Anticipating Protests, Harley-Davidson Cancels a Visit From Trump

The motorcycle maker’s reported about-face underlines the public-relations challenges of cooperating with a contentious president.

John Minchillo / AP

President Trump had been planning to visit the Milwaukee headquarters of Harley-Davidson on Thursday, according to CNN, but the company reportedly cancelled on him. The reason for the cancellation, according to an unnamed administration source who spoke to CNN, was the expectation of protests over Trump’s ban on travel to the U.S. by citizens of seven mainly Muslim countries. Harley-Davidson, for its part, officially denied that a visit had ever been in the works. The Milwaukee Business Journal, though, reported that it did seem that a trip was nixed, pointing to a temporary flight restriction over the city, presumably for Air Force One, that was also cancelled.

This change of plans represents just how tricky of a situation many American businesses have found themselves in when deciding whether to align themselves with a divisive president, shun him, or keep quiet. Harley-Davidson, a 114-year-old American institution, after all has to look out for its interests in a tough marketplace, and it recently revised its projected sales figures down. Associating with an unpopular president can be damaging to business, just as associating with a popular one can improve it. A contentious president, loved by some and marched against by others, is a dangerous bedfellow for companies eager to keep a positive image with every would-be customer.

For Harley-Davidson specifically, the danger could be less than metaphorical. While groups of tough-looking, leather-clad bikers often belie their violent stereotype by riding around peacefully (if loudly) and raising money for charity, some do play the part. Indeed, a group called Bikers for Trump promised to form a “wall of meat” cordoning off protesters at the inauguration and seemed enthused at the prospect of violence. With tensions already high, it would be understandable if Harley Davidson wanted to avoid a meeting between pro-immigrant demonstrators and that group, or one like it. If it was indeed the prospect of protests that decided the issue, that’s a big win for demonstrators, and a point against those arguing that all they accomplish is disturbing the peace and blocking traffic.

Trump, meanwhile, cannot be pleased. After all, his go-to move with vehicle manufacturers has been to publicly shame them into falling in line with his protectionist economic agenda. It’s a tactic that has kicked up high-profile fights between some of America’s most important firms and the president, and the public nature of these dust-ups is the whole point. By calling a company disloyal to American workers or otherwise an enemy of the people, he hurts it with consumers and investors (and vice versa when he mentions one positively). But with the Harley-Davidson cancellation, Trump may now be finding that when public outrage is inflamed, making everything a big, out-in-the-open fight can also work against him.