June 19, 2024 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

America’s top CEOs fear the price of being better

They’re not supporting Trump. They’re sucking up to him.

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You have noticed by now we are living through a backlash. I’m talking about the backlash against the progressive gains that were made in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a white police officer. After the country witnessed that crime, the business world was awash in the rhetoric of diversity, equity and inclusion. Years later, however, not so much.

Why? A lot of white people didn’t like it. Fueled by Donald Trump, the Republicans and the rightwing media apparatus, there has been a titanic reaction against well-intended (though feeble) attempts by America’s biggest corporations to make society fairer and better. 

This backlash is being felt in ways serious and silly. Serious: when southern state governments outlaw the teaching of Black history. Silly: when “DEI” programs are blamed for a bridge collapse. Both, however, are expressions of a white-power backlash that we’re living through.

If “big business” were really motivated by their bottom lines, they would stick with the man who sherpaed the country out of the worst plague in a hundred years, not the man who led us into it. 

Not only are America’s biggest corporations in retreat. They are fearful of future litigation, as the US Supreme Court’s rightwing supermajority has been creating legal conditions in which well-intended (though feeble) attempts to make society fairer and better could be crimes.

However much it might have wanted to pay lip-service to multiracial democracy, the business world has been nonetheless keenly receptive to the backlash against it. After Floyd’s death, they said Black lives matter. Not long after, though, it’s clear white power matters more.

I do not mean to point out the obvious. What I mean to do is point out a pattern. Since the post-Floyd backlash began in earnest, America’s top CEOs have demonstrated a deep concern about their reputations among a radicalized white minority while seeming downright blithe about their reputations among a multiracial democratic majority. 

They fear the price of being better. 

They don’t fear the price of failure.

This pattern was in relief last week after leaders of some of America’s biggest corporations met with Donald Trump in Washington. Some were surprised, reportedly, by what I have called his habitual incoherence. According to CNBC, some were concerned “about whether we were going to see a similar movie to the last presidency where there were so many different issues that came up and made their jobs not easier but ultimately harder.” That’s an oblique reference to Trump’s deadly mismanagement of the covid pandemic response.

But despite Trump’s record of failure, and despite the demonstrable decline of his cognitive functioning, these same business leaders are nevertheless “flocking” to him, according to the Wall Street Journal. The choice is easy, Hayes Brown explained. Big business is faced “with a big choice to make over the coming months: support an incumbent who will bring stability but potentially reduced profits or back a loose cannon who might threaten democracy but not its bottom line.”

That, however, may be giving them too much credit. After all, if “big business” were truly concerned about their bottom lines, as they seemed to be after George Floyd’s death, they would have doubled down on the rhetoric of diversity, equity and inclusion. Multiracial democracy, not a radicalized white minority, is where the future, and the profit, is. They didn’t, though. As I said, they have shown much more concern about their reputations among illiberal white people. 

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So you have to wonder about that bottom line. You have to wonder generally about material incentives, such as corporate tax cuts. They saw with their own eyes Donald Trump’s habitual incoherence. They witnessed firsthand his demonstrable decline. Some expressed fear of seeing “a similar movie to the last presidency.” Their firms, meanwhile, have never been more valuable. On Monday, the S&P 500 bested itself for the 30th time this year. Consumers, taking home higher wages, are spending like rarely before. All this wealth is being generated under a Democratic president. Yet business leaders are “flocking” to Trump.

If “big business” were really motivated by their bottom lines, they would stick with the man who sherpaed the country out of the worst plague in a hundred years, not the man who led us into it. They wouldn’t tell themselves lies like this one from a business advocacy: “The threat to capitalism from the Democrats is more concerning than the threat to democracy from Trump.” No, it’s not. It’s really not. Capitalism is doing better now than it has in a long time. Anyway, without democracy and the rule of law, you won’t have capitalism. You’ll have something else.

We should pay less attention to what they say and more to what they do. Since 2020, America’s top CEOs have shown they care about their reputations among a radicalized white minority more than they care about it among a multiracial democratic majority. Though Trump “doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” that’s evidently no reason not to back him when you’re afraid of a white-power backlash. That’s fear of your own side, not hunger for profit. Let’s not confuse the two. 

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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