MAGA politicos and activists often complain that “woke capital” is ruining America. To escape this supposed threat, increasing numbers of them appear to be turning to PublicSquare, an online marketplace seeking to connect “freedom-loving Americans to the businesses that share their values.” The company, which counts Donald Trump Jr. among its champions and investors, pitches itself as a right-wing alternative to Amazon, where conservative consumers can vote with their dollars and buy goods from businesses that claim to oppose liberal values, from diversity initiatives to supporting abortion rights.
As with so many concepts that emerge from today’s right wing, PublicSquare seeks to solve a social problem by walling off its users from the broader world. But the road ahead for the business is packed with pitfalls, and could pose challenges to its capacity for growth in the future.
This marketplace permits consumers to congregate in an oasis of demographic and ideological comfort.
PublicSquare has merged a business enterprise with political activism, hoping to tap into right-wing anger over mainstream corporate America’s increasing adoption of modest inclusivity efforts. When, for example, Bud Light worked with a trans influencer on a branded content partnership, right-wing activists angrily called for a consumer boycott. PublicSquare is angling to create an entire parallel MAGA economy for that set of consumers. As Axios reports, a customer can buy diapers from companies that partner with anti-abortion organizations, or find a “Christian alternative” to American Girl dolls. They can also find everyday items like socks that look like socks you might buy anywhere else, but with the understanding that their dollars are going to small business owners who are ostensibly right-wing.
But even as PublicSquare presents itself as a safe haven to customers, it’s not clear that businesses have to necessarily do much to join the platform. According to The Washington Post, to qualify, a company must be a small or medium-size business that “affirms” the platform’s five core values. (The company also “prioritizes” business with products made in America, but it’s unclear how.) Many of those values seem to impose few, if any, burdens on the ways companies conduct themselves. Instead, they are merely vague statements like, “We believe in the greatness of this Nation and will always fight to defend it.” The most pointed one, which hints at gender traditionalism and anti-abortion stances, goes: “We will always protect the family unit and celebrate the sanctity of every life.” But it’s unclear whether there’s any enforcement mechanism other than consumer backlash against companies on PublicSquare that embrace anything that can be spun as “woke.”
PublicSquare appears to be less about business practices, then, than it is about generating an inward-facing cultural scene. It’s certainly not unprecedented for shops to entice customers based on their political and cultural values. But in this case, it’s hard not to see creating an entire marketplace for right-winters it as a function of polarization, the way that the gulf between the left and the right is widening across all spheres of life. The company also appears to typify a kind of nationalist instinct. Just as Trump World wants to erect walls on borders, slap tariffs on foreign goods, patronize media exclusively for right-wing diehards, and strip educational curricula of inconvenient facts, this marketplace permits consumers to congregate in an oasis of demographic and ideological comfort.
Will it work? Since its launch in 2022, PublicSquare has grown and gone public, and claims to host over 70,000 small businesses and do business with over a million customers. But its valuation is still a tiny fraction of its perceived competitors like Amazon or Target, and the company is not yet profitable. There’s reason to be skeptical about whether it can sustain growth. First, there’s an obvious ceiling on customer growth — starting with the fact that the company repels tens of millions of Americans based on its values. And even many people politically sympathetic to PublicSquare will never patronize it, because most people’s consumer choices are dictated primarily by convenience and price. PublicSquare’s business model ensures it will skew more expensive than competitors — it isn’t trying an Amazon-style pricing scheme, and the focus on American-made products by small businesses will also push its prices higher than many retailers’.
The second longer-term concern for PublicSquare is how it will fare if it is forced to regulate or oust companies with extremist ties. It is not inconceivable that PublicSquare, which already hosts products like a “Don’t Tread on Me”-style flag in which a snake wields a machine gun, might have to scrap certain products or stop platforming certain companies that incite violence or are associated with bigoted extremist movements. No matter what kind of commitments any organization makes to free expression, moderation always enters the picture — and that always has the potential to spark friction with activists. PublicSquare could become vulnerable to accusations of selling out to the establishment based on how it moderates its platform. Simultaneously, the company has no easy way to pivot to a mass audience to compensate for losing hardcore activist types.
PublicSquare is an ambitious experiment that seems to have tapped into a market, although it’s unclear how durable its business model is. On a civic level, it’s a discouraging sign to see increasingly organized attempts to boycott companies for upholding commonsense norms of liberal tolerance that belong in a multicultural democracy.
Zeeshan Aleem is a writer and editor for MSNBC Daily. Previously, he worked at Vox, HuffPost and Politico, and he has also been published in, among other places, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, and The Intercept. You can sign up for his free politics newsletter here.
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