GOP Faction Wields Antitrust Threats, Echoing Trump’s Populism

Some of Donald Trump’s most fervent congressional allies are turning to a favorite tool of the former president: threatening antitrust action against American companies that cross them politically on voting rights or other controversial issues.

Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri last week fired what he called an “opening salvo” to an ambitious trust-busting agenda when he introduced legislation to crack down on mergers by large corporations and give antitrust officials more authority to break up dominant companies.

“Their political power is tracking their economic power,” Hawley said about U.S. companies that spoke out against Republican proposals at the state level to tighten voting access.

GOP Faction Wields Antitrust Threats, Echoing Trump’s Populism

Days later Hawley and two other GOP lawmakers proposed stripping the antitrust exemption that Major League Baseball has enjoyed for nearly a century. They were striking back at the league for moving its All-Star game from Atlanta to Denver to protest Georgia’s new election law.

Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, the senior Republican on the chamber’s antitrust subcommittee, joined Hawley in targeting MLB’s antitrust exemption.

Hawley and Cruz are widely expected to be part of the 2024 GOP presidential primary field. By attacking big business, they’re trying to position themselves as Trump’s political heirs. And by showing no sign of letting up on policies that aren’t traditionally Republican -- such as returning to the trust-busting practices of the robber baron era -- they are copying Trump’s populist, take-no-prisoners style. They also objected to counting Electoral College votes in the 2020 election and were seen as complicit in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

“Big Government is bad. Big Corporations are bad. Big Tech is bad. Big Hollywood is bad. Any massive accumulation of power is bad,” tweeted Cruz on April 13.

GOP Faction Wields Antitrust Threats, Echoing Trump’s Populism

Trump paved the way for such rhetoric by showing that targeting big firms can be politically popular, said James Pethokoukis, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“It should not happen in a liberal democratic capitalist country that government is wielded as a cudgel against corporations or individuals or other groups where there are political disagreements,” he said. “It’s really an authoritarian impulse.”

The MLB exemption, which Republican lawmakers have unsuccessfully tried to revoke before, has allowed franchise owners to limit the number of teams and block any effort to relocate without fear of antitrust consequences. The league’s special status isn’t enjoyed by other major professional sports leagues.

The backlash is broader than just sports. Many Republicans were furious when more than 100 business leaders signed an April 14 letter defending voting access in response to the moves in Georgia and other states to clamp down on mail-in and absentee voting. GOP lawmakers have criticized the business leaders’ actions as an affront to representative democracy.

At issue are more than 300 bills in 47 states that would restrict voting. Georgia’s new law expands some early-voting hours, but also gives voters less time to apply for mail-in ballots, limits the use of ballot drop boxes and allows anyone to challenge the eligibility of voters at local election offices.

The voting-rights battle is widening the split between Republicans and the business community, which emerged under Trump over such issues as trade and immigration.

The Republican bill on MLB has no chance of succeeding with the Democrats controlling both the White House and Congress. But the threats portend a more adversarial relationship between the GOP and the business community that could worsen if the Republicans regain control of Congress in the 2022 midterms.

The full spectrum of Republican lawmakers has pushed back on corporations taking political positions, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who recently cautioned U.S. companies to “stay out of politics.”

McConnell’s office didn’t reply to a request for comment on whether he supports the move to strip MLB’s antitrust exemption. Representatives for MLB didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Florida Senator Rick Scott also attacked large corporations in a letter addressed to “Dear Woke Corporate America” published Monday by the Fox Business website. Scott wrote that Republicans will exact retribution from companies and professional baseball for opposing state voting-rights laws. He said the GOP will take back control of Congress in November and that “there is a massive backlash coming.”

Some GOP lawmakers have gone so far as to assert that large businesses are inherently bad and that Congress needs to amend existing statutes so they can be broken up. Some of Hawley’s proposals echo those of Democrats like Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who are hoping to rewrite century-old antitrust laws in this session.

“Woke corporations want to run this country and Washington is happy to let them,” Hawley said when he introduced his bill last week. “It’s time to bust up them up and restore competition.”

On Monday, Hawley introduced the Bust Up Big Tech Act, a measure seeking to break up giant technology platforms and ban companies like Amazon.com Inc. from selling their own goods alongside those of other retailers.

Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel at NetChoice, an advocacy group that opposes government regulation of the internet, called Hawley’s tech bill an attempt to “weaponize antitrust for political purposes.” Szabo, whose group represents companies including Amazon and Alphabet Inc.’s Google, said it’s “bizarre” to see a conservative lawmaker proposing a plan to give the executive branch more antitrust power, a policy goal of Democrats.

“What I worry about is Republican lawmakers lured by the siren song of attacking American tech” will open the floodgates to progressive policies, he said, expressing concerns that Democrats need only a small faction of the GOP to get the 60 votes needed to pass their measures.

Hawley, Cruz and Lee are also among the Republicans taking aim at the cherished liability immunity that allows large tech platforms -- Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Google -- to decide which content to allow without fear of lawsuits.

The legal shield, known as Section 230, isn’t antitrust-related, but it has allowed the tech companies to evolve into giant platforms with a huge amount of sway over political discourse. Many Republicans, including Trump, have long alleged that the tech giants are biased against conservative viewpoints.

While Democrats might not agree with his motivation, they could benefit from Hawley’s interest in pushing his broader antitrust measure. It echoes elements in a proposal from Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who chairs the Senate’s antitrust panel.

Both measures would restrict mergers for dominant companies and shift the burden of proof to make it easier for the government to win cases in court.

Trump sometimes used his influential Twitter feed to target firms including Jeff Bezos’ Amazon, and his administration was accused of pursuing antitrust cases that were driven by politics.

A Justice Department lawyer told Congress last year that political leadership of the department’s antitrust division opened an investigation of automakers a day after Trump criticized “politically correct” executives who refused to back his administration’s more lenient fuel-economy plan.

Accusations of political interference also clouded the department’s unsuccessful lawsuit to block AT&T Inc.’s acquisition of Time Warner, which owns CNN, a network Trump repeatedly criticized. Toward the end of the administration, the Justice Department sued Google for allegedly abusing its dominance in internet search.

The more than 100 business leaders who joined together to support voting rights, include Kenneth Chenault, a former chief executive officer of American Express Co., and Kenneth Frazier, the CEO of Merck & Co. The CEOs weren’t trying to take an ideological position, said Patrick McGinnis, a member of the Leadership Now Project, a coalition started by a group of Harvard Business School alumni that helped organize the effort. He said while companies have long been engaged in politics via donations and lobbying, speaking out directly is a new strategy.

“These issues are beyond ideology, these are about fundamentally how our democracy works and, as a result, how our economy works, because without a strong democracy the economy will falter,” McGinnis said.

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