On a sunny July morning in Manhattan, Donald Trump Jr.; his fiancée, former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle; and former Mike Pence chief of staff Nick Ayers stood on the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange, beaming down at the trading floor below. With them were a pair of less familiar faces: Michael Seifert, CEO of the conservative “America-first” marketplace PublicSq., and financier Omeed Malik, whose company, Colombier Acquisition Corp., had just merged with Seifert’s. That morning, their combined company was going public for the first time. When the clock hit 9:30, and Seifert pressed the button to trigger the opening bell, a crowd of supporters burst into applause, then a booming and sustained chant of “USA.” At CNBC’s trading floor news desk, a visibly annoyed Jim Cramer paused on air to let the chants play out while his co-host covered his ears.
All of it—the triumphant moment, the stadium chants, Cramer’s pained expression (especially Cramer’s pained expression)—was trumpeted across conservative media as an encapsulation of what the moment represented. Namely, that “the deplorables are taking over wall st!”; “The patriot economy has arrived”; or, as Seifert had put it earlier, that “We the People”—a specifically defined group—now had their own marketplace, as a first step toward creating “a parallel economy for Americans sick of woke corporations.”
Just a year or two ago, and for a century beforehand, the notion that conservatives needed to conquer Wall Street would have seemed incomprehensible, the very premise redundant. But PublicSq.’s moment at the NYSE capped a season of furious right-wing boycotts, beginning with Bud Light. In April, conservatives became incensed after 26-year-old trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney released an Instagram video showing off a promotional can of Bud Light, adorned with Mulvaney’s face, that Anheuser-Busch had sent her as one of its micro-ambassadors. A vicious right-wing backlash ensued, featuring bomb threats against breweries, an aged Kid Rock shooting up beer cans, and a conservative entrepreneur, who’d previously hawked “Let’s Go Brandon” wrapping paper, rapidly launching the “woke free” Ultra Right lager (not quite a steal at $20 per six-pack). Despite the fact that Anheuser-Busch almost immediately caved to the pressure—abandoning Mulvaney, sidelining the staff who oversaw her ad, rolling out new ads with football players, and sponsoring country music concerts—the boycott went on, as right-wing media gleefully tallied declining sales.
But Bud Light was just the start. In May, it was Target’s turn, as conservatives eager to best last year’s attacks on Pride month leaped to protest the retailer for releasing a large LGBTQ-themed product line. Then it was Walmart, then Kohl’s, for similar reasons. Then Lego, after false rumors spread that the toy company was selling “transgender building sets.” Conservatives even turned on Chick-fil-A, the fast-food franchise long associated with conservative Christian politics and antipathy to LGBTQ rights, which nonetheless became a target after conservatives discovered the company had a preexisting diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, initiative (“Chick-fil-A, you are no longer the Lord’s chicken,” cried a Turning Point USA contributor). Turning Point founder Charlie Kirk lamented that he no longer knew what brands to trust: “I’m going through my refrigerator,” asking, “‘Is this ketchup bottle woke? Is this mustard?’”
Amid the boycotts came a range of new services to help conservatives avoid buying “woke”: a phone app, Veebs, that allows customers to scan supermarket barcodes to check a product’s “V Score” and find “brands with the best values alignment”; a whitelist of conservative companies put out by the right-wing CatholicVote; an anti-woke browser extension that “displays a warning message for websites, companies, and brands that engage in wokeness,” based on a keyword search. In April, Washington-based Consumers’ Research—a once-mainstream consumer advocacy group that’s been transformed into a right-wing watchdog—released a “Woke Alert” text service, blasting out updates on companies that put “progressive activists and their dangerous agendas ahead of customers.” The alert’s initial warnings against Bud Light and Jack Daniel’s (for sponsoring a 2021 Pride campaign) were soon joined by many others: the Walt Disney Company, Bank of America, and NASCAR, for funding LGBTQ youth organization The Trevor Project; Chobani yogurt, Meta, and Starbucks, for supporting abortion rights; Country Music Television, because it stopped playing Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town”; Kroger supermarkets, for making employees wear aprons with rainbow hearts.
But even during this hot boycott summer, there were doubters. On his podcast in May, Senator Ted Cruz signaled his skepticism about how successful they could be, since “historically, conservatives have typically been not very good” at boycotts, and, further, that staying away from a major chain like Target is harder than finding another light beer. Enter the parallel economy, which, depending on who defines the term, is anything from the restoration of free enterprise, a collection of grifting conservative knockoffs, a mass opting-out from the mainstream economy, or an illusion.
In response to the deplatforming of various far-right influencers over the last several years, conservatives have increasingly begun arguing for a movement-size divestment from “companies that hate you,” in the words of The Daily Wire’s co-founder Jeremy Boreing (who himself launched a line of mail-order razors, after a mainstream company dropped its ad deal with the right-wing outlet). “It’s time corporate America felt the weight of its woke posturing, and face conservative competitors that call them on their bluff,” Boreing wrote in 2022. To that end, he pledged that The Daily Wire would invest $100 million in alternative ventures “to serve those tired of being forced to fund woke media companies, like Disney.” The left might dismiss them, Boreing warned, and “in their hubris” would “continue to bifurcate the culture without any fear of economic consequences. Meanwhile, we’ll be bifurcating the economy.”
Anti-Abortion Protein Bars?
The idea didn’t start with Bud Light. In January 2021, days after Joe Biden was inaugurated, Andrew Torba, the Pennsylvania-born founder of the far-right social media platform Gab, called on Christians to begin building alternative systems to prepare for a communist takeover. “It will end in ash,” Torba told the right-wing Catholic outlet Church Militant, “and when it does get to that point, which is inevitable, Christians will have a firm foundation, a firm economy, and a firm internet and businesses—all those services and community that we have built up over the course of decades.”
Besides apocalyptic visions, Torba, a self-described Christian nationalist, had a more personal motivation. For years, Gab has courted some of the most noxious personalities on the far right to participate on its platform, from Catholic antisemite E. Michael Jones to white supremacist groyper king Nick Fuentes. In October 2018, after another of its frequent posters killed 11 people in a mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, Gab was dropped from its web-hosting service and payment processors PayPal and Stripe. “From that moment forward, we decided that we would never allow something like this to happen again,” Torba later wrote, referring not to the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history but to Gab’s demonetization. “Not to Gab and not to anyone else who shares our values.”
Soon, Torba—a former ad tech CEO who was booted from a prestigious Silicon Valley startup network for spewing anti-immigrant abuse at fellow alums after Donald Trump’s 2016 victory (“I helped meme a President into office, cucks”)—was incorporating the parallel economy into nearly everything Gab did. The footers of Gab emails urge readers to “Join the Parallel Economy.” Torba hailed Gab as the place where conservatives could find everything from “dissident” media and politicians to “dissident” doctors who’d write tele-prescriptions for Ivermectin. “They can’t cancel us here,” he promised, “because we are building our own—everything.” He launched GabPay, a PayPal alternative; Gab Marketplace, a Facebook Marketplace clone; and a parallel economy Christmas catalog. When he spoke at Fuentes’s America First Political Action Conference in early 2022—itself a CPAC alternative, where Fuentes that year praised both Putin and Hitler—Torba exhorted the young crowd to “work together towards the common goal of building parallel Christian systems that are beyond the influence and control of the existing demonic ones.” Even Gab’s name, he suggested, embodied the message: “Go And Build.” This year, frustrated that he couldn’t get ChatGPT to say that Jews killed Jesus, or write a blog post about the immorality of Drag Queen Story Hours, Torba announced he would launch Gab AI as an artificial intelligence product “that is based, has no ‘hate speech’ filters and doesn’t obfuscate and distort historical and Biblical Truth.”
In creating Gab, Torba was in part reacting to the deplatforming of far-right companies and personalities across the internet. “This is a response to us,” said Nandini Jammi, co-founder of the progressive activist group Check Your Ads, which seeks to “dismantle the disinformation economy” by lobbying ad tech companies and ad exchanges to drop sponsorship of far-right actors for violating the group’s policies against hate speech, disinformation, harassment, and more. In the years since Trump’s election, Jammi and her fellow activists—first at the progressive social media action group Sleeping Giants, now at her own organization—have claimed a number of victories: costing “home of the Alt Right” Breitbart News 90 percent of its ad revenue in 2017; getting far-right activist Laura Loomer kicked off PayPal in 2019; and perhaps playing a role in YouTube and Google Ads dropping right-wing commentator Dan Bongino earlier last year, to name a few. As a result, Jammi said, Bongino has become “very, very invested in the parallel economy, because he’s personally seen how quickly things can go south.”
When right-wing social network Parler was removed from Apple and Google app stores, as well as Amazon’s web-hosting platform, over its role in the January 6 Capitol riots, Bongino—one of Parler’s investors—co-founded an alt-payment processor, called simply Parallel Economy, that promised to be the backbone of a “censor-resistant ecosystem.” Tagline: “Don’t let Big Tech hold your business hostage.” The right-wing alt-video platform Rumble became an early investor.
But in recent months, calls for a right-wing parallel economy have moved far beyond Gab and Parler, propelled in part by the Bud Light and Target protests. As PublicSq.’s Michael Seifert told the conservative video website PragerU, “The boycotts have been successful,” but even better “is taking the next step and putting our dollars behind companies that actually deserve them.” All that money taken out of Anheuser-Busch and Target has to go somewhere, and Seifert wants to move it “to the companies that are doing right by this country, that have not been robbed by ESG and DEI philosophies, that are actually prioritizing meritocracy, quality products, providing value for shareholders.”
A lot of companies are making that pitch. Listen to Salem Radio and you can hear Charlie Kirk read ad spots for a patriotic butcher or “Judeo-Christian” financial adviser service. Watch Kimberly Guilfoyle’s Rumble channel and learn about the noninsurance health plans and identity theft services offered by Patriot Lifestyle. Another sponsor of both Gab and Kirk, My Patriot Supply, sells survival ration kits advertised with the promise, “You won’t regret it when the SHTF.”
The companies run the gamut. For years, Patriot Mobile has sold itself as the premier conservative alt-cell phone carrier. (Last year, it proved its bona fides by channeling $600,000 into 11 school board races in Texas.) Now there’s also America First Insurance, Liberation Tek web-hosting, Tim Pool’s new freedom-supporting “parallel economy” coffee (joining a crowded field that includes North Arrow Coffee, which bills itself as Christian and anti-abortion, and Black Rifle Coffee, with guns, flags, and firefighters on its packaging), even a BlazeTV host’s promise to start manufacturing parallel economy supplements, including “dick pills,” soon. There’s a forthcoming parallel economy theme park in Oklahoma, and parallel economy money, with movement enthusiasts trading tips for where one can use the untraceable cryptocurrency Monero (the preferred choice of Andrew Anglin, founder of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer) to buy farm-direct produce. There’s also RedBalloon, an anti-woke job database that promises to help conservatives find work with right-wing employers and was founded by an elder of a controversial Idaho church whose pastor is a slavery apologist.
Inevitably, there will soon be a conference, too—RePlatform: The Parallel Economy Convention, hosted in Las Vegas this March by a boutique New York brand consultancy and the anti-vaccination group Defeat the Mandates. Panels include “How to Red-Pill Others Into the Parallel Economy Without Blowing Up Your Company” and “Profiting From Cancel Culture.”
PublicSq. wants to become the central repository of this sprawling universe. Since conservatives began boycotting Bud Light, Seifert has said, they’ve seen an 800 percent increase in searches for beer on the site. That’s perhaps not too meaningful, given that, until recently, few people likely looked to an anti-abortion, family-friendly website to buy suds. But it’s a model PublicSq. is eagerly trying to replicate for its more than 55,000 sellers (which get vetted and must pledge not to publicly denigrate PublicSq.’s “five core values”). On the company’s blog, product substitutions abound. Customers can “Ditch Warby Parker” over its embrace of “LGBTQ+ corporate responsibility” and buy eyewear from Christian sunglasses company Zivah instead. They can swap Patagonia—for “literally handing their company over to ‘Mother Earth’” and supporting Black Lives Matter—for patriotic “outleisure” clothing brand Choona. Or buy anti-abortion protein bars, anti-vaccination probiotics, and teeth whiteners that don’t “virtue signal.”
As of late May, PublicSq. claimed to have more than a million registered customers, about double the number of users it had in March. Just before the company went public in July, it signed an advertising deal worth more than $1 million with former Fox host Tucker Carlson, marking the first commercial investment in Carlson’s new Twitter-based streaming show. (Omeed Malik, Axios reported, also plans to invest in Carlson’s media company through his investment firm, 1789 Capital.) And right around then, after news came that Bud Light was downsizing 350 workers, Seifert took to Twitter for another sort of victory lap, declaring that PublicSq. and RedBalloon would distribute the résumés of any interested laid-off Bud Light employees to its network of “non-woke,” “pro-America businesses.”
Is the GOP Losing Big Business?
There’s a tendency to think of consumer activism and boycotts as tools of the left, recalling the Montgomery bus boycott, the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott, or the divestment campaign against apartheid South Africa. Long before Bud Light, after all, there was a decades-long campaign against Coors, as University of La Verne history professor Allyson Brantley detailed in her recent book, Brewing a Boycott. Over the course of 30 years, a multifaceted coalition protested the brewery—first in the form of a 1950s labor struggle against the company’s union-busting; then as a 1960s “urban counterpart” to the United Farm Workers’ produce boycotts, because Coors wasn’t hiring Mexican Americans; then by queer activists in the 1970s, to demonstrate the power of the LGBTQ dollar; then as a more general progressive boycott in response to the Coors family’s right-wing politics. It was a durable, intensely organized effort that brought together multiple demographics working toward a shared end.
But the right has long played this game, too. According to Cornell historian Lawrence Glickman, author of Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America, segregationists used economic pressure to target companies like Ford or Philip Morris for donating to integrationist causes and boycotted TV shows with interracial casts. A century before that, there were dueling boycotts over slavery, as Northern abolitionists set up “free produce” stores, selling foods that didn’t rely on slave labor, while the South built a corresponding “nonintercourse” movement, pledging to boycott Northern-made goods. “One thing I’m not sure about in terms of this current movement,” Glickman said, “is whether they want this niche to become mainstream and dominant, or whether they’re happy for it to be like the free produce people,” with tiny stores “where the clothes were ugly and the candy tasted terrible.”
It’s a good question. But so far the parallel economy doesn’t seem to be one thing. Is it viral videos of conservatives shooting at 12-packs or calling Target satanic, to starve mainstream companies into compliance? Yes. Is it the creation of a ban-proof internet, where neither bigoted speech nor insurrectionist organizing will cost conservatives their platforms? Also yes. Is it the next “positive” step, as PublicSq. describes it, to create a universe of moral purchasing, in service of a larger ecosystem to come? That, too. For others still, it’s the creation of a more holistic alternative order, akin to The Benedict Option’s advice that conservatives withdraw from an irredeemable world.
For the political right at large, it’s also part of an ongoing realignment—in image, at least, if not reality—in which Republicans are changing their relationship to corporate America.
This spring, former Bill Clinton adviser Mark Penn and Yale management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld wrote in Time about “how the GOP lost Big Business,” as CEOs broke ranks with Republicans on social issues, and Republican politicians retaliated with legal threats and new laws. In this new war, they wrote, there were multiple fronts. One focused on broad corporate support for diversity policies and actions against states that discriminate, such as PayPal’s 2016 decision to cancel plans for a facility in North Carolina, after the state passed the nation’s first anti-trans “bathroom bill.” Another was over environmental, social, and governance, or ESG, standards in investing, as corporations and financial entities began to factor issues like climate change impact into their business decisions. Beyond those, much as corporate America enjoyed Trump’s tax cuts, they were perturbed by the social instability that accompanied them, and after the January 6 riots, numerous companies suspended donations to legislators who refused to certify Biden’s win.
These changes have caused some bewildering reconfigurations in how politicians talk about business, as Republicans use all the legislative and administrative tools at their disposal to threaten and censure certain companies, and Democrats—some Democrats—clamor to defend the free market, as when Representative Maxine Waters denounced the GOP this July as “anti-capitalist, anti-investor, anti-business, and anti-American.”
The most prominent early example of this fight, of course, came from Florida, in Governor Ron DeSantis’s ongoing battle with Disney for criticizing his Parental Rights in Education Act, which as of this year bars public schools from teaching students about LGBTQ issues, with limited exceptions, from kindergarten to twelfth grade. When DeSantis opened this battlefront in 2022, Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist who’s become his right-hand ideas man, described it as part of a larger effort to “lay siege” to cultural institutions long ceded to the left, including businesses functioning as “ideological and economic cartels, dictating the terms from up on high down to the average citizen.”
The first step in fighting back, Rufo said, lay in convincing conservatives that benign-sounding concepts like diversity were actually leftist code, and then combining the resultant popular outrage with government force to bring those institutions to heel. When Rufo published a series of claims charging that Disney sought to “fundamentally change the relationship between kids and sexuality in the United States,” the furious aftermath involved an array of proposed legislative punishments, from Florida vowing to rescind the company’s special tax status to Congress threatening to reject its copyright extension requests. This winter, DeSantis stacked the oversight board that governs Disney’s special tax district with political allies and donors, including a Moms for Liberty co-founder who is married to the head of the state GOP. The next day, he wrote in The Wall Street Journal that “old-fashioned corporate Republicanism won’t do in a world where the left has hijacked big business.” This spring, shortly after announcing his presidential candidacy, DeSantis summoned the ghost of Winston Churchill, vowing, “We will fight the woke in education, we will fight the woke in corporations, we will fight the woke in the halls of Congress.” (Meanwhile, presidential contender Vivek Ramaswamy made his name writing two books attacking ESG considerations and launching his own anti-ESG investment firm.)
But it’s not just DeSantis. This spring, America First Legal, or AFL, a right-wing legal advocacy firm founded by former Trump adviser Stephen Miller, began soliciting aggrieved conservatives for lawsuits against corporations. In a promo released this May, with the look and feel of a late-night injury attorney commercial, Miller asked conservative viewers whether they or their loved ones had been “denied a job, raise, promotion, or professional opportunity as a result of diversity quotas, equity mandates, affirmative action, or other racial preferences.” Over the previous few months, AFL had launched a spree of lawsuits and legal threats against various companies. In April, it filed a federal civil rights complaint against Anheuser-Busch, asking the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate whether its diversity programs and scholarships for Black and Latino college students amounted to discrimination against white and Asian people. It filed another against Hershey, charging that the chocolatier’s reports on increasing hiring diversity were proof of illegal racial and gender quotas; next came McDonald’s, Mars, Unilever, Amazon, Alaska Air, Kroger supermarkets, and more.
In mid-July, a similar argument was picked up by a more substantial force, as 13 state attorneys general sent a letter to Fortune 100 companies, arguing that the Supreme Court’s recent ruling ending affirmative action in higher education applied to them, too. Therefore, they argued, corporate diversity programs of all sorts amounted to illegal racial discrimination, and companies that continued using them would face “serious legal consequences.”
ESG: The “New Cultural Revolution”
In September 2022, at a golf resort in Miami, West Virginia state Treasurer Riley Moore took to the stage of the third National Conservatism conference to explain how to conquer “the threat of woke capitalism.” The classroom wars against critical race theory and DEI consuming many attendees, he said, were “just the tip of the proverbial iceberg,” and “the cultural manifestation of a larger revolutionary attempt to remake the American economy in ways that would destroy our way of life.”
What lay below the surface, Moore suggested, was another three-letter acronym, ESG, and what it stood for was a “silent revolution” the left was waging via “a complex and destructive scheme that aims to fundamentally alter the American energy sector” through divestment from fossil fuels.
As investors began assessing companies not just on their profit margins but on issues like their carbon footprint, diversity stats, or transparency practices—and after the Biden-era Securities and Exchange Commission announced in 2021 that it was creating guidelines for companies to more fully disclose their climate impacts—ESG considerations have become a ubiquitous part of the investment landscape, from individual banks restricting loans for extractive industries to state pension funds managed by ESG-supporting investment companies.
To Moore that meant: “They’re using your money to achieve their objectives—objectives that would destroy you.” Starting with his state. Whether or not the audience believed in climate change, he said, one thing was “changing for sure, and that is the outcomes of the average American due to the measures being taken to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions.” What Moore called the “rich man’s problem” of climate change overlooked the “real crisis” in his home state, as West Virginia’s employment and life expectancy cratered and its overdose and foster care rates soared. “These policies are literally killing us,” he said, building to a near shout. “This is the cost of the new cultural revolution.”
In West Virginia, the state government decided to fight back. After Moore took office, he began hearing from coal and natural gas companies that they would soon lose access to capital because of banks’ environmental policies, like not lending to new coal mines or coal-fueled power plants. In response, in 2021, Moore organized a group of 15 state treasurers to write the Biden administration, threatening consequences for imposing ESG “through extra-legal measures,” as he put it in Miami. Later that year, the treasurers’ group warned a number of large financial institutions that they would stop working with banks that boycott fossil fuels. And in 2022, Moore followed through, placing five institutions—BlackRock, a frequent conservative target; JPMorgan Chase; Goldman Sachs; Wells Fargo; and Morgan Stanley—on a blacklist, terminating their existing state contracts and blocking them from bidding on new ones.
A sixth institution, U.S. Bancorp, caved, and Moore kept it off the list. Subsequently, he said he received “a flood of proposals” from banks around the country, hoping to capitalize on the opportunity. Other states, including Kentucky, Tennessee, and Oklahoma, soon followed suit, joining Texas, which had passed its own anti-ESG law in 2021. In August 2022, Texas made good on that law, releasing a blacklist of more than 300 banks and investment funds. That same month, Ron DeSantis’s Florida banned ESG considerations in state pension fund investments—a much larger pot of money. “This,” said Moore, who is now running for a U.S. House seat, “is how we win.”
By late 2022, The Washington Post reported, Consumers’ Research—which enjoys an $8 million budget and close ties to prominent right-wing legal strategist Leonard Leo—joined more than a dozen Republican attorneys general in calling for a federal investigation of pro-ESG asset managing giant Vanguard for “meddling with [the] energy industry to achieve progressive political goals at the expense of market efficiency.” The group is also a frequent collaborator with, and top donor to, the State Financial Officers Foundation: a nonprofit group of dozens of Republican state treasurers and auditors, including Riley Moore. Around the same time as it launched “Woke Alerts,” Consumers’ Research also put out a 30-page road map for House Republicans to investigate ESG policies.
This spring and summer, they did exactly that, holding two ESG hearings in the House Oversight Committee in May and June, and a “blitz” of four hearings in the Finance Committee in July, which Kentucky Representative Andy Barr declared “ESG month.” At the same time, Barr and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton proposed a new, cleverly named bill, the Ensuring Sound Governance (ESG) Act, which would require investment managers to obtain written permission from customers before considering nonfinancial interests like the climate in investments. That legislation followed 165 anti-ESG bills introduced in nearly 40 states during the first six months of this year alone, many of them based on Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council model legislation.
Only a fraction of those bills passed, but Republicans are trying other avenues as well. After Biden threatened in March to veto a congressional effort to ban companies from considering ESG factors in choosing employees’ retirement plans, DeSantis and 18 other Republican governors vowed to “leverage our state pension funds to force change in how major asset managers invest the money of hardworking Americans, ensuring corporations are focused on maximizing shareholder value, rather than the proliferation of woke ideology.” A similar argument surfaced in June, when seven Republican attorneys general joined the crusade against Target over its children’s Pride collection, warning the company that it might be in breach of state laws protecting children from sexualization, and that it could be committing another, wonkier offense: violating its fiduciary duty to shareholders by making unprofitable decisions that harmed the company.
Stephen Miller’s AFL made the same argument, sending a June records demand to Target—on behalf of right-wing think tank the National Center for Public Policy Research, or NCPPR, a Target stockholder—in order to determine whether the company’s “radical LGBT political agenda” had “cost the corporation over $12 billion in market valuation.” In a statement, Miller said, “For Target to voluntarily and aggressively associate itself with this movement is an act of sabotage against Target shareholders and a destroyer of value…. America First Legal is proud to represent American shareholders financially harmed by Target’s descent into gender extremism and child sexual exploitation.” (In August, the AFL filed a lawsuit against Target, on behalf of a Florida shareholder, charging that its LGBTQ, DEI, and ESG policies had lost shareholders billions and accusing the company of betraying its customers and investors.)
Also this spring, NCPPR subsidiary the Free Enterprise Project announced a new shareholder action to divest from Walmart, Netflix, and Google parent company Alphabet over a variety of complaints that they supported ESG or other leftist causes. Lamenting that U.S. companies are “picking sides in the most important, vital, and hot-button fights in America,” the group’s director, Scott Shepard, told One America News Network, “I hope we see some of these left-wing activists disguised as CEOs go to jail.”
And in July, on the same day PublicSq. went public, DeSantis directed Florida’s State Board of Administration—which oversees the state’s public pension fund—to explore legal actions against Anheuser-Busch’s parent company for tanking the company’s sales by “associat[ing] its Bud Light brand with radical social ideologies.”
The Amish Have It Right?
The irony of all this, said Spencer Ross, a marketing professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell who has long studied consumer advocacy, is that while conservatives lambaste companies for “going woke,” progressives criticize the same businesses for “woke-washing”—talking a good game while doing little to follow through. Another common critique of ESG is that many large corporations claiming to abide by its principles are still getting rich off oil. In the realm of social issues, part of Bud Light’s financial woes is attributable to backlash from progressives, disgusted that Anheuser-Busch so quickly abandoned its defense of trans and queer rights. “A lot of these big corporations have to find somewhere in the middle,” said professor Brantley, but if they do, that may also invite opposition, as the country “drift[s] towards more polarized corporate stances.”
For years, legacy brands remained neutral, said Ross, but increasingly, “Any decision that gets made, even a business one, is political.” (This July, when Farmers Insurance announced it will pull out of Florida, as climate change makes insuring the state untenable, a member of DeSantis’s Cabinet denounced the move as “woke” and warned that legislative hearings may follow.) The move toward not just a bifurcated, but trifurcated economy is already well underway on social media—the parallel economy’s first movers—with the abundant right-wing Twitter and YouTube clones now joined by progressive-coded alternatives like Bluesky or Mastodon. “I don’t know what the success of any of them will be long term,” Ross added. “They may end up being these niche platforms, trying to get the job done. But it also erodes the middle, just like in our politics.”
As journalists called historian Glickman last spring seeking comment on Bud Light, he initially predicted it wouldn’t last. Recall the 2017 videos of conservatives tossing Keurig coffee makers off balconies for pulling advertising from Sean Hannity, or their boycotting Nike the following year for signing Colin Kaepernick. “Everyone made fun of them, and they went away,” Glickman said. But as this year’s protests endured, he reassessed. The Bud Light boycott took hold in a way its predecessors hadn’t, and corporate America seems “scared in a way they weren’t.”
“It’s a kind of perfect storm of a political moment, where consumer politics is married to this era of deep polarization, of very strong identity politics and a decreasing faith in the idea of free markets,” Glickman said. Trump was part of that transformation, never viewing the market with the traditional Republican reverence—or Milton Friedman’s doctrine that businesses’ only social responsibility is profit—nor imagining it a neutral mediator of price and value. Rather, Trump has seen markets as a blunt instrument to “punish your enemies and reward your friends.” Now, Glickman said, that sensibility has spread. Big corporations are no longer seen as inherently virtuous because they’re successful, nor emblematic of American freedom; there’s a rapidly waning belief in the notion that markets are fair and a growing sense that “everyone needs to put their thumb on the scale, because everyone else is doing it.”
How seriously should we take all this? In the 1960s and ’70s, Brantley recalled, Black Power activists sought to create a separate market as a form of economic self-determination, but ran into mainstream roadblocks in accessing bank loans and insurance. While today’s right claims it is building the superstructure to prevent that, so far that’s iffy. A recent study found that Texas’s ban on banking with institutions that won’t lend to oil and gas companies or certain gun manufacturers may result in the state paying $500 million more in interest to smaller, alternative banks. While Mike Lindell, the conspiracist founder of MyPillow.com, may be an inescapable presence online—with right-wing personalities peppering tweets and podcasts with MyPillow promo codes—his actual business appears to be failing; this summer, Lindell began auctioning off company forklifts and cubicles to make up a $100 million revenue loss, after mainstream retailers dropped him. Lindell’s business was “a prime example of the so-called parallel economy,” said Nandini Jammi, since he’d had no choice but to shift his marketing model to partnerships with right-wing celebrities. “And he hasn’t been able to grow since then.”
There are practical, nonidealistic reasons, after all, why companies like PayPal avoid businesses like Gab—because a policy of working with anyone, no matter what they do, brings inherent risk. Likewise, there are bottom-line reasons why companies like Target invest in things like diversity, Jammi added: “because they know they make more money when they are more inclusive. That’s just math.”
Earlier this year, Forbes declared the parallel economy a “mirage,” noting that multiple right-wing social media platforms were failing, and that parallel economy job board RedBalloon is primarily notable for its “lack of big-name employers.” A Wired analysis in April found fewer than 900 active listings on the site, representing one one-hundredth of 1 percent of the volume on ZipRecruiter.com. In 2022, CPAC speakers were abuzz about the parallel economy’s promise; this year, though, they spoke more about the “headwinds” they’d encountered, suggesting government intervention might be necessary.
And yet, if the purpose is creating another point of division in an already fractured populace, the parallel economy already has all that it needs: money, lawyers, abundant zeal. Where then does it stop, now that we’re already past the point of “red” and “blue” shoes, power bars for and against abortion rights? Will companies be compelled to double down on choosing sides: Ford selling to the left, GM to the right? Or does the parallel economy’s ethos of values-based brand identification evolve into endless splintering, with ever more niche ways to opt out?
In recent months, Gab’s Andrew Torba, perhaps the foremost popularizer of the concept, signaled as much. After the 2022 midterms failed to deliver a red wave, a disappointed Torba told supporters that electoral politics were a “pipe dream” and the right-wing media weren’t “friends,” but agents of controlled opposition. The only remaining path forward, he declared, was to “Balkanize and build”; henceforth, Gab would promote parallel economy businesses that could teach their new generation of “pilgrims” skills like homesteading, as they prepared to leave for purer lands, whether in deep red states or online. “The Amish,” wrote the one-time Silicon Valley CEO, “have had it right this entire time.”