President Donald Trump joined some Georgia Democrats in an unlikely alliance this week, as both used their pulpits to counter talk of a boycott of Atlanta-based Home Depot.
The episode raised fresh questions about the role of boycotts in a volatile political world, and served as a reminder that companies could face economic fallout for even indirectly dipping a toe in polarizing issues.
It started with an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report that Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus would give away most of his fortune to charity – but also that some of the Republican mega-donor’s cash would go to Trump’s re-election effort.
That’s when a group of Trump’s critics began spreading an ominous hashtag: #BoycottHomeDepot.
A group of Georgia Democrats want the movement shelved. They quickly pointed out that Home Depot’s philanthropy is bipartisan, noting that the other co-founder, Arthur Blank, has long donated to Democrats and left-leaning causes.
“The whole reason for the boycott off the top is stupid. There are thousands of employees around the country who could be hurt by this,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta.
“And Marcus is a co-founder of the company, but he’s not directly involved any more. This whole thing is dumb from top to bottom.”
Other Democrats echoed her, including former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Evans, who lauded Marcus’ support for educational and healthcare charities.
The president entered the debate late Tuesday when he called Marcus a “truly great, patriotic & charitable man” on Twitter and criticized “Radical Left Democrats” for threatening to boycott the business.
“These people are vicious and totally crazed, but remember, there are far more great people (‘Deplorables’) in this country, than bad,” he wrote. “Do to them what they do to you. Fight for Bernie Marcus and Home Depot!”
Boycotts cut both ways and Trump also has a long history of supporting the strategy, including a call last month for his backers to stop supporting telecom giant AT&T for political reasons.
Home Depot said Wednesday that Marcus has no official capacity with the company and that it doesn’t endorse presidential candidates as a standard practice.
“What we’ve told folks is that Bernie retired from the company in 2002,” said Stephen Holmes, a Home Depot spokesman. “He’s not speaking on behalf of the company.”
Politics can be minefield for companies
The issue hits close to home for Georgia companies, fresh off a tense 2018 election and a bitter debate this year over anti-abortion measures that swept through the Legislature.
State businesses have faced backlash for getting involved – directly or otherwise – in politics plenty before. Lawmakers voted to punish Delta Air Lines, the state’s largest private employer, after it severed ties with the National Rifle Association.
Several small businesses, including a brewery and a popular Atlanta restaurant, faced threats of boycotts from voters angry that they hosted events for Republicans or contributed to the campaign of Gov. Brian Kemp.
And Democrats have tried for months to stem talk of a Hollywood revolt against Georgia after Kemp signed stiff new anti-abortion restrictions into law.
Still, companies aren’t shy about wading into some hot-button debates. While Georgia’s Fortune 500 firms steered clear of the abortion fight, many opposed the “religious liberty” measure, which critics say is discriminatory toward the LGBTQ community.
And Georgia’s largest bank, SunTrust, said this week it would no longer provide financing to companies that operate prisons and immigration detention centers.
Viral campaign puts Home Depot in tough spot
For branding specialist David Johnson, Home Depot’s position is unenviable. Social media’s ability to rapidly create narratives has put the company, an unwilling participant, on the defensive.
Propelled by the advent of social media, a more politically oriented American consumer has emerged, and remaining neutral or silent on political matters often is no longer feasible for companies, said Johnson, chief executive of Strategic Vision PR Group.
“We’re seeing in marketing surveys that consumers today not only buy into the products or services a company is offering, but also identifying many times with the company’s ability to reflect their values and their stances on the issues,” he added.
Johnson said Home Depot has sent the right message by emphasizing that Marcus is no longer involved in managing the company. If the boycott becomes more pervasive, the company might have to consider further distancing itself from Marcus, he added.
Marcus told the AJC last month that most of his wealth was still tied to stock in Home Depot. That means a widespread boycott could hurt both Marcus and Home Depot. Home Depot declined to comment on Marcus’s status as a shareholder.
Scattered tweets called for a boycott of Home Depot after Marcus denounced democratic socialism and Sen. Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for president in a June 24 television interview with Fox Business Network.
The boycott campaign picked up steam after the AJC on June 30 published an interview with Marcus, who said he would continue to throw financial support behind Trump. A Business Insider article on Monday detailing the burgeoning #BoycottHomeDepot movement was retweeted by several prominent Twitter users.
That included Jon Cooper, who has nearly 300,000 followers and serves as the chairman of the Democratic Coalition, an anti-Trump political action committee. Cooper’s tweet received almost 11,000 retweets. Actress Kristen Johnston also tweeted to her 79,000 followers a message of support for the boycott, generating more than 2,000 retweets.
Others on Twitter blasted the campaign. Tennessee pastor Greg Locke, with more than 40,000 followers, posted a video in which he condemned the movement as a liberal scheme to disparage conservative voices.
“I appreciate people who can’t be bullied into the corner of silence by people that want to threaten them and boycott them,” Locke said in the video that received nearly 10,000 retweets.
Nikema Williams, the chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia, took a different approach. She said while she isn’t calling for a boycott, she also wouldn’t join her colleagues in defending Marcus.
“But hey, this is coming from someone who won’t step foot in a Hobby Lobby and would run out of gas before going to a Texaco,” she said, invoking two companies that have faced boycotts from left-leaning voters. “I don’t police folks’ activism.”
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