In a place normally preoccupied with drafting code and dazzling investors, suddenly everyone in Silicon Valley has an opinion about the presidential election. And it tends to be the same opinion.
The innovation economy has a serious distaste for Donald Trump. The masters of this world complain that his ignorance about their work and its relationship to the global economy is horrifying. Rank-and-file programmers are quick to call him a clown, or worse. The unity is notable in an environment where groupthink is frowned upon and nobody ever seems to color inside ideological lines.
Trump has practically written a playbook on how not to court this well-heeled group that other politicians seem desperate to shower with affection.
At least Clinton is not going to go in and burn the place down. But Trump comes in, and God knows what happens.
Ambitious start-up CEOs who swore off talking politics for fear of offending investors are enlisting in campaigns to discredit Trump. Longtime valley Republican stalwarts who have voted for every GOP nominee for decades say they can’t do it this year. The libertarian-minded innovators who just want to get government out of their way have less faith in Trump than they do in even Hillary Clinton, the Democrat with big plans to grow the bureaucracy.
“At least Clinton is not going to go in and burn the place down,” said Reed Galen, a GOP consultant who advises tech companies. “But Trump comes in, and God knows what happens.”
The grievances that innovation leaders have with Trump are almost too many to list. They are baffled by an immigration policy that they warn would be disastrous for their workforce. Trump’s trade agenda, they say, threatens to tear apart global business relationships crucial to tech industry success. The candidate’s threat to boycott Apple as it tussled with law enforcement over encryption technology will not soon be forgotten.
Just last week, Trump drew yet more chortles with his suggestion that the tech sector was a financial house of cards poised for collapse.
I use both iPhone & Samsung. If Apple doesn't give info to authorities on the terrorists I'll only be using Samsung until they give info.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 19, 2016
“He has pushed me over the edge,” said Vivek Wadhwa, a highly respected technology entrepreneur and academic who has always avoided engaging in politics, save for the time he spent $500 to dine with another prominent Indian American, Bobby Jindal. (Wadhwa said the event was a waste of time.) “It was unimaginable for me to say this even two weeks ago, but I am going to become very vocal and campaign against him. I feel too strongly not to get involved.”
When it was revealed this month that one of the valley’s most successful entrepreneurs, Peter Thiel, had signed on as a California delegate for Trump ahead of the state’s June 7 primary, the backlash against him was brutal. The buzz in the valley was that Thiel had gone off the rails. “I’m utterly ashamed we have him as an investor,” wrote Paul Carr, the editorial director of the tech news site Pando. The headline called Thiel a jerk, only in coarser language.
The usual valley liberals are, of course, piling on against Trump. But the uneasiness of many conservative free-marketeers in the tech world has touched off speculation about which of them are primed to start writing checks for Clinton.
Among those being courted by Democrats is venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, who spent $100,000 trying to help elect Mitt Romney in 2012. He made clear where he is headed with his tweet this month of “#ImWithHer,” a Clinton slogan. He mocks Trump persistently on social media.
Other past rainmakers for the GOP find themselves paralyzed.
From the corner conference room in his 23rd-floor office, with its sweeping views of San Francisco Bay, high-stakes tech investor and longtime GOP activist Alex Slusky talked about how Florida Sen. Marco Rubio sat in that very room for a tutorial on the innovation economy. He talks about how former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was also enamored with the sector’s inner workings, as was Ohio Gov. John Kasich and, of course, Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator who made tech a central focus of his campaign.
“He hasn’t done anything to reach out,” said Slusky, who has voted for every GOP presidential nominee since he organized his high school’s Ronald Reagan reelection effort.
Slusky foresees leaving the top of his ballot blank this year. “None of us have even met him,” he said. “The majority of active Silicon Valley Republicans I know are not supporting Trump today.”
Trump’s tough talk and big promises are not comforting to Slusky. “His wall to Mexico? We have to get products over that wall,” Slusky said. “Maybe he just acted crazy to clear the primary field. But to be convinced of that, I need to see the craziness stop.”
Slusky himself immigrated to America from Ukraine. He figures about half the CEOs of the tech companies he invests in are also immigrants — not because he seeks them out, but because that’s just how tech is. It’s not a hospitable world for anti-immigrant nationalism.
“I am not sure we have ever had a moment here where as many people have wanted to be a part of the political process,” said Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, a bipartisan organization founded by Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and other tech leaders that pushes to liberalize immigration laws and is leading valley opposition to Trump.
Among those who have been drawn into the fight is Branko Cerny, a founder of a start-up that helps busy people organize their lives. The Prague native’s success at raising money for his business earned him a speaking spot onstage of the Startup Conference, a tech networking event last week in Redwood City. Typical of Silicon Valley, most of the people there were either born abroad or lived abroad at some point in their lives.
Cerny said he had been invited to “a number focus groups hosted by high-net-worth individuals in Silicon Valley” who are strategizing against Trump, though he acknowledged that the voters drawn to Trump are not especially open to hearing counter-arguments from ultra-wealthy Silicon Valley elites.
“There is a lot of talk about how can we do more harm than good if we get involved,” he said. “A lot of really smart people are out of ideas for how to prevent that.”
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