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Conservatives Aren’t Just Boycotting Bud Light. They’re Trying to Build a Parallel Economy

14 minute read

The controversy started, like so many things nowadays, with an internet rumor. “Dear Women, Tampax pays this man $10,000’s to MOCK YOU,” tweeted a right-wing influencer in April. “Don’t buy Tampax.”

The offense in question: transgender TikTok personality Dylan Mulvaney had posted a video with the company’s tampons. Online conservatives, enraged by Tampax’s history of trans-focused marketing, were soon excoriating the brand for entering an advertising partnership with Mulvaney. No such sponsorship existed; Mulvaney recorded the video on their own accord. But the claim took off anyway, leading hard-right social media personalities to orchestrate a Tampax boycott.

Then something else happened: an “anti-woke” tampon brand that bills itself as a “Girls Only” club emerged to provide the aggrieved with an alternative. Garnuu had launched a year earlier, but with little traction. Now, it capitalized on the controversy by using the right-wing media ecosystem to amplify its deliberately provocative slogan: “Only Women Can Have Periods.” 

The controversy brought a burst of social-media attention, which in turn brought an offer from another nascent firm: PublicSq., a Yelp-like directory of tens of thousands of conservative companies backed by Donald Trump, Jr., the former president’s son. After the first-of-its-kind marketplace urged Garnuu to join its platform, the company saw an immediate uptick in sales, according to Macy Maxson, Garnuu’s founder. “A lot of people were searching for feminine products,” she says. It was validation, in her eyes, that right-of-center Americans were eager to rebel against “corporate woke-ism” with their wallets. “We saw this very clear market.”

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Garnuu’s story is part of a pattern. After Bud Light released an actual sponsored ad with Mulvaney in June, prominent conservatives engineered a boycott in retaliation. Within two months, Bud Light was no longer the nation’s most popular beer, according to Neilsen data analyzed by the consulting firm Bump Williams, with its sales dropping 24%. Target also saw a 5.4% drop in sales after conservatives revolted against the chain for displaying Pride merchandise in its stores. But the right hasn’t only waged economic warfare in the form of boycotts. 

In recent years, there has been an explosion of business ventures that position themselves as right-wing alternatives to mainstream products, from social media platforms (Truth Social and Rumble), coffee sellers (Black Rifle), crypto startups (MAGA Coin), investment funds (Strive, the anti-ESG platform created by presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy), and even private healthcare insurance (America First Healthcare). Many of these firms are drawing investments from A-list venture capitalists and private equity groups, like the PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and the California-based Engaged Capital—a sign that a growing segment of the business community recognizes the potential for making money in the MAGA marketplace. Strive, for instance, recently surpassed more than $1 billion in assets. 

The movement represents a change in recent American politics and consumer culture: Once, corporations sought to avoid putting off potential customers by wading into politics. Think of the days when Michael Jordan refused to exert his influence in a racially-charged Senate race in his home state of North Carolina. “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” he said. Today, many corporations lean on political ideology as a calling card, specifically targeting consumers based on their political tribe, whether it’s Ben & Jerry’s on the left or Hobby Lobby on the right. 

The trend makes sense. Public polling has found that Americans increasingly tie their sense of selves with their political affiliations, while the nation has become more polarized over the last several decades. “People are more commonly defining themselves by their political identity,” says Jake Teeney, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “The more we define ourselves by this, we also define ourselves by our brands.”

Yet the parallel conservative economy remains a sector in its infancy, and its members are unproven. It’s not clear how many of these firms are profitable; some wouldn’t say when asked. Those that do report financial data publicly are still exceedingly small. In the first half of this year, PublicSq. generated less than $1 million in revenue. Company officials confirm that it has not yet made a profit. In other words, the verdict is still out on whether the rise of avowedly ideological businesses is an ephemeral trend or the beginning of a lasting shift.

For now, it’s expanding in response to a consumer demand for conservative alternatives. In one sense, the parallel economy is just the latest iteration of right-wing attacks on “woke” corporate behavior. In another, it’s a story of what’s happening to America at large, as the country is becoming increasingly fragmented. Now, there are well-funded efforts to reshape the U.S. economy along those same ideological fissures. If they succeed, Americans’ routine buying habits would no longer be a mere token of daily tedium, but an emblem of our national fracture.

In a conference room above the New York Stock Exchange last July, PublicSq.’s top investors were feverishly checking their phones. They all wanted to see how the moment was playing on social media. Together, they had just rang the opening bell to celebrate their company’s debut as a publicly-traded company. It was a milestone, they said, that marked the official arrival of what they call the “patriot economy.” Donning a black suit with a silver tie, a bearded Trump Jr. explained why the incipient platform had already attracted 65,000 companies and 1.4 million users. “We're playing in two different worlds,” he tells me. “The one that you hear about and read about in the media that everyone assumes is true, and then, like, the real world.”

It’s one of the core ideas baked into the entire enterprise: that the U.S. marketplace is as divided as the electorate. Founder Michael Seifert argues that it’s not companies like PublicSq. that are turning the purchase of basic consumer goods like tampons into political acts. It’s the corporate behemoths that have alienated conservatives by taking liberal stands. Seifert, a former marketing manager for a retail brokerage firm and frequent guest on right-wing podcasts like Steve Bannon’s War Room, cites a 2018 Nike ad filmed with Colin Kaepernick after the former NFL quarterback spurred a wave of professional athletes kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality. It was among the first examples, Seifert says, of one of the world’s most iconic brands openly siding with progressives in their push for societal change.

Then came the summer of 2020. Businesses in Seifert’s hometown of Carlsbad, Calif. were displaying Black Lives Matter and Pride Flags. From his vantage point, these moves revealed a transformation in America’s political and business environment. In January 2021, Seifert sat down with his wife and wrote out a list of local conservative-owned companies: restaurants, dry cleaners, restaurants. “From now on, we’re gonna go to these businesses,” he told his wife. When he posted the list on Facebook, it quickly garnered scores of comments and shares. That’s when Seifert got the idea for an app that would aggregate “anti-woke” companies in every town in America. “I had this aha moment,” he says. In a matter of months, Seifert had left his job at the real estate firm and recruited friends and business partners to create what would eventually become PublicSq.

What started as a bare bones app became more advanced and user friendly after catching the attention of folks who wanted to make it a new force in American life. In April 2022, Seifert heard Alex Bruesewitz, a Trump family friend and Republican consultant, mention the company on a popular right-wing podcast. Seifert reached out to Bruesewitz through Instagram to set up a meeting with Trump. Jr. It wasn’t a hard sell. The former President’s son quickly agreed to become an investor—he declined to share the exact figures—and connected Seifert with others who could help the firm scale up, including Nick Ayers, a former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, who became one of its lead business strategists, and Omeed Malik, a venture capitalist who runs Farvahar Partners and the anti-ESG hedge fund 1789 Capital. Malik became the firm’s main financier. 

PublicSq. launched nationwide on July 4, 2022, with fewer than 30 employees and a database of roughly 10,000 companies. Around this time, it developed a business model of allowing companies and users on the app for free while selling advertisements and forging revenue-sharing deals with some of the businesses on the platform.

To maintain its ideological purity, PublicSq. requires companies to commit to five core values, such as “freedom and truth” and supporting “the family unit” and “the sanctity of life.” A small vetting team researches each business before approving the application, Seifert says, reading their website and social media pages to ensure they don’t have any “woke” infractions like promoting “environmental justice” or “trans rights.” The companies also agree not to support socially progressive causes or initiatives, such as employing affirmative action hiring practices or supporting access to abortions for its employees or the general public. “Can they donate to pro-abortion charities?” Seifert says. “We ask that they don’t.”

PublicSq. has kicked only two companies off the platform for violating its rules, according to Seifert. One was enforcing a vaccine mandate for its staff; the other was selling Pride-themed merchandise. “That was a direct violation in our mind,” Seifert says. He also recalls another application that didn’t make the cut: a Nevada-based brothel. “It’s not exactly a pro-family business.”

But those instances are rare, he insists. Most companies on PublicSq. know what it is and want to be there. That’s not necessarily a surprise, says Americus Reed, an identity theorist at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Businesses, given the recent eruption of what he calls “purpose-driven businesses” that appeal to consumers based on their politics. “The theory is that this is supposed to create a deeper way to connect with a potential consumer,” Reed tells me. “This is a risky strategy, but it has a very high upside.”

PublicSq. has already attracted thousands of unapologetically conservative companies, such as Nimi Skincare, which donates 5% of its profits to right-wing nonprofits like Turning Point USA and Moms for Liberty; the Liberty Cigar Company, a Georgia-based retailer whose owner met Seifert at the Conservative Political Action Conference; and Your American Flag Store, which sells “patriotically themed rustic flags,” including one that celebrates those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. They all share a strategy of targeting a specific kind of consumer. “It really parallels what we saw with Donald Trump,” says Kimberly Guilfoyle, Trump Jr.’s fiance who ran fundraising for the former President’s 2020 reelection campaign. “The forgotten men and women. This is the forgotten consumer out there who wants to feel good about what they’re doing with their hard-earned money.”

PublicSq. is betting that there are more of these businesses out there, and it wants to send a signal to other would-be “anti-woke” warriors. When Buffalo Bills safety Jordan Poyer had to cancel a charity golf game in June because sponsors pulled out upon learning it would be hosted at Donald Trump’s Doral golf club, PublicSq. stepped in and resuscitated the event. A few months after right-wing pundit Tucker Carlson left Fox News, PublicSq. inked a seven-figure ad deal in July for his new show on X, formally known as Twitter, helping to increase its visibility in the world of conservative infotainment.

The company’s capstone to date is the moment it became part of the Wall Street firmament: On July 13, Trump Jr., Guilfoyle, Seifert, Ayers and Malik rang the bell on the NYSE. “There are a lot of people that want to be anti-woke and all this crap,” Malik says. “This was professional. This was blue chip. This was institutional. That’s why it worked.” The stock opened at $23 a share as friends and family on the floor below chanted “USA! USA!” The cacophony from the firm’s supporters became so loud that an obviously frustrated Jim Cramer could be heard complaining while recording a CNBC broadcast on the exchange floor.

The PublicSq. brand logo hangs outside at the NYSE before the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street in New York City on Thursday, July 20, 2023
The PublicSq brand logo hangs outside at the NYSE before the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street in New York City on Thursday, July 20, 2023John Angelillo—UPI/Alamy

PublicSq.’s leaders see the project as intellectually guided by another company that famously captured the conservative base of a market: Fox News. For Trump Jr., the decision to consciously limit potential consumers marked a departure, he says, from the thinking that guided his career as an executive at his father’s company, The Trump Organization. “We built real estate in New York City and all over the world—high-end real estate,” he says. “I had the mentality like, well, we’ve got to cater to all 350 million Americans, like every one of them. Well, guess what: There's a really big marketplace, just in America, to cater to 50 percent.”

The Fox News prototype may not be so easy to replicate; cable news is dramatically different from beer or tampons. But the creation of alternatives is an essential ingredient for those on the right trying to undermine the corporate giants they see as tailoring their marketing to liberal cosmopolitans. “One of the biggest predictors of whether or not people engage in a boycott is substitutability,” says Teeny, the Kellogg professor. “If there are other options that they could switch to, then they're more likely to engage in a boycott than not. If you feel like there's no other tampon that does it right for you, there's no amount of conservative ideology that's probably going to get people to shift.”

In the last year, PublicSq.’s marketplace has more than doubled, going from 33,000 businesses on the platform to 65,000, according to the firm’s financial statements. Its user base has soared from 38,000 to 1.4 million. Yet its stock is down more than 50% since its initial public offering. Whether it represents a sustainable long-term business model remains an open question.

In the meantime, PublicSq. has big plans. It’s already created its own subsidiary firm to sell products on the platform. It’s first such offering: EveryLife, a diaper company that opposes abortion. (Seifert stresses they will only create product lines where it sees no viable alternatives on the app.) PublicSq. is also preparing to take aim at its largest target yet. The company plans to introduce e-commerce to the site next month, in the hopes of driving conservative consumers toward them and away from Amazon—itself the target of a simmering right-wing backlash since committing last year to cover the costs of employees who have to travel to get an abortion.

PublicSq.’s promotional efforts have been driven by a pugnacious approach on social media, where they attack mainstream companies for “going woke,” whether its Joann’s Fabric and Listerine for marketing to LGBTQ consumers, or Purina and Converse for embracing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. (None of the targeted companies responded to TIME’s requests for comment.)

But they are all in the crosshairs of a relatively novel marketing approach of picking a political side and catering to it. In today’s America, executives increasingly see the method as providing a clear path for consumers to develop a stronger bond with the product. “Your self-concept fuses with this brand,” says Reed, the Wharton professor. “The brand is part of who you are. I don't think this is a fad. I think you're going to see years more of this purpose-driven marketing.” 

It’s the wager that an increasing number of businesses are taking. More and more, they are betting that the way to stand out against competitors is to embrace a new kind of American marketplace, where virtually everything you buy can become an act of political defiance. “We vote at the ballot box, but we also vote with our dollars,” Trump Jr. says. “Ultimately, I think success is getting to a place where in every sector of the economy you have businesses—big and small—fully embracing the patriot economy.”

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