Here's why corporate donors backtracked on the plan to cut off Republicans who tried to overturn the election

Here's why corporate donors backtracked on the plan to cut off Republicans who tried to overturn the election
Kevin McCarthy speaks on day 2 of the 2016 RNC (Image via Voice of America / Wikimedia Commons).

Six months ago, the insurrection Donald Trump incited at the U.S. Capitol in a last bid attempt to steal the presidential election from Joe Biden, was experienced as a cataclysmic event. Many assumed it would remake American politics permanently — so much so that dozens of major corporations rushed forward to declare they were withdrawing all financial support from Republican politicians who aided Trump's effort by voting against certifying the results of the electoral college vote count.

In the past half-year, however, a combination of Republican intransigence and Trump's talent as escaping justice has already served to move the insurrection from the category of "unthinkable" to "mainstream GOP politics," allowing it to be viewed through the lens of partisan bickering instead of what it actually was, a violent attempted coup. In turn, a lot of the companies who swore they were cutting off the money spigot to insurrectionist Republicans have quietly turned it back on.

Judd Legum is the investigative journalist behind Popular Information, where he keeps track of both the corporations who have reneged on their promise and the lazy excuses they produce for doing so. He spoke with Salon's Amanda Marcotte about the role corporations continue to play in normalizing the violent assault on American democracy six months after Jan. 6:

It's been six months since the insurrection at the Capitol. Nearly 200 major corporations in the immediate aftermath of the Capital riot said that they were ending donations to the insurrectionist Republicans who voted to overturn the election. My question to you is how well are they sticking with that promise?

Well, it varies by corporation.

Overall, if you look at the whole group of 200 corporations, most of them are, at least at this point, sticking to what they said around January 6th. But there are a number of corporations that have resumed giving money to the Republicans who voted to overturn the election. Corporations like Toyota, Cigna, a few others. A larger group is doing so indirectly by not giving to those individual candidates, but by giving money, for example, to the National Republican Campaign Committee, which is the fundraising arm to support the reelection of Republican members of the House. Two-thirds of that group were objecting to the electoral college. There's a group that has resumed business as usual. So far, that's the minority, but obviously, it's still significant and the size of that group could increase over time.

Toyota has gotten the most attention for reneging on their promises and why is that?

Just because they have given to the largest number of Republican objectors. The most recent count is 39 Republican objectors that they've given money to, $62,000 in total. While there's some other corporations who've given to one or two or three or four, they stick out because they've given to so many. The only companies that are kind of up there with them are some of the defense contractors like Northrop Grumman and Boeing. They've started at similar numbers.

In your reporting on this, you found that the wording that these companies use to justify the decision sounds an awful lot like the language from a memo circulated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce earlier this year. What's going on there?

In the immediate aftermath of January 6th, the Chamber of Commerce seemed like they were taking this very seriously. They said, without getting too into specifics, that there were members of Congress who they would no longer support as a result of what happened that day. It really seemed to validate a lot of the decisions that their member corporations were making to cut off these donations. But that changed in March, when they released a memo saying that they no longer believed that it was appropriate to cut off funds just on the basis of that vote.

Then when you look at Toyota, who has been under some scrutiny since April 1st, before all of this, they use that exact same language to describe why they were donating to so many of these Republicans. It sets up this idea that there were some Republicans who did really bad things that day, but just the vote itself wasn't really that bad. But Toyota has given to, for instance, Andy Biggs, who's one of the most outspoken members of Congress on the idea that the election was stolen.

Why would anybody think that there should be a distinction between the supposedly insurrectionists Republicans, the ones that are the really bad and the ones who "merely" voted to overturn the election?

Well, I think companies are getting worried about cutting off so many, particularly of the House Republicans, because they're worried that they're going to be in power in 2022. That includes Kevin McCarthy, who would be the Speaker. It includes Steve Scalise, who's one of the biggest fundraisers for the House Republicans. They're looking to make it easier on themselves, effectively.

I hate to sound cynical, but it seems to me that these companies mostly just wanted to bet on the winner. In the days after the insurrection, companies thought that the pro-democracy side would prevail. Now they think the authoritarians are winning and they've switched sides. Is that too simplistic?

I focus on the corporations that have violated their pledge because that's the news, right? That's what people are interested in and I think that's important. Still, six months later, you have a lot of major companies who have not resumed business as normal, who normally would have given a bunch of money to the NRCC and the NRSC, and most of them still have not done that.

I think some cynicism is warranted, but I think we should temper that cynicism, because there's a possibility that, at least in some quarters, there will be lasting change. I try to keep that in perspective, although sometimes it can be hard.

That makes me feel better. It really does.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is an interesting organization. I think most Americans hear that name and they think it's like a town's local Chamber of Commerce, like a booster group that is there just to generically promote commerce and kind of that sort of thing. Why are they running defense for what can only be described as a literal fascist insurrection?

Well, I think there are habits and practices of Washington, D.C., especially as it relates to how corporations exercise power, that are very hard to let go of. Principally, it's the idea that corporations write a $5,000 check or a $10,000 check to a member of Congress. That money is not a huge amount of money, but it gets them a connection. It allows them to know who to talk to, when they want a meeting. It makes sure that they get that meeting and it smoothes the whole process for them of trying to influence key policy issues in D.C.

The Chamber of Commerce is very much in the business of having corporations exercise the maximum amount of influence over the political system. When they see corporations bowing out of this and cutting off people who if they aren't powerful today may be very powerful in 2022 or beyond, they want to figure out a way around that.

A lot of corporations give to politicians and then argue those donations as functionally apolitical because they spread money on both sides, right?

Anytime you would ask a company about a donation prior to January 6th, that's what they said in response to almost any inquiry: they give to both sides, that they don't agree with everyone. That just because say that they support LGBTQ rights, but they are supporting this person who's said all of these offensive things about trans people. They dance around that by describing these as essentially apolitical donations.

January 6th was the one time when you did have a bunch of corporations draw a line and say, this goes beyond what we're sort of willing to tolerate. What we're observing now is whether that line will hold. For some companies, it already has not held. Other companies have held the line, but I will say that just holding the line for six months really doesn't mean much because it's a two-year cycle, right? If you give the money in the beginning of 2022, instead of the beginning of 2021, that doesn't mean that much. You can only donate $5,000 per election anyway, and they'll need the money in 2022. The question will be, are there companies who are in it for the long term?

Why do you think the insurrection caused a lot of companies that otherwise try to keep their brand out of politics to publicly say that they were going to withdraw donations, whether they renege on that promise or not?

I think it was the imagery. The seriousness of what happened that day. I don't think companies wanted to be associated with, as clumsy as it was, an attempted overthrow of the government led rhetorically by Trump. Watching his supporters attack the Capitol, attack police officers with American flags: The visceral images of that day that really pushed companies.

Now, maybe there's some companies who've taken a principled stand. I know that for instance, American Express, when I was reporting on this in January, told me that they will never donate to any of these Republicans again. For some companies, it may have been a real moment of principle where they said "enough, we're not going to be doing business with these kinds of politicians anymore." Other companies, it was more about short-term public relations. There's another set of companies where it's still up in the air.

From a kind of practical standpoint, nothing has changed. Trump incited this insurrection. The people that stormed the Capitol are going to prison for their crimes. There's been no material change to justify, or somehow minimize what's happened. Why do companies, at least some of them, feel more comfortable now being like oh okay, that's in the past, it didn't matter, it wasn't that big a deal?

I think part of it is just time, right? It's not dominating the news every day as it was in the weeks immediately after January 6th. So it's less of a public relations headache for some of them. The other issue is that Trump remains such an influential part of the Republican party. Nothing's really changed, but there hasn't really been any fallout. Right after January 6th, it could have been for a hot second, it looked like, well, Trump might actually get in trouble for this. Mitch McConnell was considering supporting impeachment, whether or not you were credulous about those reports or not. The conventional wisdom was that really maybe this was going to be a real inflection point about our politics and what's within the realm of acceptable conduct and what's not.

The reality is that these folks are going to be very influential for years to come. For companies that are taking a purely practical approach, where they just want influence with whoever's in power, they're looking at these Republicans and they're saying, hey they may be in power pretty soon.

On your newsletter, Popular Info, you give people information they can use to organize pressure campaigns, to keep corporations from doing things like donating to insurrectionist Republicans. Why do you put your focus on these particular corporations? How do you think that that particular activism can be effective in stopping what is functionally a rising anti-democracy movement in the U.S.?

My role is to get the information out there. Certainly, there's a lot of folks who use that and take action, who write these companies, tweet at these companies and make their voices heard. I do think that the information is valuable. Part of the reason that corporations thought that they could just donate to who whomever they wanted, regardless of whether those politicians were in line with their state and corporate values, is because there really wasn't much attention paid to it on an ongoing basis. So if you can change that dynamic and people that you actually have people who know what's going on, that can ultimately may change behavior.

The other group of folks that I think really need access to this information is the employees themselves. It's very unlikely that some sort of consumer action is going to have a meaningful impact on Amazon's bottom line or Microsoft's bottom line. But if there's a dozen or two dozen of their engineers or other types of key employees who say, hey you were telling us how much you support democracy and now you're supporting these Republicans. Why are you doing that? That's something that they pay attention to. That played out pretty publicly with Microsoft. It was the employees who drove them to a much stronger position. They initially had said that they were just going to temporarily suspend all donations, but they eventually committed to cutting off the 147 Republican objectors for at least two years. It was really driven by the employees.

These companies are, like you said, are buying access. Will convincing them to stop donating to Republicans really change anything? Because the Republicans are acting against democracy itself for their own reasons. Do you think that this inflection point would actually change their behavior?

No, I don't think so. I think it is about the longer term. For instance, all of this corporate PAC money is only a small portion of what these companies spent on politics. Much larger amounts of money are spent on big nonprofit groups, Super PACs, independent political expenditures. Money, that for the most part, does not have to be reported publicly. But the criticism that these companies are taking over their corporate PAC expenditures is also motivating shareholders to demand more transparency from corporations about the whole scope of their political spending. A number of high profile companies, there were shareholder resolutions that passed demanding more reporting on how they're spending their money on politics.

This whole process over time can hopefully create more transparency and accountability for corporations and how they use their influence, and over time, that could have some influence over the political system overall. I don't think it's all of a sudden going to make Steve Scalise think about politics differently, but it can kind of change overall the playing field in which we decide who the political winners and losers are. So I think that's more of the way that it plays out.

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