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Tina Casey headshot

The Muslim Ban is a Watershed Moment for CSR: Disney and Amazon Square Off Against Trump

By Tina Casey

President Donald Trump's poll numbers are the lowest of any newly inaugurated Commander in Chief. And in the aftermath of his Muslim travel ban, the hits keep on coming.

The latest developments show just how deeply the Trump administration has wounded the national psyche. Last week two icons of American corporate culture, Disney and Amazon, took important steps to define themselves in opposition to President Trump's transparently bigoted executive order.

Many other American companies have taken up the role of change agents to oppose the Muslim ban and other Trump policies. But the Disney-Amazon duo is a particularly significant one-two punch in terms of corporate social responsibility because the two companies took two very different paths to arrive at the same place.

Mickey Mouse pokes President Trump

In what is becoming a predictable pattern, Trump set himself up for last week's Disney debacle by insisting on scheduling highly-publicized, much-anticipated meetings with the top executives of leading U.S. companies.

One such meeting happened last Friday, consisting of leading companies that signed onto Trump's newly formed Strategy and Policy Forum group.

Publicity surrounding the event made the absence of Disney CEO Bob Iger all the more conspicuous.

Disney said Iger was absent due to a previously scheduled board meeting, and so far Iger has not officially pulled out of the group.

Nevertheless, the decision to go to one meeting instead of the other has created the appearance of a deliberate A-list snub. After all, who skips a sit-down with the president of the United States for a routine board meeting?

Regardless of the explanation, some industry observers are hailing the decision as step in the right direction for Disney.

Corporate social responsibility collides with the Muslim ban

The animation industry news organization Cartoon Brew was among the first to break the story of Iger's absence. Cartoon Brew editor Amid Amidi had been sharply critical of Disney's participation in the group, and he applauded the decision with this observation:
"... There’s a key difference between Disney and the other corporations participating in Trump’s forum, and that’s that Disney is a cultural brand. It stands not just for products, but ideas, and over the last decade, the company has made a concerted effort to show that its ideas are socially progressive."

Amidi hammered home the point:
"This forward-looking stance by Disney cannot be reconciled with an American president whose every word and action goes against the company’s core values."

The Muslim ban issue is a particularly fraught one for the Disney brand because visionary founder Walt Disney was plagued by rumors of anti-Semitism during his lifetime.

Disney biographer Neal Gabler make the case that the available records don't indicate Disney expressed bigotry as part of his personality. However, Gabler says the evidence is clear (cited here in the Independent) that "he willingly allied himself with people who were antisemitic, and that reputation stuck."

The enduring impact of affiliating with bigotry probably sent up red flags among company employees and observers even before Trump issued his executive order restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. The so-called Muslim ban certainly opened the floodgates, with Variety reporting that Disney's membership in the Strategy and Policy Forum was "kicking up a storm" of protest last week.

In this context it's also worth noting that Trump group member and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick initially mishandled his company's response to the Muslim ban. The backlash from both employees and customers was swift and strong, but as of last Wednesday Kalanick was still planning to attend Friday's meeting.

However, following a reportedly "disastrous" phone call with Trump on Thursday, Kalanick declined to attend the Friday meeting and dropped out of the group altogether.

Trump added to fuel to the fire last Saturday by sharply disparaging the federal judge who ruled against the Muslim ban on Friday night. The "so-called" jurist (Trump's words) happens to be a Republican appointee who is widely regarded as a mainstream conservative.

Last weekend Trump also touched off an entirely new firestorm. In a taped Fox News interview released on Saturday, Trump equated Russian President Vladimir Putin's reputation for ordering political assassinations with practices of the U.S. government.

Between the Muslim ban, the jab at a Republican-appointed judge and the explosive swipe at the Republican Party's "American exceptionalism" attack line, more defections from the Strategy and Policy group are likely.

According to the Trump transition website GreatAgain.gov, the remaining corporate members include General Motors, Walmart, Boeing, the Elon Musk companies SpaceX and Tesla, PepsiCo, IBM, and General Electric, among others.

Amazon: A "stealth" hero vs. the Muslim ban

Like Disney, Amazon has been feeling the heat over its continued affiliation with the Trump brand.

However, it looks like Amazon can take at least partial credit for Friday night's bombshell ruling, which effectively restored travel back to pre-ban regulations.

Early last week, the company joined with Expedia in support of a lawsuit against the Muslim ban filed by the state of Washington. The federal judge hearing that case decided against the Trump administration and granted a temporary restraining order that applies nationwide. (That's what prompted the now notorious "so-called judge" tweet from Trump on Saturday.)

The Justice Department appealed the ruling over the weekend, but the appeal was tossed out and the Friday decision stands.

The participation of Expedia and Amazon was critical to the favorable ruling, because lawyers for the Trump administration rested their case partly on whether or not the state of Washington had standing to sue.

In support of the state's case, Amazon identified at least 49 individual employees affected by Trump's executive order. Cited in Forbes, Amazon filed a statement that included this declaration:

"From the very beginning, Amazon has been committed to equal rights, tolerance, and diversity -- and we always will be. As we've grown the company, we've worked hard to attract talented people from all over the world, and we believe this is one of the things that makes America great -- a diverse workforce helps us build better products for customers."

The common thread in all this is something that TriplePundit contributor Reed Bundy described as the "birth of a new era of corporate social responsibility," in which business leaders become change agents who challenge government to act in the best interests of all citizens.

Bob Iger and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos are taking steps in that direction, along with hundreds of others.

It could be only a matter of time before other high-profile corporate luminaries, such as Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla's Elon Musk, get off the couch.

So far Zuckerberg has issued a somewhat lukewarm response to the Muslim ban. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has yet to comment, though last week during a public appearance she dropped some hints that indicate she will take a stronger position in the future.

As of last week, Musk promised to "raise objections" to the Muslim ban in advance of Friday's meeting. That may not be enough to satisfy Tesla fans, who are beginning to cancel their orders for Tesla cars to express dissatisfaction with Musk's tepid response.

Don't hold your breath for Silicon Valley superstar investor Peter Thiel to act. Last week Thiel asserted, through a spokesperson, that the Muslim ban was not a religious test.

Thiel is unlikely to back down from that position, considering his affiliations. Following the 2016 presidential campaign, the billionaire tech investor and Facebook board member has transitioned from prominent Trump for President supporter to key President Trump advisor.

Image credit: Mickey Mouse toy by JeffChristiansen via flickr.com, creative commons license.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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