What do you mean by “permanent campaign”?
In this type of political environment, if you’re a company that is significantly consumer-facing or highly impacted by the federal government, you need to adopt a permanent campaign mindset because we’re going to be in this environment for quite a while. You need to build the infrastructure internally, and the political capacity in leveraging all your assets and resources on the ground, to engage local elected officials who can have an impact on your policy concerns in Washington. Because right now the country can’t agree where we’re headed, only that we don’t like whoever’s in power.
By the middle of the 2040’s we’ll be a majority-minority country, which is to say we’ll have no racial group that’ll be 50 percent of our population. And our division right now is between half the country that thinks we’re going too fast and making changes from the country that they remember. And the other half thinks that we’re not moving fast enough to change with the world.
That will resolve itself, eventually, because of demographic trends. But I don’t think we are anywhere near that tipping point of resolution. Companies have to take a much longer view of this volatile period of time we’re in.
If you’re CEO, you’ve got be on war footing. You’ve got to have a permanent campaign mentality to deal with the unknown and unexpected that’s coming. Your customers, regulators, employees are going to be reacting to events in real time; you have to be in a position to as well.
So it’s a bigger mindset: You cannot operate thinking that because everything’s been broken, it’s not going to matter. It will matter. In this day and age, if you get it right but you take too long to get it right, then you’re probably dead.
We seem to have reached a point where there are no trusted authorities. Are there opportunities for business leaders to step up?
For a corporation, it’s not so much this is an opportunity to assume that authority, it’s that there should be a sense of urgency that you’re on your own. In other words, you have no institutions, no safety nets.
You have to take the bull by the horns and move forward, understanding that the support structures around you have been disintegrating—as they were well before Trump, by the way. In 2013 I wrote a piece that looked at the redefining of the divisions in American politics, a rift defined not strictly along partisan lines but shaped by a number of forces, including income inequality. That piece was called “Which Side Of The Barricade Are You On?” I don’t think CEOs and companies are what people in America are looking for right now to be moral leaders. But I do think that CEOs can lead their company to the right side of the barricade.
On the one side voters see the oligarchs, the banks, the big institutions, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, the globalists. And on the other side, they see the people, with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump and Rand Paul and Sherrod Brown. How many stats have we all seen about how the top and the bottom has widened enormously since the early 1970s—that time when there was a saying in America, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America”?
And of course COVID-19 is set to accelerate the gap between the people at the top and people at the bottom. Companies have to be sensitive, I think, not only to the disparity, but to the risk of being perceived as on the wrong side of the barricade.
How can companies be on the right side?
I think it starts by recognizing that they either change or get left behind. When I was in the White House, as a rule of thumb, a company—particularly if it was publicly-traded—would do everything possible to stay out of politics.
Now, most consumer-facing companies have been forced to get ahead of where their government is on all kinds of social issues. If they stay on the sidelines, they’re going to be punished or left behind. It’s unimaginable to me that NASCAR and Walmart, as two examples, are way ahead of the president of the United States on their view about the Confederate Flag.
But I do think that the more a company or a brand espouses their own sort of righteousness on social issues, the more they can and should be held to a higher standard. The more you get out there and position yourself as being better than the rest, the more people are going to hold you to that standard. And the more, if you don’t meet that standard, the more you’re going to pay. Because everybody hates a hypocrite.
What does the Republican Party look like if Donald Trump loses the election?
I don’t think Trump’s going anywhere. If he loses the election, 30 percent of the people who support him will be with him. He will be out there every day. He now currently defines what it means to be a Republican. That won’t change if he wins or loses. Only at your own risk in a Republican primary are you a non-Trumper going forward.
So I think there will be an organizing principle for the Republican party next year if Democrats take the White House and the Senate: be in opposition to the Democrats and what they’re doing. The Republicans aren’t going to be in a position—as they weren’t in 2009—to know what they want to do.
But they will be unified in their opposition, I think, very early on next year if it’s a Democratic Washington. But make no mistake about it, if the Democrats win this year, it won’t be a vote for the Democrats as much as a vote against Trump.
Casey Becker is an Associate in Brunswick's New York office.
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