Yesterday, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick surprised many with the announcement that he would be resigning from the Trump Administration’s economic advisory council in response to Mr. Trump’s executive order on immigration. The White House was, to put it mildly, less than thrilled with the announcement. This could be an early sign of a broader mass tech CEO exodus from the Administration’s trenches. Silicon Valley’s willingness to organize politically en masse has been relatively dormant since the days of the SOPA/PIPA fight. However, it now appears as though a counter-insurgency may be brewing.
A number of high-profile CEOs—including Reid Hoffman and Mark Pincus—are beginning to shore up efforts to combat what they view as the Administration’s more illiberal policies. Mark Zuckerberg denounced the immigration orders in a lengthy Facebook post, while Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg came out publicly against the Administration’s order on abortion. Jeff Bezos also signalled his disapproval of the immigration ban and, along with Tim Cook, indicated a legal challenge would likely be forthcoming. From Slack to Intel, Google to Netflix, Tesla to Instacart, the overwhelming majority of major U.S.-based technology firms have come out against many of the executive orders thus far promulgated by the Trump Administration.
Although the Valley’s values are currently under fire, and many have taken to standing up for their beliefs, there’s a recognition of a need to balance those concerns with business realities. And for Silicon Valley in particular, it’s a tricky needle to thread.
On the one hand, Silicon Valley’s politics are dominated by optimism, a global cosmopolitan worldview, and a belief in working with, not against, government to invest in the potential of American citizens. On the other hand, there are tax and regulatory issues that top the list of perennial concerns among the Valley’s business elites. An article from today’s Politico summed up this tug-and-pull situation:
Apple, Facebook, Google and other tech titans must engage the new administration if they want to influence a tax overhaul in their favor or clear a regulatory path for initiatives like delivery drones and self-driving cars. But the president’s rhetoric and his stances on issues like immigration are anathema to many the Bay Area, including the engineers who make up the tech workforce — a dynamic that’s prompted tech executives to criticize the White House’s actions in recent days.
To that end, the tech community had largely been willing—though reluctantly so—to engage with the Trump Administration. For a short time, the need to “have a seat at the table” seemed to be a powerful motivating force for engaging. Now, the public outcry over immigration policies have made formal association untenable for many of the tech elites. Not so for Peter Thiel, however, who has remained the single stalwart tech CEO defending the Administration’s policies.
Of course, Mr. Thiel has his own reasons for remaining committed to the Administration’s cause (which my colleague Sam Hammond discusses in more detail here), and his personal value orientations diverge at key junctures from the prevailing sentiments of other Valley-ites. On top of that, Mr. Thiel is in a less precarious position than his colleagues, most of whom have a greater and more pressing need to shore up public support for their vested interests. In short, don’t expect him to cut ties as swiftly as someone like Mr. Kalanick. In the meantime, with Mr. Kalanick’s departure and Mr. Thiel’s apparent unwillingness to move Mr. Trump in a more moderate direction, that leaves Elon Musk as the last voice of reason and techno-optimism whispering in Mr. Trump’s ear. And it appears, as his most recent tweet indicates, that he intends to remain:
Regarding the meeting at the White House: pic.twitter.com/8b1XH4oW6h
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 3, 2017
The idea that “engaging on critical issues will on balance serve the greater good” is largely what has driven tech CEOs to collaborate with Mr. Trump and his advisors up until now. Unfortunately, that mentality is unlikely to persist long into the future, especially if the Administration continues in a dogged determination to advance its current policies.
Unless the Trump Administration seriously reconsiders many of its recent policy decisions, the Silicon Valley crowd will likely continue peeling away from any public perception of complicity with the President’s agenda. Mr. Kalanick was the first to disengage, but he will not be the last. In the meantime, here’s hoping Mr. Musk—no stranger to attempting the seemingly impossible—can help sway the Administration’s policy priorities.