Tech and Trump, Tech and Politics

Good morning,

I will be speaking at the Code Media conference in February in Dana Point, California, and Recode has a special offer for Stratechery subscribers: if you are interested in attending you can use this link to get $500 off the $3,000 admission price. I hope to see some of you there!

On to the update:

Tech and Trump

From the New York Times:

At the top of the agenda when President-elect Donald J. Trump meets with tech leaders on Wednesday afternoon: jobs, jobs and more jobs. Other topics will come up too, depending on Mr. Trump’s whims. One likely possibility: the repatriation of offshore cash. The top tech companies collectively hold hundreds of billions of dollars overseas. They would like to return the money to the United States at a beneficial tax rate. For Mr. Trump, a deal on these funds could represent money that would help advance an infrastructure program.

But mostly, it will be about jobs. The tech community has put its products in every home and pocket, generating enormous wealth along the way. But the companies employ relatively few people, and the wealth is concentrated in places like Silicon Valley and Seattle…

Those attending the meeting, which will be held at Trump Tower in Manhattan, include:

  • Elon Musk of Tesla
  • Larry Page and Eric E. Schmidt of Alphabet, Google’s parent
  • Timothy D. Cook of Apple
  • Satya Nadella of Microsoft
  • Jeff Bezos of Amazon
  • Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook
  • Safra A. Catz of Oracle
  • Brian M. Krzanich of Intel
  • Chuck Robbins of Cisco
  • Ginni Rometty of IBM

The companies are generally keeping a low profile about the event. Several of them were Mr. Trump’s targets during the campaign over issues as varied as offshoring, digital security and antitrust issues…Apple has already drawn the president-elect’s scrutiny over jobs. “One of the things that will be a real achievement for me is when I get Apple to build a big plant in the United States, or many big plants in the United States,” Mr. Trump said in late November.

Kara Swisher, in a widely read post, took these executives to task for accepting Trump’s invitation:

So what is the first move of the people in charge of inventing the future? Full of ugly choices and likely bad outcomes, they have opted to punt, with most of them saying nothing publicly about even attending the summit nor making it clear beforehand that there are some key issues that are just not negotiable. That’s why the leaders of tech should be ashamed of themselves for lining up like sheeple after all the numskull attacks Trump has made on what is pretty much the United States’ most important, innovative and future-forward business sector…

Like one tech leader who suddenly stopped mid-sentence about how to really make deals, Kara, because the truth just had to be out. “Trump is just awful, isn’t he? It makes me sick to my stomach,” the leader agonized, as a real thinking person would. “What are we going to do?”

Well, to start, realize again that you have the smarts and invention and the innovative spirit to do whatever you like. Realize you have untold money and power and influence and massive platforms to do what you think is right. Realize that you are inventing the frigging future. Instead, you’re opting to sit in that gilded room at Trump Tower to be told fake news is a matter of opinion and that smart people aren’t so smart and that you need to sit still and do what they say and take that giant pile of repatriated income with a smile.

Or you can say no — loudly and in public. You can resist the forces that are against immigrants, because it is immigrants who built America and immigrants who most definitely built tech. You can defend science that says climate change is a big threat and that tech can be a part of fixing it. You can insist we invest in critical technologies that point the way to things like new digital health inventions and transportation revolutions. You can do what made Silicon Valley great again and again.

It’s a great piece of the sort that only Swisher can write, but I think she is completely wrong.

The most obvious reason is that, as Dave Pell pointed out in a thoughtful response to Swisher, these are public companies that are justifiably fearful of becoming a public target for Trump. I get that this is an ugly excuse on multiple levels — first and foremost because its an abuse of the presidential megaphone, but also because using money as a reason to not do something feels unprincipled and, well icky — but its a valid concern. And, at the end of the day, a chief executive has a fiduciary duty to shareholders.

Beyond that, though, elections have consequences. Consider immigration, the first reason on Swisher’s list for refusing the meeting: during the campaign Trump was not exactly shy about stating his position on immigration, and while I and just about everybody else in tech vehemently disagree with that position, the fact remains that Trump won. For tech executives to refuse to even meet with the president-elect absent his retracting the foundational issue of his campaign is to seek to defy democracy through belligerence. Make no mistake: those same executives absolutely should seek to influence and/or defeat whatever legislation Trump proposes on the matter, but disagreeing on legitimate political issues like immigration, trade, etc. is not a reason to spite democracy.

More importantly, though, is that calling the United States a democracy is incomplete; we are a (small ‘l’) liberal democracy: that is not only do we elect our representatives, but we also are governed by the rule of law and the guarantee of individual rights and personal liberty. That our liberalism may be under threat is a far graver concern than bad policy decisions; I’m by no means denigrating the terrible outcomes that can result from bad policy, but said policy can be reversed by winning the next election. The loss of liberalism, on the other hand, reduces democracy to a sham.

In short, Trump opponents need to pick their battles: conflating policy with which you disagree with fundamental attacks on civil liberties is, per my second point, itself an attack on those civil liberties, and ineffective to boot. To that end, my advice for these executives would be draw clear lines: with regards to the infringement of civil liberties, there should be no compromise; with regards to legitimate political disagreements, there should be the registration of clear opposition with the admission that the law will be followed.

I must say I quite sympathize with the tech executive Swisher quoted in the article who didn’t know what to do: it is easy to feel paralyzed. And I acknowledge the danger so powerfully articulated in this New Yorker piece about a Chinese doctor caught up in the Cultural Revolution:

Xu’s story can be read as a testament to man’s unwillingness to succumb, or as the description of a moment when “the naked truth, so long outraged, burst upon the eyes of the world,” as Albert Camus wrote of Hungary’s uprising. But, above all, it should be read as a warning. Tyranny does not begin with violence; it begins with the first gesture of collaboration. Its most enduring crime is drawing decent men and women into its siege of the truth.

That, though, is why the truth must be so clearly defined: adopting a position of blind opposition and authoritative responses are to meet a potential, even highly-likely, wrong with the same wrong, accelerating rather than arresting the siege of truth. The priorities of everyone, including these executives, must be clear:

  1. Liberalism is inviolable
  2. Democracy must be respected
  3. Bad policies should be opposed

Responding to an invitation from the president-elect is in this case governed by the second priority, not the third; one hopes we will never reach a point where it is the first priority that is in play, but if we do that will be the time to put everything — including a company’s stock price — on the line.

Tech and Politics

I actually wrote the bit in yesterday’s Weekly Article about tech being the incumbent subject to potential disruption before I read Swisher’s conclusion that made the same point:

The fascist line is vintage Sacca, who always likes to kick up a shitstorm. But thank god someone is willing to do it, because that is what I thought Silicon Valley was all about.

Not any longer, it seems. Welcome to the brave new world, which is neither brave nor new. But it’s now the world we live in, in which it’s Trump who is the disrupter and tech the disrupted.

An uncomfortable reality for technology is that not only was the rise of Trump made possible by Facebook’s flattening of the media — and by extension, the flattening of political parties — but that his victory was in part driven by the aggressive leveraging of technological tools: Trump’s campaign relied on NationBuilder, organizing software backed by Andreessen Horowitz among others, the candidate regularly released YouTube videos about various policy issues, the campaign’s advertising focus was Facebook, and, of course Trump himself used Twitter as the greatest driver of earned media ever (although, few folks appreciate that Trump’s tweets re-posted on Facebook had far more direct engagement; as I’ve noted repeatedly both the tech industry and the media are way over-indexed on Twitter).

And yet, basically the entire tech industry was aligned with Trump’s opponent, and quite vocally at that. And, I should add, understandably so, for all the reasons laid out above. From a purely tactical basis, though, it is problematic that the industry is so closely aligned with one of the two parties, and not just in this election: it is an abdication of responsibility by the industry at large that so many have largely outsourced their political responsibility to the Democratic Party.

I believe it is imperative for the tech industry as a whole to actively advocate for a unique political platform that creates the conditions under which the sort of companies I praised yesterday — those that enable new kinds of work and new kinds of business — can thrive, and insist that politicians meet them on their terms. Per Swisher’s and my point, our industry is no longer the hungry new entrant with the luxury of taking on incumbents; we are the establishment, and while that means all of the limitations on action that Swisher decried, it also means the power to define the agenda, not simply acquiesce to it — or in the case of Trump, enable it. After all, elections have consequences.

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