The notion that CEOs “are softening towards" Donald Trump, pictured here in Jan. 2024, is not an accurate representation of what's happening in the business world, writes Jeffrey Sonnenfeld. Credit - Michael M. Santiago—Getty Images
The narrative that the business community is hedging their bets and that CEOs “are softening towards Donald Trump” is escalating and fast becoming a fact-free echo chamber of unsupported pronouncements.
Some commentators extrapolated too much from JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon’s quip at Davos that “Trump was right about some issues.” Such anodyne remarks could even be shared by President Biden regarding Middle East challenges and the Mexican border. These words do not indicate that the business community widely expects Trump to beat Biden or that it is already focused on cozying up to Trump once more. Some have implied that Dimon has reversed course and that he speaks for all CEOs. Neither part of that presumption is accurate.
In reality, Dimon avoids such public posturing, preferring to guide win/win solutions backstage. He never endorsed Trump, nor did he ever publicly condemn him—even after the collapse of Trump’s business advisory councils in August 2017, triggered by the exits of Merck’s Kenneth C. Frazier, Disney’s Bob Iger, and Unilever’s Paul Polman, among others horrified by Trump’s kind words to the white nationalists at a Charlottesville rally. Dozens of CEOs pulled out of White House initiatives at that time—but Dimon never spoke or acted. Even when people inferred five years ago that he criticized Trump, Dimon immediately apologized for anyone drawing that conclusion.
The hunches that CEOs are enthusiastic for Trump’s return are not based upon any stated first-hand endorsements from CEOs. I have worked closely with the nation’s top 1000 CEOs for over 40 years. Trump support has plummeted to virtually zero among major CEOs and they largely want nothing to do with him now. At the same time, there is no incentive for them to condemn him in the absence of any current abuse of power, but they did not hesitate to do so before and, I feel sure, will not hesitate to speak out again should he act up.
I have known Trump personally for 20 years and was among the first to criticize him in the media over his popular TV show The Apprentice and among the first, in print, to take his presidential candidacy seriously in 2015. He is not friendly with many major business leaders, and few saw him as a genuine peer—since he had not ever run a major global public company. Plus, they found his conduct so abhorrent that when I brought him to a large CEO program at New York’s Waldorf Astoria in 2006, many of the biggest names on the guest list walked out in protest.
As the timeless adage goes, just “follow the money” to see how unenthusiastic CEOs are for Trump. Most CEOs are still Republican—between 60 and 70 percent in every decade since the 1980s and even before then; and it is hardly surprising that Fortune 100 CEOs have traditionally favored Republicans in their political donations, especially in presidential elections. To break it down: 42 of the Fortune 100 CEOs contributed to George W. Bush in 2004, 29 to John McCain in 2008, and 28 to Mitt Romney in 2012. But not a single Fortune 100 CEO has contributed to Trump so far in the 2024 election cycle, just like how no CEO donated a single penny to Trump in 2016. In 2020, only two Fortune 100 CEOs donated to Trump, a remarkably weak showing for an incumbent U.S. President.
The money trail, or lack thereof, speaks to the frayed ties between Trump and the business world. Whatever personal ties remained between Trump and the business community despite the chaos of his first term were firmly broken in the days after the 2020 election, when CEOs collectively came out in strong opposition to Trump’s election denialism.
As soon as Trump claimed election fraud from the lectern of the White House two days after the vote, my phone began buzzing with messages from leading CEOs who could not believe what they were witnessing. With formal organizations such as the Business Roundtable unable to act quickly enough, I was asked to assemble a meeting of 100 top CEOs by Zoom for 7 a.m. the following morning, which catalyzed the release of a highly-publicized statement from these CEOs merely hours afterward, re-affirming Biden’s victory and the importance of a peaceful transfer of power.
The same exercise repeated itself in the days following the Jan. 6 insurrection and storming of the Capitol, with CEOs pledging a moratorium on campaign donations to election objectors in Congress, a moratorium which they largely upheld, with the most prominent election objectors now totally dependent on individual, not corporate, contributions.
The stark lack of enthusiasm from CEOs for Trump is also because the business community has already learned its lesson from 2017, when the initial goodwill of CEOs rushing to join new Trump advisory panels and aligning themselves with the new Administration after his election quickly fizzled amid realizations of the perils of being too close to Trump. This was spurred by substantive policy disputes over trade, tariffs, and immigration, alongside issues of moral leadership ranging from Charlottesville to racial justice.
Representatives from the nation’s major aerospace companies, automakers, pharma companies, and others complained to me during the entirety of Trump’s tenure over his dysfunctional antics trying to pit rival firms against each other in WWE-style slapdowns; General Motors vs. Ford, Lockheed Martin vs. Boeing, Pfizer vs. Merck, etc.
CEOs are not political partisans and need to forge constructive relations with leaders across parties. I suspect none of them will endorse Trump in the abstract, nor will they preempt the electorate and condemn him. However, out of patriotism, moral values, and enlightened self-interest, they will likely act when they see autocratic power abuses and assaults upon the national character, should Trump create another catastrophic moment which tears at the fabric of American society.
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