book (and campaign manifesto), Crippled America. This simple statement glides over the complex fact that Trump is peculiar kind of post-modern businessman—one whose brand is valuable less for what he produces than for his media personification of a businessman. Although his “brand” attaches itself to buildings and golf courses and reality shows, the core identity of the brand is inextricable from Trump’s personality. Compare this to the other great business leaders of the past: John Rockefeller’s name is synonymous with oil, Andrew Carnegie’s with steel, Henry Ford’s with cars, Steve Jobs’s with computers. Trump’s name calls to mind only Trump himself: He is his own product.

The fact that Trump has been able to leverage his brand into a stunning front-runner status in the Republican presidential primary seems logical enough: The GOP is the party of big business, so who better to carry its banner than the man who is far and away the loudest and most visible representative of American capitalism? 

And yet, Trump’s phenomenal success as a politician—he’s been leading in the polls among Republicans for more than six months—has had the paradoxical effect of damaging the very brand that is his own most important asset. And the implosion of the Trump brand is symptomatic of a wider rift that affects not just the real-estate mogul, but the entire relationship between the Republican Party and big business. 

That relationship between the GOP and corporate America has been rock-solid for decades. But on a range of hot-button identity-politics issues—notably marriage equality, immigration, and the Confederate flag—the Republican political class finds itself caught in tug-of-war between the wealthy donors who fund the party and the atavistic social conservatives who make up its voting base. If the Trump brand is suffering because of his xenophobia, and the GOP brand is being tarnished by retrograde social policies, then Trump’s becoming the Republican nominee could have the same negative synergy as the merger of two failing firms. 

The impact that Trump’s campaign-trail shenanigans have had on his brand offers a telling case study of how this rift is playing out. As Will Johnson and Michael D’Antonio report in Politico, because of Trump’s polarizing forays into xenophobia and other contentious issues, “the value of the Trump name is collapsing.” 

Johnson and D’Antonio cite damning polling data:

A December survey of American consumer opinion, fielded by the BAV Consulting division of advertising and marketing giant Young & Rubicam (and the largest and longest running study of brands in the world), found that since Donald Trump’s run for president, the Trump brand has lost the confidence of the people who can afford to stay at one of his hotels, play at one of his country clubs or purchase a home in one of his developments. It is also rapidly losing its association with the gilded traits Trump has long promoted as the essence of his business.

In categories such as “prestigious,” “upper class” and “glamorous” the Trump name has plummeted among high-income consumers. Within the same group, it is also losing its connection with the terms “leader,” “dynamic” and “innovative”—quite a blow for a man who criticizes others for being “low energy” and considers himself an industry trailblazer. The brand has been a survey subject for BAV Consulting’s regular surveys for over a decade and has never before experienced such a precipitous drop in reputation. It’s the kind of change that usually follows a big corporate scandal, like a product recall or financial misconduct. But in Trump’s case it’s a man’s personality that is in play.

Johnson and D’Antonio’s analysis is astute, but they err in blaming Trump’s “personality” for the fall in the brand’s value. It’s not Trump’s personality that is the problem, but his politics. The very xenophobia that makes Trump so beloved by the Republican base turns off the larger population. While Johnson and D’Antonio are most focused on the high-end consumers whose shifting attitudes will have economic consequences, there’s every reason to think that Trump’s frothing about Mexicans and Muslims has a deleterious effect on his name with the population at large. As Nate Silver has noted, Trump is astonishingly unpopular among the general public.

As the Trump name becomes toxic beyond the base of the Republican Party, his erstwhile business partners are cutting their ties with the Donald. After he launched his campaign with remarks about undocumented Mexican immigrants bringing drugs, crime, and rape across the border, some of Trump’s longstanding business associates—notably Univision, Macy’s, and Serta, as well as NBC, which aired The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice—started severing ties with him. 

A further consideration for Trump’s business partners, of course, is that Trump’s xenophobia alienates immigrants and the children of immigrants both inside America (a rising demographic) and in large swaths of the world outside America. It’s difficult to imagine Trump’s call for “taking” Middle Eastern oil will make many non-Americans want to buy products bearing his name. 

On the other side of the divide, the Chamber of Commerce and Wall Street have long called for comprehensive immigration reform (arguably because they want cheaper labor). But the big stumbling block to achieving this desired return is turning out to be the GOP base, which even before Trump’s rise thwarted efforts at bipartisan reform.  

When the Confederate flag became an issue after the Charleston massacre last year, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and other Republican politicians had to choose between corporate interests (which pushed for removing the flag from public sites) and traditional right-wingers. The fact that the flag was a symbolic matter perhaps made it easier for the GOP to side, at last, with corporate America. Yet even this form of symbolic cultural politics is not likely to always lead to the GOP favoring corporate interests. After all, Trump has repeatedly stated that when he’s president, “every store” will start wishing “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays.” Aside from being absurdly unenforceable and unconstitutional, Trump’s proposal highlights the tension between Christian identity politics and corporate attempts to accommodate a religious pluralistic America.

Even more telling is the rift on marriage equality. Corporate support for LGBT rights puts it at odds with nearly all Republican politicians, even those that big business otherwise likes. Writing at Bloomberg Politics, Joshua Green describes a fascinating example in the case of New Jersey Republican Congressmen Scott Garrett, chairman of the Subcommittee on Capital Markets and Government Sponsored Enterprises. Garrett’s anti-regulation stances and willingness to attend to the interests of banks made him a Wall Street favorite in the past. But Garrett is also a religious conservative strongly opposed to LGBT rights, and this has opened up a dilemma for the financier class. 

“The financial industry ranks among the biggest donors to the Republican Party,” Green notes. “But it has also been a pioneer in advancing gay rights. Garrett’s reelection race presents banks and investors with a fascinating—and excruciating—moral dilemma: Do they follow their financial interests and continue supporting a chairman whose antiregulatory views largely jibe with their own?”

After facing pressure from LGBT civil rights groups and being questioned by Bloomberg Politics, major funders (notably Capital One, Bancorp, and Nomura) are cutting ties to Garrett. “Corporate America views LGBT issues as a basic civil-rights issue,” financial service lobbyist Steve Elmendorf told Green. “If an elected official said something racist about Hispanics or African Americans, it would be very hard for a corporation to support that official.” Another symptom of this alienation on social issues is Michael Bloomberg’s stated intent to run an independent campaign for president if the Republicans nominate Trump or Cruz and the Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders. Bloomberg is, in effect, proposing to run on the ideal Wall Street platform of low taxes and social liberalism.  

Elmendorf frames the issue in terms of corporate America being guided by a shared morality, but of course there is also a strong element of self-interest in this shift. Wall Street can read the demographic trend lines and public opinion polls. Corporate America knows it would be foolish to alienate large ethnic blocs like Latinos or the majority of Americans who now favor marriage equality.

But with the rise of Trumpism, the GOP is heading in the opposite direction. And whatever the fate of Trump’s campaign—and of his corporate brand—the divide between big business and the Republican Party is only likely to widen in the coming years.