On Thursday, February 17, 2011, President Barack Obama joined a dinner hosted by venture capitalist and Democratic donor John Doerr. It included a who’s-who of Silicon Valley executives, including leaders from Facebook, Google, Apple and others.
On Wednesday, December 14, 2016, President-elect Donald Trump hosted a meeting convened with the help of venture capitalist and Republican donor Peter Thiel. It, too, included a who’s-who of Silicon Valley execs, including leaders from Facebook, Google, Apple and others.
Though these two gatherings may look a lot a like, they almost certainly had very different orientations. Sizing them up through the most cynical eye I could muster, and there’s a lot here about which to feel cynically, I actually think the Trump meeting might be more meaningful in the long run.
This is premised on the simple truth that Silicon Valley’s tech employees donate significantly more money to Democrats than they do to Republicans. FiveThirtyEight estimates that 95% of the $8.1 million in donations made by technology industry employees in the 2016 election went to Hillary Clinton. For that reason, I’d characterize Obama’s 2011 gathering as equal parts fundraising mission and policy brainstorm.
Trump’s meeting, though, was not colored by donations, or, in his case, the lack thereof. It’s possible that Trump, a master salesman and brand marketer, felt that he could win over this left-leaning contingent using a post-election formula of persuasion that got him elected in the first place: play the populist card, Silicon Valley-style. Low taxes on repatriated income, easy access to the country’s chief executive, and big bets on infrastructure just begging to be configured with the Valley’s tech all would play very well in that room. In addition, there’s the undeniable truth that Trump has become the most proficient Tweeter in history. That almost certainly wasn’t lost on the room.
Though we don’t know how explicitly less pleasing topics for this audience came up, I’m sure the room was well aware of the advantages awaiting those who choose to engage the President-elect. If they want to protect access to visas for high tech workers, strong consumer privacy protection, subsidies (e.g. electric vehicle tax credits), and net neutrality, it’s much better to have access to the White House.
Never Trumpers may accuse those attending the summit of selling out. I don’t blame them, but these leaders have businesses to run and shareholders to protect. As this article points out, companies that find themselves on the wrong side of Trump’s Twitter eruptions have seen their stock prices erode. That favors a pragmatic approach.
No one can know if Trump’s meeting prefaces more and deeper relationships that may form during his presidency. Given the tendency for governments and industry to engage in crony capitalism, I’m not sure that those relationships would be a net positive. It never will be easier to conduct himself publicly than it is right now. For this reason, it’s hard to take anything that happens now at face value.
Still, the absence of a fundraising motive makes Trump’s photo op more meaningful to me than Obama’s was in 2011.