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Target Practice

The Right’s War on Brands Is Stupid and Terrifying

The anti-LGBTQ attacks of Bud Light and Target are no mere boycotts—the aim is to intimidate companies into submission.

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Even by the right’s recent standards, the ongoing backlash to Bud Light is convoluted and stupid. To the extent that it can be summed up, it goes something like this. Last month, the perfectly acceptable beverage company sent trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney some beer to celebrate her first year of womanhood. Mulvaney then did what influencers do when they receive free stuff: She posted about it in conjunction with a sweepstakes associated with March Madness. Right-wingers saw this, freaked out, and began a boycott. The beer’s sales have subsequently plummeted; right-wingers claimed victory after the company parted ways with two executives who were responsible for the very normal brand promotion—and then continued the boycott anyway. 

The Mulvaney episode is now a playbook for the right. If a company makes any statement, however minor or tepid, in support of LGBTQ rights, launch a boycott and cause a firestorm—it doesn’t matter if anything makes sense. What matters in the end is that the company is left without any credible means of responding to the contretemps. Bud Light has backed down somewhat—again, two people lost their jobs over something extremely trivial—but it hasn’t amounted to “amends” as far as the braying lunatics who kicked off this firestorm are concerned. They have managed to turn being a mewling, whining infant into a political identity: They see a woman with some beers, and they throw a tantrum. And they don’t stop.  

Target is the latest company to find itself on this newest and stupidest front of the culture wars. Its sins go something like this: In honor of Pride Month, the big box retailer put some shirts with rainbows on them in the store. Conservatives saw this and absolutely melted down, demanding—you guessed it—a boycott. Target responded by backing down: It moved Pride displays from the front of its stores to the back; its opponents declared victory—and then kept up the boycott anyway. Again: The objection here is T-shirts. With rainbows on them. 

J.D. Vance, who once wrote a book about how people need to remember how to be tough and use their bootstraps while having a stiff upper lip, more or less summed up the “objections” of this group of whiners: 

Much like Bud Light’s crime, Target’s sin is stupendously anodyne. Companies have been acknowledging Pride Month for years; selling merchandise—and profiting—from this sort of thing is precisely the business that Target is in. More importantly, these shirts don’t actually do anything. For one thing, they’re shirts. For another, they simply acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ people during a month aimed at celebrating Pride. 

But this is ultimately the objection here, to the extent that anything coherent can be pulled from these actions. The right-wingers storming the barricades of Target—Target!—want to pull back decades of cultural progress and return to a world in which gay liberation isn’t a thing. It’s profoundly reactionary, even by recent standards. 

But it’s also a profoundly nihilistic and fascistic impulse. The movements that have sprouted up in protest of Bud Light and Target—and Disney, in Ron DeSantis’s case—are designed to intimidate. These groups want to terrify companies into toeing a line that their tiny faction—and they alone—dictate. There are no rules to follow and no hard lines drawn; the confusion is the point: Cross the pissbabies, and your stock price will tank, your quarterly earnings will collapse, and your executives will be fired. There’s no acceptable response other than total, preemptive capitulation. Needless to say, this is profoundly un-American.

There are stray elements of this larger movement on the right that are geared toward trying to replicate American consumer culture but with a right-wing bent. Black Rifle Coffee, the burnt-tasting coffee company with a big gun on the bag—so you know they have the right politics—is arguably the leader of this trend. Actively courting Trump voters for years—the coffee company endorsed the Muslim ban for some reason, among other execrable political acts—the company has attempted to replicate Starbucks’s popularity with some success: Their coffee is available at gun ranges and convenience stores across the country. When Bud Light fell afoul of right-wing influencers, some enterprising marketers attempted to profit—again, with limited success. (Presumably the boycotters have moved on to some of the many similar beers, some of which are made by Bud Light’s parent company, the absolutely massive and monopolistic AB InBev.) These efforts, to stand up a parallel free market in which brands are always flexing their political identity (ironically after many years in which the same people professed a desire for major brands to be apolitical) are stuttering, but they are not going away anytime soon. 

Still, the biggest aspect of the ongoing Target and Bud Light brouhaha is as a naked, stupid, and often terrifying example of power—one for which a response has yet to be developed: It’s hard to see how the silent, sane majority of Target shoppers can rise up in the company’s defense. The opponents of these companies are menacing; they want to scare these brands and their employees on the front line. (Indeed, Target moved its displays citing employee safety.) They’re also hardly aimed at Target and Bud Light alone. This is a war aimed at corporate America writ large: Make any statement acknowledging the existence of anyone we don’t like, and you’re next.