America Airlines – Corporate America Reckons with Its Role Enabling Trump
On January 6th, Michael Araten was working at home with the television on in the background when he saw live footage of pro-Trump protesters storming the United States Capitol. He stopped what he was doing and stared at the screen. “First, it was a bit of a shock,” Araten said. “As the day wore on, I became both really sad and really angry.” The aspect he found most disheartening was that, even after the display of violence and lawlessness that had occurred at the Capitol, eight Republican senators and a hundred and thirty-nine Republican members of the House had refused to certify the results of the election. “There’s a good-faith objection and a bad faith-objection,” Araten said. “This just shows desperation to hold on to power for power’s sake.”
At fifty, Araten is the president of a plastic injection molding company, based near Philadelphia, called the Rodon Group. Like other members of the business community, Araten thought immediately about what he could do, even in a small way, to support democracy and express condemnation of the lawmakers who were fuelling the idea that the election was illegitimate. On January 7th, still in shock about what had just happened, he mentally cycled through the different organizations he was involved in, wondering if any provided a venue to do something meaningful. The most obvious was the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, where Araten serves as vice-chair of the political-action committee and has a role in deciding how the PAC, which donates to political candidates at the state and local level, spends its money.
Pennsylvania was at the center of the controversy over the Presidential election. Biden carried the state by approximately eighty thousand votes, and the Trump campaign targeted the state with lawsuits aiming to reverse the loss; almost all of the suits were denied, dismissed, or withdrawn. Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania’s Republican senator, publicly denounced efforts to overturn the election results, but eight of the nine Republican House members who represent the state voted to reject the results nonetheless. According to the Times, one of them, Representative Scott Perry, a five-term congressman from South Central Pennsylvania, went further, introducing President Trump to an official within the Justice Department who was interested in helping him try to overturn the election results. (Perry did not respond to the Times’s request for comment.) Pennsylvania’s state legislature is controlled by Republicans, and G.O.P. state representatives participated in a hearing on November 25th, during which Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis, two of Trump’s attorneys, made unfounded allegations of widespread fraud. In general, Araten said, members of the Pennsylvania business community were “appalled.”
Araten emailed the chair of the Chamber’s board of directors stating that he thought the Chamber should halt all political donations to Republican politicians because too many members of their party were supporting specious election-fraud claims. He told me that some Chamber members were reluctant to retract funding support from all Republican politicians, particularly those, like Toomey, who publicly denounced efforts to overturn the election. The Chamber’s tradition is to work with incumbents, regardless of party, to advance its goals, which include promoting an inclusive business community. Araten argued that the harm caused by Trump’s lies about the election makes complicity too important to ignore. “I think it’s time to change that thinking,” he said. “Because if there are no consequences to this behavior, you’re going to get more of it.” He noted that the Chamber’s PAC is relatively small, and only gives away a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year. He is only one voice on the board, which will vote, in the coming months, about the future of the Chamber’s political giving. But he feels that, irrespective of what the organization decides to do, it was important to make his thoughts known. “If you have a platform, large or small, this is the time for leadership, to stand up, and tell your friends, this is what I believe in.”
During the final weeks of the Trump Presidency, dozens of companies announced that they would be halting political donations in response to the Capitol riots. Hallmark Cards, which is based in Missouri, asked Senators Josh Hawley and Roger Marshall to return its donations of seven thousand dollars and five thousand dollars, respectively. Others, such as Amazon, AT&T, , and Marriott, said that they were stopping donations to any lawmakers who voted against certifying President Biden’s victory. Several other companies, including 3M and American Airlines, said that they would pause all donations to either party and review their strategy for the future. One company, the brokerage firm Charles Schwab, said that it would permanently disband its political-action committee. All of this suggests that leaders of large corporations are struggling to acknowledge, and perhaps mitigate, the damage caused by their past support of Trump and his party. Many businesspeople never liked Trump, finding his manner and way of communicating repugnant. But he offered them something that big-company executives desperately wanted: the promise ofreductions in regulation and tax cuts. Only now, after the riots, has this compromise been broadly questioned within the business community. The question at the moment is whether the changes that companies make in response will be simply emergency measures to repair reputational damage, or something more lasting.
“I think people made their peace with [Trump], because he was delivering what many corporate leaders, and mainstream republicans, wanted,” Ron Shaich, the founder of Panera Bread, told me. “You could make the argument that you didn’t like Trump personally, but that what he was doing was a net positive and you’d put up with it. They made a deal with the Devil.” Shaich watched the events of January 6th from his home in the Caribbean, where he has been living and working remotely since last March. “I walked away so powerfully sensitive to how fragile this all is,” he said. “I grew up in a world where nothing was ever going to happen to America. We won the wars, we believed in ourselves and, to some degree, in the invincibility of our system. I never could have imagined a world in which legitimate people would be arguing for almost absolute power in the executive branch, and the degree to which little lies became big lies. You want to shake people and say, ‘Don’t you get it?’ ”
Shaich noted that during his years running Panera, he made political donations personally, but he did not direct the company to do so because, even though it was permissible, it didn’t feel like the right thing to do. “I understand why people are lobbying for policies that affect their company,” he said. “But I don’t think C.E.O.s should be making decisions with shareholders’ money or with corporate assets.”
There was a time when corporations focussed only on their businesses and tended to stay out of politics; the free-market economist Milton Friedman argued that corporations should prioritize their profits and nothing else. Over the past few decades, though, as the country became more polarized and budget cuts and incompetence left governing bodies unable to deal with citizens’ problems, companies have become increasingly proactive in their political activities. Michael Useem, a professor of management at Wharton business school, told me that this partly reflected the size of America’s largest corporations, which have reached such a scale that they can have enormous influence over public policy decisions. But he also said that pressure from employees, especially younger ones, was pushing companies to be more outspoken.
There is also a more cynical view. Trump is already out of office, and Democrats control the Presidency as well the Senate and the House of Representatives. There is little to lose by alienating him or his congressional supporters. “On the one hand, I think it’s important and right that companies are making this statement,” Rachel Curley, who advocates for transparency in corporate political spending at a nonprofit called Public Citizen, told me. From a public-relations perspective, she went on, there had been many other occasions, such as the protests by white nationalists in Charlottesville in response to plans to remove a Confederate monument, when companies could have taken a strong public stance and didn’t. “There have been so many things in the Trump Administration and in the reign of the Republican Party that should have prompted companies to rethink their political giving,” she said. “It wasn’t until this moment when our democracy almost collapses, that companies say, Wow, this isn’t great.”
What would be even more meaningful, Curley went on, would be for corporations to commit to disclosing their donations at the state level, and their contributions to dark-money Super PACs, which can accept unlimited donations and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. “Without coupling this move—without any of this other stuff—it feels like a really light lift for them to get some good press,” she said. But she noted that good could still come out of this moment: “The fact that this is so visible, and companies are taking this stand, provides a reckoning for the rest of us to realize that companies can actually make these changes whenever they want.”