There's power in citizen sanctions, but they need a strategy to be effective.
As Trump holes up in his gilded tower with his billionaire-boys’ club, issuing hateful and harmful executive orders, the resistance is grabbing back where it hurts him most: his cold hard cash. Americans are taking back their power from the grifter-in-chief, who still refuses to divest from his financial ties, potentially violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution, by boycotting companies that sell Trump’s family brands, and supporting those that stand up to his administration’s egregious behaviors. Can these citizen sanctions slow the roll of Trump’s agenda?
Examples of the positive effects of consumer pressure abound: Perhaps most effectively in the consumer response to transportation company Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, participating in No. 45’s economic advisory council. Customers deleted their Uber apps in favor of rival company, Lyft. The boycott worked: Kalanick did leave the council and donated $3 million to the ACLU in penitence, though the company’s reputation was tarnished.
Then there are the general strikes: Thursday, February 16, a word-of-mouth protest called “A Day Without Immigrants” closed down numerous restaurants not only in D.C. but cities across the country “to demonstrate the importance of immigrants to society, as the Trump administration continues to pursue enforcement policies that advocates fear will disrupt communities and the economy,” CNN reported. The organizers of the Women’s March are planning “A Day Without a Woman” strike on March 8, International Women’s Day, hoping to pressure businesses and the administration to show their support for gender equity. And citizens disgusted with Trump’s dubious refusal to share his taxes are proposing to withhold their federal taxes in protest of Trump’s agenda on Tax Day, April 15.
Perhaps Trump is inadvertently making America great again by pushing the people in this country to put their money where their values are—which is certainly not the way he intended to stimulate the economy, not at all!
It’s not just boycotts that have the power to turn Trump’s Midas touch to lead, either. At the other extreme is a “buycott”—in which people use their money to reward companies for expressing dissent from Trump’s agenda, or similar efforts. That seems to work just as well at bringing in funds. Every time Trump lambastes companies that call him on his inconsistencies and outright lies in wee-hours tweet storms, it has a lucrative effect on the objects of his scorn: subscriptions to Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and Pro-Publica rose by orders of magnitude after receiving Trumpian salvos. The spice company Penzey’s sales spiked nearly 60 percent in December after criticizing Trump. Likewise, non-profit organizations such as the ACLU, which has taken up numerous legal battles on behalf of folks in Trump’s line of fire, most recently over the #Muslimban, saw a cash inpouring of over $24 million, in one weekend—or six times their usual end-of-year donations. Planned Parenthood has also seen unusually high donations, with many thousands of them in Mike Pence’s name.
When it comes to forcing change, however, the personal approach may be most effective at putting the screws to Trump. When Nordstrom announced it was dumping Ivanka Trump’s clothing line, Donald Trump moaned about his daughter’s unfair treatment on Twitter and customers rushed to support the department store. In response, Nordstrom’s stock rose an estimated 4 to 7 percent. Other companies have followed suit in dumping Ivanka’s products, including TJ Maxx, Sears and K-mart, also claiming poor sales numbers. Almost immediately thereafter, White House Spokesperson KellyAnne Conway crossed ethical lines on live TV by flagrantly hawking Ivanka’s products, to deafening silence from the President and the ethics and oversight committees.
“If a Trump brand is the subject of a boycott, particularly a brand associated with one of his children, I think we can expect to see a very personal response from him,” Joshua Goodman, a Vice President at Mercury Public Affairs with a decade of experience in government and advocacy, tells DAME. After all, as Trump’s not-so-subtle diss at the National Prayer Breakfast of rival Arnold Schwarzenegger, who replaced him on Celebrity Apprentice, revealed (along with any chance he gets), he’s fixated with metrics of his own perceived popularity. “If there’s one thing we can observe from [Trump’s] behavior, it’s that ratings and sales numbers are very important to him,” Goodman says. Indeed, the president takes every opportunity to convince the public that he is the most popular president of all time regardless of polls vastly to the contrary.
Amy Schmidt, a professor of Economics at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire agrees that hitting Trump where it hurts his ego most might have some effect. “Perhaps if there was a boycott of his hotels and golf courses, it would get his attention,” she offers. However she is dubious that the people with the financial means to afford his products—the wealthiest—will be likely to do so.
However, at only five weeks into the Trump presidency, sustained pressure may undermine Trump’s agenda yet.
Shannon Coulter, a brand strategist from California, knows just how powerful tightening our purse strings can be. She co-founded #GrabYourWallet, a boycott movement to pressure companies to withdraw from Trump brands, with Sue Antencio, in October, shortly after then-candidate Trump’s “hot mic” tape revealed him claiming he grabbed women by the pussy, and worse. “Something really changed for me after the release of [that tape],” Coulter says by phone. She immediately felt a call “to flex our consumer power to move society in a more respectful and inclusive direction.” Her approach has hit a nerve which she feels is not a partisan movement, citing a number of “LDS Mormons, most of whom are registered Republican” among those who use the hashtag. Thanks to the viral power of social media, Coulter didn’t even have to organize brick-and-mortar boycott opportunities; Consumers took the hashtag and ran.
Since October the hashtag has been viewed more than 750 million times on Twitter, her site gets over 30,000 hits per hour, and better yet, they’re seeing results. Companies on her boycott list have been slowly making their way off by dumping Trump products or reducing their inventory.
The primary category of companies on #GrabYourWallet’s list are retailers that carry Trump brand products. But they also suggest boycotting companies that advertise on the Celebrity Apprentice, the show where Trump is still an executive director, despite conflicts of interest with his role as President. Most recently she received a call from model-turned-entrepreneur Tyra Banks who wanted to find out how to get her beauty care products off the boycott list. “She called me at my home office, which is when I knew some sort of line had been crossed,” Coulter says with a chuckle.
Coulter keeps inventory sheets of which companies carry what Trump inventory and has seen the numbers go down since the launch of #GrabYourWallet, including dropping eleven companies off the boycott list in the last two weeks alone. The key to their success, she feels, is giving companies “actionable, concrete ways of getting off the list.” Their goal is not to punish the companies, but to focus on their ultimate goal of “a more respectful society.” She adds, “We’re not doing it to punish anyone or to ruin anyone’s brand. [Consumers] just want to be able to shop at their favorite stores in good conscience and with no bad memories.”
Daniel Willis, a 30-year political activist and Democratic Party officer in Denver, Colorado stresses how important it is not to punish companies. “When a boycott is successful, and the targeted company gets on board, we need to shout our praise of them from the rooftops so people will start buying there again. If we use a boycott to harm, we also have to use our shopping dollars to reward,” he says.
Coulter’s confidence in the power of this kind of boycott is backed up in numbers. “We know that those who voted against hate in November generate two-thirds of the nation’s economy,” Coulter says. Indeed, The Washington Post reports on a recent Brookings Institute’s finding that, “…The less-than-500 counties that Clinton won nationwide combined to generate 64 percent of America’s economic activity in 2015. The more-than-2,600 counties that Trump won combined to generate 36 percent of the country’s economic activity last year.”
Another movement calling itself Sleeping Giants is simply raising awareness for businesses that are inadvertently advertising on the alt-right propaganda machine, Breitbart. On their FAQ page, Sleeping Giants write that many companies don’t even realize they are being advertised on Breitbart through “programmatic advertising”, which is “a complex web of ad placement that targets individuals instead of specific sites.” of today, over 250 companies have pulled their ads down from Breitbart News. Anyone can join in the twitter campaign to notify companies and help them remove this advertising.
Coulter says she would not have started her movement if someone like Mitt Romney or Carly Fiorina had become president instead. She feels that those who voted against Trump “Have a moral responsibility to flex that economic power against the most hateful and corrupt administration we’ve ever seen. Things are very close in America at the ballot box but they’re not close at the cash register.”
While not every boycott is effective, particularly if there is an equally strong counter-protest of Trump supporters purchasing the boycotted products, all experts agree that there are several keys to success:
First, says Goodman, “You have to make sure the person or company you’re boycotting knows they’re being boycotted,” so that they have a chance to change.
Second, some boycotts will not see immediate results and require a serious time commitment. Goodman refers to the powerful Montgomery Bus boycott of 1955, in which Black folks boycotted riding buses in Montgomery, Alabama to protest segregated seating, just days after Rosa Parks made famous her refusal to give up her seat to a white man. “Most people are not aware that [the Bus protest] lasted 381 days. A boycott is not just ‘I’m not going to do my shopping on Friday but Saturday is okay.’ This is a sustained lifestyle choice if you want it to be effective,” he says.
#GrabYourWallet makes it easy for consumers to participate—their website lists the companies they suggest boycotting and why, offers a list of recommended actions—email being the number one method of pressure for retail companies—and keeps track of companies who have recently been removed.
Third, boycotting with your wallet is a powerful way to engage in non-violent protest in a way that really makes an impact, especially if you are unable or unwilling to participate in more vigorous, on-the-ground protest.
Coulter feels very strongly that consumers are more powerful than they know and “have an enormous ability to impact the decisions of companies in general.” She encourages those who are feeling “frustrated with what this administration is doing to our country right now and the various problems,” to participate in the boycott.
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