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The Rise of “Anti-Woke” Punitive Populism

Grievance weaponized as policy, basically.
April 27, 2021
The Rise of “Anti-Woke” Punitive Populism

Donald Trump may have had his problems, but Republicans didn’t anticipate that corporate America would turn against the GOP after he left office. What’s the big deal with doubling down on his election lies that led to the January 6 insurrection? That’s politics. And Major League Baseball, Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, Facebook, and all the rest had better stay the hell out of it, or else their bottom lines are gonna take a beating.

That’s what the loudest voices in the GOP are saying, anyway.

The “virtue signaling” from elitist CEOs about things such as democracy and racial inclusivity is offensive to Republicans. The idea that corporations would withhold donations from PACs supporting members of Congress who objected to the certification of Joe Biden’s election was bad enough—but then companies started opposing state legislators seeking to restrict voting rights. That was the last straw. Trump may be out, but there’s a new way of doing business in This Town: Screw with our elections, Republicans grumbled, and we’ll screw your trusts, tax cuts, loopholes, and credits. So show some respect!

It sounds like something Donald Trump might have tweeted out back before Twitter—another one of the companies the GOP likes to rail against—shut down his account. Republicans try to pretend that their bullying is something more principled—that it’s anti-woke corporate populism—but in reality it’s little more than grievance weaponized as policy.

But don’t laugh. The way things are going, this could be the next grand unifying theory for the GOP.

In this new edition of the culture wars, crusading conservatives—from MAGA-mouths like Tucker Carlson to old Senate bulls like Mitch McConnell and Chuck Grassley—see themselves as the thin red line that keeps American business in the black. They are the heroes who kept taxes low, who shielded the stock market from the hordes of foaming socialists seeking to destroy Western capitalism.

But now that the corporations are dissing the GOP, Atlas is gonna shrug when AOC and Bernie Sanders come pounding down the boardroom doors. And, if Republicans take back Congress and the White House in the next few elections, these businesses shouldn’t expect to be treated any more nicely.

As Ted Cruz put it: #GoWokeGoBroke.

Today’s GOP critique of business is not without antecedent. Decades before Ross Douthat was credited for coining the term “woke capitalism” in 2018, conservative publications and think tanks criticized notions of “corporate social responsibility” and “corporate citizenship,” recalling Milton Friedman’s admonition that corporations’ only true responsibility is to their shareholders. Conservatives often griped when companies took an interest in environmentalism—even if the businesses were just paying lip service to it—and grumbled about corporate “diversity and inclusion” efforts.

Notes Thomas Edsall, the “muscle” of woke capitalism was “evident as early as 2015 in Indiana and 2016 in North Carolina, when corporate opposition forced Republicans to back off anti-gay and anti-transgender legislation.” And after decades of protecting Silicon Valley—safeguarding its profits with tax cuts and resisting attempts at regulation—Republicans have in recent years started to complain about “Big Tech,” especially when it comes to matters of the companies removing users from their platforms.

But the GOP’s clash with business over the last few weeks is different in two ways from what came before.

First, on the business side, this case is different because the “activism” in question—the holding back of donations, the criticism—is not related to some matter of policy or party but rather to election administration and the preservation of democracy itself.

And on the GOP’s side, this case is different because it is based solely upon the politics of retaliation. Republicans are proposing punitive action in direct response to political speech from companies about the post-election Big Lie, the attempts to overturn the 2020 election, and Georgia’s recently enacted voting law. Threatening to use the power of the state to crack down on that speech is repulsive. (Acting on such threats could in some cases be unconstitutional.) The fact that those who endlessly thump their chests about “cancel culture” are so eager to act in this way shows how hypocritical the strategy is: “Free speech for me, not for thee.”

It’s all happened very fast.

After the CEO of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines criticized the voting law enacted last month, Georgia Republicans decided to rebuke the company—so the GOP-controlled Georgia House of Representatives voted at the end of March to repeal a major fuel tax break for the airline. The vote was largely symbolic, since the Georgia Senate didn’t take up the measure, but it was a rare punch thrown at the state’s biggest private employer.

Then, on April 2, Major League Baseball announced it would be moving the All-Star Game out of Georgia because of the new voting law. GOP Senators Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, Josh Hawley, and Marsha Blackburn announced legislation to strip MLB antitrust exemption. “We should have done this decades ago, but when billion-dollar businesses start engaging in political extortion it becomes even more pressing to end their special treatment,” said Lee. A companion bill has 29 co-sponsors in the House.

Keep in mind, there are good, defensible reasons to revoke the MLB’s antitrust exemption. Doing it because the MLB expressed an opinion in support of democracy—an opinion that one particular political party dislikes—is not one of them. Even more rash, Sen. Grassley labeled the MLB’s decision to pull its All-Star game from Atlanta an act of “economic terrorism”—strikingly inflammatory rhetoric from the most senior Senate Republican.

Marco Rubio is one of those senators who, seeing an opportunity for political self-advancement, has taken a sudden interest in bringing corporations to heel. He recently sided with efforts to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama—not because he supports unions, but because, as he wrote in a March USA Today op-ed, Amazon’s leadership “has decided to wage culture war against working-class values.” What is Amazon’s “uniquely malicious corporate behavior” that justifies Rubio’s awkwardly out-of-character support for a union? He points to three specific offenses: Amazon’s refusal to sell Ryan Anderson’s book critiquing transgender theory, the company’s decision to use the Southern Poverty Law Center to determine who can participate in its charity program, and its business practices in China. Reasonable people can criticize the company on each of these points—it’s just hard to believe that Rubio’s criticism of the company or his out-of-the-blue support for unionizing is anything more than his latest bid for popularity.

Rubio returned to the theme this week, taking to the pages of the New York Post on Monday to elaborate on why he believes the GOP should fight back against corporate America’s “merciless war against traditional values”:

No policymaker would allow a company to dump toxic waste into a river upstream of a thriving town he is charged with governing. Yet corporate America eagerly dumps woke, toxic nonsense into our culture, and it’s only gotten more destructive with time. These campaigns will be met with the same strength that any other polluter should expect.

Our nation needs a thriving private economy. And patriotic business leadership has historically underwritten the American Dream. But lawmakers who have been asleep at the wheel for too long, especially within my own party, need to wake up. America’s laws should keep our nation’s corporations firmly ordered to our national common good.

Sen. Rubio never comes out and actually says how he would use the law to peg corporate behavior to the “national common good,” which shows the whole approach isn’t fully baked. Still, the combative posture is widely accepted among all ranks.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed there would be “consequences” for the “bullying” from “woke” corporations if they stepped out of line on anything “from election law to environmentalism to radical social agendas to the Second Amendment.” And Rick Scott—McConnell’s main campaign man, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and the junior senator from Florida—posted an open letter on that reads like something that could trigger a red flag law:

Let me give you woke corporate leaders a heads-up: Everybody can see the game you are playing. Everybody can see your lies. You are the naked emperor.

You are, in fact, morally inferior to the working men and women of this great country, who are not racist people, and who, unlike you, care about truth.

And here is another bit of news for you: There is a massive backlash coming. You will rue the day when it hits you. That day is November 8, 2022. That is the day Republicans will take back the Senate and the House. It will be a day of reckoning.

Your latest attempts to hurt Georgia’s economy will help us do something that is long overdue—make corporate welfare a thing of the past. There will be no number of well-connected lobbyists you can hire to save you. There will be no amount of donations you can make that will save you. There will be nowhere for you to hide.

Expect to hear a whole lot more of this going into the midterms.

Among those competing to join the new Senate “shut up or pay up caucus” is likely Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance of Hillbilly Elegy fame. Upon hearing that more than one hundred corporate leaders held a call to strategize about Georgia’s voter law, he tweeted (invoking Ronald Reagan’s famous speech): “Raise their taxes and do whatever else is necessary to fight these goons. We can have an American Republic or a global oligarchy, and it’s time for choosing.”

This anti-corporate rhetoric has captured the paranoid, vindictive imagination of the post-Trump GOP. But where is it heading, exactly? Nobody knows—not even Josh Hawley, who has been a pace-setter in the rush to attack corporations and Big Tech.

As recently as last year, Missouri’s wunderkind junior senator was the subject of profiles waxing poetic about his ability to reference Pelagius and Prometheus while championing the “great American middle” which, in his telling, is being used and abused by elitist oligarchs. He was considered someone who could translate Trumpism into something meaningful.

That was before he joined in Trump’s Big Lie about the election.

Before he tried to promote his own career by trying to overturn the election results.

Before he raised his fist in solidarity with the insurrectionists.

Teddy Roosevelt is Hawley’s muse, but not because he admires the Rough Rider’s rugged individualism. Hawley sees in the footnotes of TR biographies (he wrote one himself) a blueprint for political success coming from taking on and busting up big companies. While Roosevelt did it to break monopolies, Hawley wants to do it because he sees an alliance of liberal Democrats and big business as a threat to the republic. As he told the CPAC audience earlier this year:

In this moment of crisis, our country needs us to take a stand . . . to stand up and to say, “We will not be ruled by giant corporations and the liberal elite. We will not be told what to do by these modern-day oligarchs.” What we need is a new nationalism, a new agenda to make the rule of the people real in this country and give the people America back. Give it back to them! Give it back to you! No more rule by oligarchs. Rule by the people, that’s what we’ve got to do. And I can tell you how I would start. I would start by breaking up the Big Tech corporations. Just break ’em up. Break them up in the name of the rule of the people. For the good of the American people and our liberty, we need to break those corporations up and cut them down to size.

Hawley has a book coming out with Regnery next week, The Tyranny of Big Tech, in which he presumably will herald his policy prescriptions to regulate the Silicon Valley into smithereens. “Order a copy today and own the libs,” he tweeted Monday. The book was supposed to be published by Simon & Schuster, but the company pulled the title after January 6. The publisher said it “cannot support Senator Hawley after his role in what became a dangerous threat to our democracy and freedom.” Hawley, of course, followed the usual script: He described his lost book contract as an example of “cancel culture” and an attack from the “woke mob.”

He’s totally not wrong. There is a culture clash underway.

Hawley and the rest of the anti-woke crusaders are saying that corporate America must heed their “values” or get smashed. Just like Hawley’s rioters smashed up the Capitol when the Democrats didn’t agree with their “values” about “election integrity.”

It’s all the same brute idea. Comply with my party, or get the fist. Forceful overthrow is what populism is, and always had been, about.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.