Donald Trump has gone after plenty of American businesses directly since becoming president, but it’s unusual to hear him publicly plead with a company to follow his lead. Take his comments yesterday in Wisconsin, for example.
“By the way, Harley-Davidson, please build those beautiful motorcycles in the USA, please. Okay? Don’t get cute with us. Don’t get cute. They don’t realize their taxes are coming way down. They don’t realize that yet. Spent a lot of time with them. Build them in the USA. Your customers won’t be happy if you don’t. I’ll tell you that.”
Among other things, it was striking to see the president suggest the company doesn’t understand its own finances – which is why its executives should just listen to Trump.
Harley-Davidson’s corporate political footprint has been fairly modest, which made it all the more amazing to watch the White House go to such lengths to put the company in the spotlight this week. Literally every day this week, before today, Trump has rebuked Harley-Davidson in some kind of public display – including, on Tuesday, a not-so-subtle threat.
It’s worth appreciating why.
The New York Times’ Paul Krugman published a good piece on this, explaining that the company, which announced plans to move some manufacturing abroad in response to Trump’s policy on tariffs, is “one of the companies feeling an immediate squeeze.”
It’s paying more for its raw materials even as it faces the prospect of tariffs on the cycles it exports. Given that squeeze, it’s perfectly natural for the company to move some of its production overseas, to locations where steel is still cheap and sales to Europe won’t face tariffs.
So Harley’s move is exactly what you’d expect to see given Trump policies and the foreign response.
But while it’s what you’d expect to see, and what I’d expect to see, it’s apparently not what Trump expected to see. His view seems to be that since he schmoozed with the company’s executives and gave its stockholders a big tax cut, Harley owes him personal fealty and shouldn’t respond to the incentives his policies have created.
Note, for example, that Trump this week said he’s “been very good to” to Harley-Davidson – how, exactly, he did not say – as if the company necessarily owed him something. “I’ve done so much for you,” he tweeted to the company on Wednesday.
In other words, from the president’s perspective, Harley-Davidson shouldn’t just be thinking about its business operations; it should also be thinking about Trump’s feelings.
Trump is taking this personally, as if Harley-Davidson should be willing to take a hit in order to help the White House – and anything short of that is a betrayal. A Washington Post analysis added, “The lack of loyalty from a company he thought he could count on politically is what appears to dig at the president more than anything else.”
As other companies start to feel the pinch from the administration’s trade agenda, Trump should probably prepare for the fact that Harley-Davidson may not be the last company to put its business interests above his personal wishes.