Why Trump and the Tech Industry Are on a Collision Course

The president-elect and Silicon Valley leaders are foils, with contrasting values, interests, and visions for the future.

Google's campus in Mountain View, California (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

The political gulf between Donald Trump and the high-tech community he has summoned to a meeting in New York City on Wednesday might be comparable to the technological distance between the latest cutting-edge smartphone and a Commodore 64 personal computer.

While Hillary Clinton, by most accounts, did not stir up as much enthusiasm as President Obama did among this group, the resistance to Trump across the technology industry was widespread and powerful—whether measured by votes, campaign contributions, or endorsements. The list of tech-world notables who endorsed Trump essentially began and ended with Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder and libertarian investor who also bankrolled the lawsuit from wrestler Hulk Hogan that bankrupted Gawker Media.

The barriers between Trump and the technology world span both values—the industry emphatically leans left on social issues—and interests. Trump’s hostility to immigration, opposition to free trade, and resistance to replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources to combat climate change all clash directly with the constellation of technology industries that rely on importing talent from around the world, sell their products across the globe, and have invested heavily in developing clean-energy alternatives to oil, gas, and coal. Tech leaders are also bracing for Trump to attempt to unravel the net-neutrality rules that Obama’s Federal Communications Commission adopted, and to push against the privacy standards many industry leaders have sought to maintain.

During the campaign, Trump in turn lashed Apple for manufacturing too many of its products overseas. Stephen Bannon, the former chief executive of Breitbart—who has emerged as the ideological synthesizer of Trump’s worldview—has touted Democrats’ courtship of the technology industry as evidence the party had abandoned heartland workers for coastal elites. As Bannon recently told The Hollywood Reporter, “They were talking to these people with companies with a $9 billion market cap employing nine people. It’s not reality. They lost sight of what the world is about.”

Trump and most leaders in the tech community start from an inimical view of what makes the economy prosper. While Trump presents the economy essentially as a zero-sum competition—with immigrants and foreign trading competitors in effect taking opportunities from native-born Americans—the tech industry’s dominant view is that more openness to ideas, people, products, and markets ultimately creates a widening circle of growth.

The technology giants face their own questions about inclusion of racial minorities and women, and whether, as Bannon questioned, their market-shaking products are generating good jobs for the many or just wealth for a few. But they are virtually united in believing that Trump is trying to restore an economic order that is irretrievably past.

Trump “holds a totally antithetical worldview to most people there,” said a political operative who works closely with technology companies and who asked not to be identified. “That’s not to say he is entirely wrong and they are entirely right. But he is the personification of the mythical past. Basically from 1947 until 1965, during that period of time, things were pretty sweet if you were a white, straight, non-college-educated guy. … It felt dominant and it was. But [among technology leaders] there is a very strong belief that we are not going back to the economy the way it was. There is definitely a belief that is not going to happen, and that it is not going to look and feel like it did.”

Across this DMZ of mutual suspicion, financial support for Trump from the technology industry barely registered as trace amounts. The industry is usually thought of as leaning left, but even compared with Mitt Romney’s fundraising among techies in 2012, Trump’s cratered. The Center for Responsive Politics, on its authoritative OpenSecrets.org website, tracks contributions from individuals and political action committees from all major industry sectors. Among the companies the Center includes in the Internet sector—firms like Google, Facebook, and Amazon—Clinton and the super PACs supporting her outraised Trump and his affiliated PACs through mid-October. Clinton’s haul was far greater: $5.6 million compared with just $54,472 for Trump. (Final figures through Election Day aren’t available yet.) That’s an advantage of nearly 103 to 1. Four years ago, Obama’s advantage over Romney among these firms was much more modest, at just under 3 to 1.

In the Center’s larger grouping of firms involved in electronics manufacturing and equipment—companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, and Oracle—Clinton outraised Trump by about 22 to 1: $10.7 million to $483,313. In 2012, the Center’s figures show, Romney and his affiliated PACs actually outraised Obama and his allies among these firms, $8.6 million to $8.3 million. That means even Romney outraised Trump from these companies by nearly 18 to 1. Individuals from firms identified in the venture-capital industry gave the Clinton campaign about $1.1 million—and Trump less than $46,000. Romney, a former investor himself at Bain Capital, also outraised Obama among venture capitalists.

The striking things about these numbers is not the level of support for Clinton; very few technology executives made the massive personal donations to political action committees supporting her that she received from wealthy executives and entrepreneurs in some other sectors. Instead, the notable point is the minuscule support for Trump, who not only faced policy conflicts with tech leaders, but was also hampered by his almost complete lack of personal relationships with them. Among both the internet and electronics manufacturing and equipment firms, Trump was significantly outraised not only by Clinton, but also by Republican primary rivals Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Jeb Bush—all of whom obviously stopped collecting money long before Trump did.

In the increasingly dispersed geographic clusters of technology manufacturing and digital design, the voting results were nearly as lopsided. Looking at the results by county, Clinton won about four-fifths of the vote in San Francisco and Kings County (Brooklyn); about three-fourths in San Mateo (Silicon Valley) and Denver; and just under three-fourths in Suffolk (Boston), Multnomah (Portland), Santa Clara (Silicon Valley), and King (Seattle). She won almost exactly two-thirds of the vote in Travis County (Austin). One of few emerging technology nodes that Trump carried was Maricopa County (Phoenix), where the staunchly conservative and older eastern suburbs tipped the balance.

An analysis of the election results by metropolitan area—rather than by county—that was conducted by my colleague Richard Florida and his associates at the Martin Prosperity Institute adds to the picture. Florida and his colleagues found that in a regression analysis designed to isolate the impact of different social and economic factors on the results, “Clinton support was … much greater in metros with larger concentrations of start-ups, venture-capital investment, and high-tech industry, while Trump votes were negatively correlated with each. These correlations are all stronger for 2016 than they were in 2012.”

In fact, subsequent analysis by Florida and his associates, conducted for The Atlantic, found that Clinton carried 18 of the 20 metropolitan areas with the highest amount of venture-capital investment. The only exceptions were the Dallas and Houston metro areas—though in each case Clinton comfortably won the county directly centered on the city itself. The 18 high-investment metropolitan areas that Clinton carried—a list topped by San Francisco; San Jose; Boston; New York; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; San Diego; and Seattle—collectively account for over 85 percent of the nation’s total venture-capital investment.

In all these ways, the high-technology industries accustomed to thinking of themselves as visionaries shaping an increasingly digital, globalized, and green economic future expressed their resistance to Trump—a presidential candidate who, in his pledge to “make America great again,” chose as his model a mid-20th century economy that relied more on manufacturing and fossil-fuel extraction, and less on immigrants and imports, than today’s economy does. Trump, for his part, may see the socially liberal, metropolitan-based tech community as an ideal foil: a prominent industry he can confront for his blue-collar, largely non-urban base with very little risk, because he has so little support in it to lose. Wednesday’s meeting will offer the first indication of how these clashing perspectives will converge—or, more likely, collide—over the next four years.

Assistant editor Leah Askarinam contributed.