Here’s what New Balance vice president Matt LeBretton said last Wednesday, in specific response to Donald Trump’s position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership:
“The Obama administration turned a deaf ear to us and frankly, with President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction.”
And here’s what’s happening now:
In the aftermath of LeBretton's statement, the Trump-despising public—eager for any scapegoat, apparently—has taken it upon themselves to punish New Balance in any way possible. Aside from the shoe-burnings (and garbage-tossings, and ill-advised toilet-flushings), the company is being lambasted on social media and threatened with boycotts. Meanwhile, stories from the New York Times and Washington Post have documented—and legitimized—the backlash. And in a development that would be absurdly funny if it didn't involve legitimate white supremacists, the Neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer even declared New Balance “the official shoes of white people.”
Needless to say, New Balance were less than pleased at this endorsement—which only fueled the (sometimes literal) fire on the left—and released a statement disavowing…hatred, I guess?
And now that you know the background, let’s all take a massive, collective, and very deep breath…
This is stupid, everyone. This is really, really stupid.
Boycotting New Balance because of LeBretton’s statement—much less the unsolicited white power endorsement—is stupid. Actually burning your f***ing shoes is even more stupid. Believe me, I’m no happier than anyone else that Trump is going to be our next president, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to give in to reactionary hysteria.
Here’s what’s really happening:
1. As the Washington Post notes, New Balance is “the only major company that still makes athletic shoes in the United States.” They have five factories here, and, per their statement, “have been and always will be committed to manufacturing in the United States.” That should be applauded, because God knows Nike isn’t making shoes here—not when they can pay pennies on the dollar to workers in Vietnamese sweatshops where, even if the child labor problem isn’t quite as severe as it once was, the conditions are still radically bad for women. (And they, in a classic case of liberal myopia-induced irony, will likely be the biggest beneficiary of any New Balance boycott.)
2. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, along with every other free trade agreement, is a nightmare for American manufacturing. Not only does it give companies an incredible financial incentive to move jobs overseas, but it reduces wages and union power in those jobs that remain. NAFTA, as has been well-documented, played a huge role in creating the economic circumstances that led to Trump’s election. For Obama to support the TPP is absolutely cowardly, and Trump is right to oppose it. So was Bernie Sanders. I mean, for God’s sake, even Hillary Clinton, who goes to bed dreaming of free trade agreements, had to pretend not to support it in her unconvincing effort to appeal to progressive voters. The TPP sucks, it actively promotes American job loss (and poorly paid, unsafe jobs in foreign countries), and it hurts companies like New Balance who actually want to do the right thing and keep domestic factories open.
3. That’s what LeBretton was talking about, specifically, when he said that things are “going to move in the right direction” under Trump. He meant in regards to the TPP, and anyone who takes his words to mean that New Balance as a company supports hate crimes against Muslims, or deporting millions of Mexicans, is purposefully ignoring the context because…well, because it feels good to be mad at someone in a situation where you feel powerless, even if that someone doesn’t really deserve the blame. And that’s especially true when the true root causes of your situation are complex, and require real effort to understand and to change. It’s easier to scapegoat, and it provides more of an immediate emotional payoff. All of this may sound slightly familiar, because it exactly describes Trump voters.
4. In a perfect world, yes, LeBretton would have had the foresight to clarify exactly what he was referring to when he made his comment. But, again, he was asked directly about the TPP, so it probably seemed obvious. His big mistake was not understanding how superficial and hyper-sensitive our political dialogue has become, even on the left. He was making a correct statement on an economic issue, while failing to take into account our all-consuming, logic-distorting fetish for outrage.
It’s discouraging—deeply so. The left has arrived at a critical juncture with the election of Trump, and it’s one in which we have the opportunity to make profound and lasting structural changes. There’s real momentum here, and as good as it may feel to make pointless, superficial gestures at a time of great desperation, we should be using our energy and our fear to mobilize and organize. Burning shoes is for petulant children—let’s defy expectations, and create a clear separation from the reactionary right, by behaving like adults.