On Thursday, tech titan and venture capitalist Peter Thiel will speak at the Republican National Convention, lending a Silicon Valley sheen to Donald Trump’s party coronation.
Thiel’s presence on the podium might give some the impression that Trump enjoys significant support among the tech crowd. It might seem to dovetail with the popular myth of Silicon Valley as a hotbed of rebels and disruptors, not to mention billionaires, whose anti-establishment tendencies and dim view of bureaucracy could lend themselves to a libertarian worldview. Not that Trump is Rand Paul, of course, but he does generally espouse a smaller role for government and bureaucracy than does Hillary Clinton.
Yet Thiel’s politics are far less representative of both Silicon Valley and the broader technology industry than one might suspect. His support for Trump, in particular, sets him far apart from the vast majority of his peers. In fact, survey data and anecdotal evidence alike show that Trump is deeply unpopular among technologists—perhaps more so than any major-party presidential candidate in recent memory.
Let’s start with the data.
A June poll of likely voters in Santa Clara County—which takes in much of Silicon Valley, including Palo Alto—found that 64 percent would support Hillary Clinton in a matchup with Trump. A paltry 20 percent said they’d vote for Trump. In contrast, Mitt Romney carried 28 percent of the county in 2012. McCain got 29 percent in 2008. And George W. Bush—hardly a Silicon Valley darling—gained more than 34 percent in both 2000 and 2004.
Santa Clara County voters are not all techies, of course, let alone tycoons. Perhaps the tech industry’s movers and shakers, like Thiel, harbor more Trumpian leanings?
A series of specially targeted surveys conducted over the past year suggests that Trump is even less popular with technology entrepreneurs in particular than he is with Bay Area denizens in general. The surveys were conducted by Gregory Ferenstein, editor of the Ferenstein Wire and author of The Age of Optimists, a free online book about the politics of Silicon Valley. His polls draw random samples of people listed as founders of companies in CrunchBase, TechCrunch’s database of tech startups, incubators, and investors. The small sample—about 50 respondents per poll—makes for a relatively large margin of error, Ferenstein told me. But when it came to support for Trump, the results were unequivocal. The number of respondents who listed Trump as their top choice in the first round of polling: zero. In a second sample drawn from the same database, Trump gathered 4 percent.
That number may finally be rising a bit now that Trump has emerged as the Republican nominee and the party has begun to unify around him. Ferenstein said his latest poll of tech founders, which he plans to release Thursday, will show Trump’s support cracking the double digits for the first time. Clinton, meanwhile, continues to enjoy an absolute majority. Her edge is even greater among the industry’s true elite, Ferenstein told me.
It isn’t just that these techies prefer Clinton. Many openly revile Trump in particular, to the point that they shun anyone who supports his candidacy—including Thiel. “A nontrivial number of people in my poll have said they would not support doing business with Peter Thiel as a result of him speaking” at the Republican National Convention, Ferenstein said.
Those who crave anecdotal support for Ferenstein’s findings needn’t look far. On Thursday, Twitter’s former vice president of global media, Katie Jacobs Stanton, published on NewCo Shift “An Open Letter From Technology Sector Leaders on Donald Trump’s Candidacy for President.” The letter decried Trump’s “anger,” “bigotry,” and “fear of new ideas and new people,” among other traits that it characterized as hostile to the spirit of Silicon Valley. Its conclusion: “Trump would be a disaster for innovation.” The letter was signed by nearly 150 people, all of them prominent in the technology industry, and many of them household names. They included founders and top executives at Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Samsung, Yelp, Slack, Reddit, and Wikipedia, among others.
The outpouring of opposition was not surprising to those familiar with the technology industry’s politics. For Silicon Valley, the past two presidential elections were largely about supporting Barack Obama, a candidate who seemed to embody both the can-do spirit and the liberal, technocratic values that prevail in the internet sector. This one is different. It’s not about supporting Clinton, who is widely viewed as an establishment figure despite a policy plank similar to Obama’s. It’s about stopping Trump.
As a candidate, Trump is “a caricature of everything Silicon Valley hates,” Ferenstein said. “He’s honestly like a cartoon villain to them.”
The antipathy toward Trump runs wide and deep, and it stems from multiple sources.
Part of it is simply that the technology sector and Silicon Valley are more politically progressive than they’re sometimes made out to be in the press. Thiel and a handful of other tech luminaries—including Uber’s Travis Kalanick and venture capitalist Tom Perkins—have become so well-known for their anti-government, pro-market views that it’s tempting to assume they’re speaking for a large swath of their peers. It is true that a strand of anti-regulatory sentiment runs through the political ideology of Silicon Valley. It is also true that tech giants tend to look unfavorably upon unions and other institutions that they see as inefficient, or as obstacles to disruption and innovation.
But these breaks from liberal dogma, to the extent that they’re real, tend to be outweighed by the values Silicon Valley shares with liberals and Democrats—especially market-friendly Democrats in the Clintonian tradition. In particular, they share an eagerness to embrace novelty and change, rather than to fear it, as conservatives tend to, according to the research of psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Even among conservatives, Trump’s supporters stand out for their extreme aversion to change.
It’s also easy to overestimate the individualist and libertarian streaks in the ideology of Silicon Valley. Ferenstein is fond of recounting an anecdote from a Rand Paul event in the Bay Area in which the senator asked a crowd of wealthy techies, “Is there anybody out here from the ‘leave me alone’ coalition?” Paul and his aides seemed to expect a roar of approval. Literally one person clapped.
Further fueling Silicon Valley’s distaste for Trump, specifically, are a number of stances he has taken, and statements he has made, that run directly counter to the tech industry’s interests. In a June interview, Ferenstein listed four off the top of his head.
- Trump mused in May that Amazon has “a huge antitrust problem,” insinuating that he could use that as leverage against Amazon and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos.
- He has pledged to curtail immigration at a time when Facebook and other big tech companies are lobbying hard for a loosening of restrictions on high-skill immigrants.
- He has promised to “open up” libel laws for use against media companies. That might endear him to Thiel—who is presently waging a war to sue Gawker Media out of existence—but not to major internet platforms that fancy themselves bastions of free speech.
- He has criticized Apple, among others, for outsourcing manufacturing to China and said he will get them to “start building their damn computers and things” stateside.
When we spoke this week, Ferenstein added a fifth sin to Trump’s ledger, in the eyes of the tech industry: his choice of running mate. Mike Pence is a prominent opponent of gay rights, a cause that is widely and enthusiastically championed by Silicon Valley companies, including Apple, Google, and Facebook.
More broadly, Trump has positioned himself as a champion of those who are struggling in the new economy—the victims of automation and globalization, including the white working class. That puts him at odds with Silicon Valley, which embodies the economic forces that seem to threaten his supporters’ way of life.
So, yes: Thiel and a few others aside, Silicon Valley hates Trump. The question is: Can it stop him? While it’s tempting to imagine that a company as influential as Google or Facebook could undermine Trump’s campaign with a clandestine tweak of an algorithm, that’s wildly implausible, for reasons I’ve explained. (In short, those companies’ success depends far more on the perception that their algorithms are unbiased than it does on the results of any given election.) And even though Silicon Valley is rolling in money, the tech elite tend to be relatively stingy with their political spending in proportion to their wealth. Their model of philanthropy is the Gates Foundation, not the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson. And forget about rocking the vote: Technology industry employees are heavily concentrated in states that are already deep blue.
For Silicon Valley, then, the most realistic path to influence over a U.S. presidential election is to help one campaign develop a high-tech operation that helps it to target and mobilize voters more effectively via the internet. It is indeed doing just that for Clinton, as it did for Obama and, to some extent, Howard Dean before her. Wired reports that Clinton has assembled a tech team comprising “more than 50 engineers and developers who left lucrative careers at places like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.”
But there is perhaps one other way that tech magnates can hope to have at least some impact on the minds of voters. That is to lend their credibility as innovators, mavericks, and business leaders to one candidate or the other by endorsing his or her campaign in a highly public way. The irony is, the candidate who first receives that stamp in the public mind will not be the one that the vast majority of Silicon Valley prefers. In fact, it will be the one they hate. And it will happen on Thursday night.