UPDATE: The President's Strategic and Policy Forum, a group of business leaders that included Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, is disbanding after members continued to quit amid concerns over President Donald Trump's responses to violent turmoil at a weekend white-power rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, unnamed sources told Axios Wednesday afternoon. On the heels of that report, Trump himself said he was dismantling that advisory group and another on manufacturing, the New York Times reported.
McMillon on Tuesday had strong words for Trump, saying in a statement that the president “missed a critical opportunity to help bring our country together by unequivocally rejecting the appalling actions of white supremacists." His comments followed the events in Charlottesville that left a counter-protester dead and took on Trump's belated condemnation of white supremacists and their role in the violence. McMillon said he would continue to serve on the president's economic council even as other executives left.
Under Armour CEO Kevin Planck, who earlier this year got into trouble with a few of his own athletes for his support of Trump, was among those to quit their advisory roles with the administration. On Monday he quit the manufacturing council, saying in a statement, “Under Armour engages in innovation and sports, not politics.” Planck's departure followed that of Kenneth Fraizer, the CEO of Merck and one of the few black chief executives of a major company, and other CEOs. Fraizer in a statement called the move “a matter of personal conscience” and resigned on Monday saying, “I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”
UPDATE: For his part, Trump on Tuesday indicated that he won’t miss the departing executives. “For every CEO that drops out of the Manufacturing Council, I have many to take their place. Grandstanders should not have gone on. JOBS!” he tweeted that morning.
But that turned out to be wishful thinking. By 1:00 p.m. Wednesday Trump had tweeted, "Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both. Thank you all!"
The presidential tweet about "grandstanders" had come just hours before a press conference in which Trump seemed to abandon a previous statement condemning racism and white power groups, a statement that McMillon had praised for what he called its “clarity and consistency." Walmart spokesperson Randy Hargrove told Retail Dive Wednesday morning that the retail giant has "nothing to add beyond the statement you saw from Mr. McMillon yesterday."
The steady departure of so many CEOs from and the swift collapse of a White House effort that purports to boost American manufacturing and jobs is a fair gauge of how toxic the environment is for the business leaders. Walmart appeared to seek a sweet spot — criticism without quitting the president's council. The dissolution of the council has in one sense spared the executives who had remained from any further decision, but also in a way robs them of decisive action.
And decisiveness, even regarding divisive political issues, is emerging as a value on the part of consumers, experts say. In the Trump age, "being political" goes beyond topics like manufacturing jobs, safety in overseas factories and environmental sustainability, says retail futurist Doug Stephens. “We live in a world where retailers are finding themselves having to become more politically responsive — whether they like it or not,” he told Retail Dive in an email earlier this year.
Trump’s actions and his brand, from the launch of his campaign and into his presidency, have already put retailers in a place where they’ve had to make such decisions. Macy's dropped its longstanding partnership with Trump apparel when Trump made disparaging remarks about immigrants from Mexico during his presidential announcement.
“Few issues … have been as as polarizing as Trump-branded merchandise,” Stephens said. “And just as America is divided [as to] what to make of the Trumps, it appears equally conflicted on how brands and retailers have chosen to respond to them. While some consumers applaud moves by TJ Maxx, Starbucks and Nordstrom, others propose to boycott the retailers themselves.”
As retailers are forced to respond, they must draw a good bead on their customers, Stephens said. “Intuitively consumers want to feel that the brands they patronize share their social values,” Stephens explained. “Given the social, moral and ethical tumult created by Trump’s candidacy and now his presidency, brands are increasingly having to weigh in. This means that brands, more than ever, have to know and intimately understand their customer base."
Indeed, while many brands have traditionally been loathe to take a stand, out of fear of alienating customers, a political stance is emerging as helpful, according to pubic affairs firm Global Strategy Group.
“Americans are looking to corporations to lead on the issues of the day,” according to an email from Global Strategy Group, which conducted a study of consumer reaction to Super Bowl ads last year, many of which were political, or perceived to be. “From CEOs protesting at airports to Super Bowl ads opposing Trump’s immigration ban, we are seeing unprecedented political activism from corporations. While this level of activism may present challenges with the new Administration, Americans are clear that they want corporations to engage in the political debate.”