ne could be forgiven for wondering what Kellyanne Conway, a close adviser to President Trump, was thinking recently when she turned the White House briefing room into the set of the Home Shopping Network. “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff!” she told Fox News viewers during an interview, referring to the clothing and accessories line of the president’s daughter. It’s not clear if her cheerleading led to any spike in sales, but it did lead to calls for an investigation into whether she violated federal ethics rules, and prompted the White House to later state that it had “counseled” Conway about her behavior.
To understand what provoked Conway’s on-air marketing campaign, look no further than the ongoing boycotts targeting all things Trump. This latest manifestation of the passion to impose financial harm to make a political point has taken things in a new and odd direction. Once, boycotts were serious things, requiring serious commitment and real sacrifice. There were boycotts by aggrieved workers, such as the United Farm Workers, against their employers; boycotts by civil-rights activists and religious groups; and boycotts of goods produced by nations like apartheid-era South Africa. Many of these efforts, sustained over years by committed cadres of activists, successfully pressured businesses and governments to change.
Since Trump’s election, the boycott has become less an expression of long-term moral and practical opposition and more an expression of the left’s collective id. As Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton told the Atlantic recently, “Increasingly, the way we express our political opinions is through buying or not buying instead of voting or not voting.” And evidently the way some people express political opinions when someone they don’t like is elected is to launch an endless stream of virtue-signaling boycotts. Democratic politicians ostentatiously boycotted Trump’s inauguration. New Balance sneaker owners vowed to boycott the company and filmed themselves torching their shoes after a company spokesman tweeted praise for Trump. Trump detractors called for a boycott of L.L. Bean after one of its board members was discovered to have (gasp!) given a personal contribution to a pro-Trump PAC.
By their nature, boycotts are a form of proxy warfare, tools wielded by consumers who want to send a message to a corporation or organization about their displeasure with specific practices.
Trump-era boycotts, however, merely seem to be a way to channel an overwhelming yet vague feeling of political frustration. Take the “Grab Your Wallet” campaign, whose mission, described in humblebragging detail on its website, is as follows: “Since its first humble incarnation as a screenshot on October 11, the #GrabYourWallet boycott list has grown as a central resource for understanding how our own consumer purchases have inadvertently supported the political rise of the Trump family.”
So this boycott isn’t against a specific business or industry; it’s a protest against one man and his children, with trickle-down effects for anyone who does business with them. Grab Your Wallet doesn’t just boycott Trump-branded hotels and golf courses; the group targets businesses such as Bed Bath & Beyond, for example, because it carries Ivanka Trump diaper bags. Even QVC and the Carnival Cruise corporation are targeted for boycott because they advertise on Celebrity Apprentice, which supposedly “further enriches Trump.”
Grab Your Wallet has received support from “notable figures” such as “Don Cheadle, Greg Louganis, Lucy Lawless, Roseanne Cash, Neko Case, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Reich, Pam Grier, and Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry’s),” according to the group’s website. This rogues gallery of celebrity boycotters has been joined by enthusiastic hashtag activists on Twitter who post remarks such as, “Perhaps fed govt will buy all Ivanka merch & force prisoners & detainees in coming internment camps 2 wear it” and “Forced to #DressLikeaWoman by a sexist boss? #GrabYourWallet and buy a nice FU pantsuit at Trump-free shops.” There’s even a website, dontpaytrump.com, which offers a free plug-in extension for your Web browser. It promises a “simple Trump boycott extension that makes it easy to be a conscious consumer and keep your money out of Trump’s tiny hands.”
Many of the companies targeted for boycott—Bed, Bath & Beyond, QVC, TJ Maxx, Amazon—are the kind of retailers that carry moderately priced merchandise that working- and middle-class families can afford. But the list of Grab Your Wallet–approved alternatives for shopping are places like Bergdorf’s and Barney’s. These are hardly accessible choices for the TJ Maxx customer. Indeed, there is more than a whiff of quasi-racist elitism in the self-congratulatory tweets posted by Grab Your Wallet supporters, such as this response to news that Nordstrom is no longer planning to carry Ivanka’s shoe line: “Soon we’ll see Ivanka shoes at Dollar Store, next to Jalapeno Windex and off-brand batteries.”
If Grab Your Wallet is really about “flexing of consumer power in favor of a more respectful, inclusive society,” then it has some work to do.
And then there are the conveniently malleable ethics of the anti-Trump boycott brigade. A small number of affordable retailers like Old Navy made the Grab Your Wallet cut for “approved” alternatives for shopping. But just a few years ago, a progressive website described in detail the “living hell of a Bangladeshi sweatshop” that manufactures Old Navy clothing. Evidently progressives can now sleep peacefully at night knowing large corporations like Old Navy profit from young Bangladeshis making 20 cents an hour and working 17-hour days churning out cheap cargo pants—as long as they don’t bear a Trump label.
In truth, it matters little if Ivanka’s fashion business goes bust. It was always just a branding game anyway. The world will go on in the absence of Ivanka-named suede ankle booties. And in some sense the rash of anti-Trump boycotts is just what Trump, who frequently calls for boycotts of media outlets such as Rolling Stone and retailers like Macy’s, deserves.
But the left’s boycott braggadocio might prove short-lived. Nordstrom denied that it dropped Ivanka’s line of apparel and shoes because of pressure from the Grab Your Wallet campaign; it blamed lagging sales. And the boycotters’ tone of moral superiority—like the ridiculous posturing of the anti-Trump left’s self-flattering designation, “the resistance”—won’t endear them to the Trump voters they must convert if they hope to gain ground in the midterm elections.
As for inclusiveness, as one contributor to Psychology Today noted, the demographic breakdown of the typical boycotter, “especially consumer and ecological boycotts,” is a young, well-educated, politically left woman, undermining somewhat the idea of boycotts as a weapon of the weak and oppressed.
Self-indulgent protests and angry boycotts are no doubt cathartic for their participants (a 2016 study in the Journal of Consumer Affairs cited psychological research that found “by venting their frustrations, consumers can diminish their negative psychological states and, as a result, experience relief”). But such protests are not always ultimately catalytic. As researchers noted in a study published recently at Social Science Research Network, protesters face what they call “the activists’ dilemma,” which occurs when “tactics that raise awareness also tend to reduce popular support.” As the study found, “while extreme tactics may succeed in attracting attention, they typically reduce popular public support for the movement by eroding bystanders’ identification with the movement, ultimately deterring bystanders from supporting the cause or becoming activists themselves.”
The progressive left should be thoughtful about the reality of such protest fatigue. Writing in the Guardian, Jamie Peck recently enthused: “Of course, boycotts alone will not stop Trumpism. Effective resistance to authoritarianism requires more disruptive actions than not buying certain products . . . . But if there’s anything the past few weeks have taught us, it’s that resistance must take as many forms as possible, and it’s possible to call attention to the ravages of neoliberalism while simultaneously allying with any and all takers against the immediate dangers posed by our impetuous orange president.”
Boycotts are supposed to be about accountability. But accountability is a two-way street. The motives and tactics of the boycotters themselves are of the utmost importance. In his book about consumer boycotts, scholar Monroe Friedman advises that successful ones depend on a “rationale” that is “simple, straightforward, and appear[s] legitimate.” Whatever Trump’s flaws (and they are legion), by “going low” with scattershot boycotts, the left undermines its own legitimacy—and its claims to the moral high ground of “resistance” in the process.