Last week, not even a full 24 hours after President-elect Donald Trump earned that title, a senior official for the shoe company New Balance invoked his name in an interview.
“[President Barack Obama’s] administration turned a deaf ear to us and frankly, with President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction,” Matthew LeBretton, New Balance’s vice president of public affairs, told the Wall Street Journal.
The answer was in response to a question about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, an initiative led by Obama and staunchly opposed by Trump. Boston-based New Balance, which maintains Maine shoe factories in Norway, Norridgewock and Skowhegan, which employ about 900 people, and is the only major company that still makes athletic shoes in the United States, has said the trade policy would hinder its business and help competitors who operate overseas.
Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont also opposed the deal.
But that didn’t stop opponents of Trump from turning on New Balance altogether and accusing the company of formally endorsing not just his stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but the entire platform.
“So the fact that he’s a racist and wholly unfit for the presidency didn’t bother them?” tweeted one woman. “All about profit.”
“I have been wearing New Balance shoes (at $160/pair) for the past 10 years,” wrote another. “If they support Trump, I’ve bought my last pair.”
To let the company know just how angry they were, some backed up their verbal protest with action — and fire.
Videos of flaming and burnt-to-a-crisp shoes popped up in social media feeds. Others symbolically flushed their shoes down the toilet or tossed them in the trash can, a backlash that prompted the company to clarify its remarks.
In a statement to the Boston Globe, New Balance defended its opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, said it wanted to “make more shoes in the U.S., not less,” and emphasized that it continues to support the trade policies endorsed by Clinton, Sanders and Trump during the election cycle.
In a separate statement posted to social media, the company tackled the insinuation from outraged protesters that its support of Trump’s Trans-Pacific Partnership stance somehow meant it also supported his more controversial statements — such as banning Muslims from entering the United States, a mass deportation of undocumented immigrants or building a wall along the Mexican border.
All this, however, did not stop one more dividing force from smearing the New Balance brand.
In a post written over the weekend, neo-Nazi blogger Andrew Anglin declared New Balance the “Official Shoes of White People.”
“I’m a Nike guy. Or rather, I was,” Anglin wrote on his popular website, the Daily Stormer, which promotes an anti-Semitic, white supremacist agenda. “It’s time to get on-board with New Balance now. Their brave act has just made them the official brand of the Trump Revolution.”
He tells his readers New Balance is now their “uniform” and claims they should view the company’s statement on Trump — taken out of context — as “a gesture to support White people and to support US manufacturing.” He also wrote that he believed it was all a marketing scheme to gain customers who voted for Trump.
“This will be fantastic,” Anglin wrote. “We will be able to recognize one another by our sportswear.”
After Anglin co-opted their brand and associated its shoes with a neo-Nazi agenda, New Balance was forced to release a second statement on the Trump comment.
“New Balance does not tolerate bigotry or hate in any form,” the statement said.
Anglin followed up with a second post, claiming, falsely, that New Balance’s twitter account had been hacked by someone attempting to denounce their “Republican agenda.”
Washington Post reporter Derek Hawkins described Anglin’s site last week:
“Named after the Nazi newspaper ‘Der Sturmer,’ the Daily Stormer is one of the most widely read sites of the alt-right, a largely online movement of far right-wing communities that has emerged in recent years as a reaction to mainstream conservatism. The site bills itself as ‘the world’s #1 alt-right and pro-genocide website’ and regularly features slur-laden anti-Semitic articles and reports about black-on-white crimes. A disclaimer on the home page says it is opposed to violence and seeks ‘revolution through the education of the masses.’
“Anglin, who is in his early 30s, founded the Daily Stormer in 2013 as an outlet for meme-type content and quick-hit posts related to the white supremacist movement, after running ‘Total Fascism,’ a site that featured longer essays.
“‘My ideology is very simple,’ he told the Los Angeles Times last year. ‘I believe white people deserve their own country.’”
The whole New Balance ordeal, however bizarre, is particularly relevant right now, at a time when websites such as Google and Facebook are being scrutinized for allowing erroneous information on fake news sites to spread unchecked and amass millions of page views.
It also creates a fresh challenge for businesses and other organizations who may have avoided formally supporting a presidential candidate before the election but are now forced to weigh the benefits of backing Trump’s policies with potentially enraging a certain percentage of their customer base.
In the case of New Balance’s Trump comment, at least some customers offered a nuanced stance on the issue.
“I am not a Trump supporter, I didn’t vote for him, and I don’t like him,” one man wrote on the brand’s Facebook page, according to the Wall Street Journal. “Knowing that NB opposes the TPP is a reason to support them and I will buy my athletic shoes from them from now on.”