A Major Business Ally Called for Trump’s Removal. It’s also a Problem for the GOPRoundup
tags: conservatism, business, John Birch Society, Donald Trump, National Association of Manufacturers, NAM
Jennifer Delton is the Douglas Family Chair in American culture, history and literary and interdisciplinary studies at Skidmore College. She is the author of, most recently, The Industrialists: How the National Association of Manufacturers Shaped American Capitalism (Princeton University press, 2020).
At 3:37 p.m. on Jan. 6, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) became one of the first industry groups to call for President Trump’s removal in light of his responsibility for the “disgusting episode” of “mob rule” taking place at the U.S. Capitol. Wrote NAM head Jay Timmons: “The outgoing president incited violence in an attempt to retain power, and any elected leader defending him is violating their oath to the Constitution and rejecting democracy in favor of anarchy.”
This is an extraordinary statement from an organization that was a major booster and beneficiary of the Trump administration’s focus on manufacturing. In fact, the NAM helped craft the bills that brought tax cuts, regulatory relief and incentives for manufacturing investment.
But there were tensions between NAM and the Trump administration, which previously prompted Timmons to release statements against the administration’s draconian immigration policies, handling of the pandemic and trade war with China. Timmons was critical of the moral failings of such policies, but he was also concerned about the detrimental effects such policies had on the economy and America’s standing in the world. NAM, which is a trade association and lobbyist for the manufacturing sector, had once before in its history confronted a hyper-nationalist, protectionist, conspiracy-theory-addled faction of the Republican Party that threatened to derail business’s credibility and U.S. standing in the world. Today’s NAM can draw some lessons from this episode.
Founded in 1895 to protect and coordinate the interests of American manufacturers, NAM fought unions, defended tariffs and opposed government regulations, even as it also supported trade expansion and industrial innovation. At its height in the 1950s, it had 22,000 member companies, ranging from small candymakers to large multinationals like General Electric and IBM. Manufacturing made up over 25 percent of gross domestic product then and 36 percent of the private sector workforce was in a union. NAM was the voice of industry and staunchly Republican. It made headlines regularly as it excoriated union leaders like Walter Reuther and George Meany, its mortal enemies in the once-followed drama between capital and labor. Its members delighted in NAM’s strident anti-unionism and loud opposition to New Deal “socialism” — that was why they had joined.
In 1958, NAM official and candy company executive Robert Welch founded the John Birch Society, a far-right organization dedicated to sniffing out and eradicating communism from American life. It wasn’t just communism; Birchers also targeted civil rights activists, the United Nations, the income tax, NATO and reciprocal trade treaties, all of which the society associated with a vast communist conspiracy. Three other well-connected NAM leaders were founding members, well positioned to raise funds and recruit for the new organization, which would grow to 500 chapters by 1962.
The mainstream press and the Republican Party were quick to dismiss the Birchers as a fringe group of extremists and haters, especially after it was discovered that Welch was accusing President Dwight Eisenhower of being a communist agent. Fortune magazine called the group “bizarre.” Even the hard line anti-communist William F. Buckley thought JBS was too extreme to be part of the conservative movement.
A growing number of NAM Board members and executives from large multinational corporations agreed. They worried about the Birchers in their midst, who were after all esteemed members of NAM’s executive committee, CEOs of large and successful companies, former NAM presidents. What did it say about NAM to have these zealots so dominant in the organization?
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