President Donald Trump on Wednesday injected himself into a fresh controversy that intertwined the culture wars with the economy, as he demanded a boycott of a major tire company headquartered in the battleground state of Ohio over a reported ban on Trump campaign apparel by its workers.
The president on Twitter urged his supporters not to purchase tires manufactured by Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. after images from a purported diversity training presentation at one of its plants circulated on social media. It listed “MAGA Attire” and “Blue Lives Matter” as “unacceptable” attire for the workplace, while “Black Lives Matter” and “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride,” among others, were listed as “acceptable.”
“I’m not happy with Goodyear because what they’re doing is playing politics,” Trump said at a news conference Wednesday evening. “The funny thing is, the people that work for Goodyear, I can guarantee you I poll very well with all of those great workers at Goodyear.”
Trump continued: “When they say that you can’t have ‘Blue Lives Matter,’ you can’t show a blue line, you can’t wear a MAGA hat, but you can have other things that are Marxist in nature, there’s something wrong with the top of Goodyear.”
Sensing an opportunity, Democrats seized on Trump’s remarks to highlight the economic damage that a boycott of the tire giant could inflict in a key battleground state, particularly amid a pandemic that has hurt business at a company like Goodyear.
“President Trump doesn’t have a clue about the dignity and worth that comes with good-paying union jobs at places like Goodyear — jobs that can support a family and sustain a community,” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said in a statement. “And even after 170,000 have died due to his mismanaged response to this pandemic, President Trump still keeps taking his eyes off the ball, getting distracted by petty political grievances instead of doing his job and stopping the virus.”
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who represents parts of Akron, where the company has its global headquarters, said Trump’s boycott demand was “about as anti-business as it gets.” He said he spoke to Goodyear’s chief executive recently, who relayed that the company was “really hurting” because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s about MAGA and him,” Ryan, who briefly ran for the Democratic presidential nomination this cycle, said of Trump in an interview. “It has nothing to do with the 3,000 people that work there, the entire ripple effect throughout northeast Ohio, what Goodyear has meant to our community,”
But White House aides, Trump’s campaign and his own family leaned into the fight, warning that the First Amendment rights of employees were at risk and questioned why statements of racial justice were permitted but support of police and the president were not.
According to WIBW, the CBS affiliate in Topeka, Kan., the image that has stirred controversy was a presentation from the Goodyear plant there. Goodyear also has plants in several other states, including North Carolina, another presidential battleground.
The company said in a statement Wednesday that the image “created some misconceptions” and said it was not created nor distributed by its corporate leaders.
“To be clear on our long-standing corporate policy, Goodyear has zero tolerance for any forms of harassment or discrimination,” the company said in a statement. “To enable a work environment free of those, we ask that associates refrain from workplace expressions in support of political campaigning for any candidate or political party, as well as similar forms of advocacy that fall outside the scope of racial justice and equity issues.”
But White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany suggested that the statement did little to clear up the matter, saying Goodyear needed to clarify its policy on political garb and argued that “what was clearly targeted was a certain ideology.”
White House aides dismissed the potential impact Trump’s comments could have on Goodyear workers in Ohio, with presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway telling reporters at the White House that Trump has “done plenty for companies in Ohio and elsewhere, far more than Joe Biden ever did.”
Trump won Ohio by about 8 points in 2016 over Democrat Hillary Clinton. But public polling in the state shows a much tighter race between Trump and Biden this year, with the two effectively tied in a late July poll of likely voters taken by CBS News/YouGov.
Jai Chabria, an Ohio Republican strategist who served as senior adviser to its former GOP governor, John Kasich, said it was unclear whether Trump’s flap with Goodyear — particularly in an ephemeral news cycle — would directly affect his reelection prospects, but suggested that it could leave an impact, particularly if a boycott does materialize and it affects the company.
“The reality is, Ohio is back to battleground status, but it’s back to battleground status for a variety of reasons,” Chabria said. “It does make a difference, whatever you do on the margins here.”
David Cohen, a political-science professor at the University of Akron, noted that Trump’s standing with union households in Ohio four years ago rose considerably compared to GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, according to exit polling.
“I’m confident in saying this is one of the reasons Trump won easily in Ohio because he made up a lot of ground among blue collar union types — the very type of people that work for Goodyear,” Cohen said, as he called Trump’s tweet “baffling.”
The tweet left some Ohio Republicans and business advocacy groups in an uncomfortable position, caught between the president’s rhetoric calling for free speech and the potential effect on the livelihoods of their constituents.
“I believe private companies are free to set their own guidelines,” said the state’s Republican senator, Rob Portman. “But I would hope they would do it fairly and objectively, with respect for free speech.”
The Ohio Chamber of Commerce declined to comment on Trump’s tweet. But Jon Husted, the state’s Republican lieutenant governor, urged people to purchase Goodyear products, calling it a “great Ohio company that employs a lot of Ohioans.”
Critical government vehicles, including the official presidential limousine, known as the Beast, sport Goodyear tires. Trump said he was open to swapping out the tires on his vehicle.
“You’re going to have a lot of people not wanting to buy that product anymore,” Trump said.
Trump is no stranger to supporting a boycott of businesses and other organizations.
In February 2016, he pushed for a boycott of Apple products after the company declined to help federal investigators unlock an iPhone owned by one of the perpetrators of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. Also during his presidential campaign, he feuded with both Macy’s and Univision, calling for boycotts after the companies protested then-candidate Trump’s comments about immigrants during his campaign kickoff.
Trump in September 2017 appeared to encourage a boycott of the National Football League after Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality. And the president also said a 2018 boycott of Harley-Davidson over its plan to move production of motorcycles sold in Europe to factories outside the United States was “Great!” — a decision by the Wisconsin company that was prompted by tariffs on steel Trump imposed in March of that year.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said Trump’s call Wednesday for a Goodyear boycott was “absolutely despicable.”
Keep in mind, this is a President who spent years making his own Trump-branded products overseas,” Brown said on Twitter. “He failed to stand up for workers in Lordstown, and now he betrays the workers in Akron.”