Will Trump Make Silicon Valley Kiss the Ring at His Tech Summit?
The president-elect’s history in Hollywood might offer a clue.
Many years ago, when I was working at a Hollywood production company, a coworker went out to dinner with an out-of-town friend. When conversation turned to work, my colleague explained that he was producing marketing for a film by the director Michael Bay. His friend was no fan of Bayhem, it turned out, and issued a tirade against the director’s work.
Toward the end of the evening, an older woman approached their table. “I couldn’t help but overhear you talking about Michael Bay,” she began. And then, because of course she was: “I’m Michael Bay’s mother. And you’ve got him all wrong.”
It was Friday night. By Monday morning, the elder Bay had called the director himself, who had called the studio, who had called our offices. An unnecessary but punitive penance was assigned. We took our licks and kept doing whatever forgettable work we were contributing to whatever forgettable film it promoted. We knew the rules, which were feudal: When the king summons you, you show up to court, you kneel, you hear his verdict, and you slowly back away.
Donald Trump is the Michael Bay of politics. Gaudy and loutish—but also dynamic and arresting. Someone who gets attention, makes money, and earns respect by their means. For people like that, the resulting power can be lorded over those who cannot, or will not, refuse to pledge fealty to it.
* * *
It’s not even a metaphor: Trump is not just akin to a big Hollywood producer—he actually is a big Hollywood producer. In fact, just last week Trump confirmed that he will continue to serve as an executive producer on The Celebrity Apprentice from the White House. (In an ironic turn, bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger will replace Trump as host.) While best known as a real-estate developer, Trump’s business interests have included entertainment for decades—his books, the Miss Universe pageant, The Apprentice, a modeling agency—not to mention the blurry line between Trump’s holdings in hospitality, casinos, food, retail, and the entertainment sector broadly construed. To call the 2016 election the final merger of politics and reality television, or to call Donald Trump the first CEO-president isn’t sufficient. Trump is the first Executive Producer in the Executive Branch.
It is in this role, as a Hollywood-style mogul, that Trump’s latest encounter with the technology industry is best understood.
This week, Trump will host a summit for technology leaders. With the exception of venture capitalist and vocal Trump supporter Peter Thiel, the tech sector has mostly been at loggerheads with Trump since the campaign began. Generally speaking, the industry is economically libertarian but socially progressive. Even though its own infrastructure, like Facebook and Reddit, probably helped spread support for Trump, tech leaders generally supported Hillary Clinton on social issues while opposing Trump on immigration, encryption, and other hot-button issues for the sector.
Over the weekend, Recode’s Kara Swisher reported that the meeting, to be held Wednesday at Trump Tower, will be attended by a small group of key players. Among them: Apple CEO Tim Cook, Alphabet CEO Sergey Brin, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and the chief executives of Cisco, IBM, Intel, and Oracle. Swisher also writes that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos—who owns the The Washington Post, which has been critical of Trump—was also invited and “is likely to attend.”
Recode indicates that Trump transition adviser Peter Thiel had a hard time convincing more tech leaders to attend, speculating that the “cool kids” of tech, like Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, and VCs Marc Andreessen and Reid Hoffman, were either not invited or not attending.
Tech-oriented folks like Swisher might like to believe that accepting (or refusing) the invitation represents a possible resistance against the Trump administration. But as I’ve previously argued, that opposition might ultimately be short-lived. A Trump presidency is ultimately compatible with the technology industry’s business goals: lower taxation, reduced regulation, renegotiated trade, and a campaign commitment to domestic infrastructure investment that could benefit Silicon Valley.
More likely, the Trump tech summit sends a signal to the tech industry: No longer will it enjoy the anonymity and freedom afforded by the Obama administration, whose friendly disregard for the ills of technology only history can judge. And likewise, no longer will Silicon Valley be allowed to ignore Trump’s Hollywood-style, feudal demand for sworn loyalty. This tech summit isn’t a venue for input or discussion, but a reminder of who is in charge. (Trump’s unusual, late-November meeting with The New York Times had a similar purpose.)
When a king or a mogul holds court, he does so for different reasons than a politician or a CEO hosts a roundtable or takes a meeting. Such a gathering might include actual collaboration, or at least the appearance of collaboration. But first and foremost, it affirms which audiences those overlords consider worthy of their time. It is thus no surprise that successful, established, infrastructural technology companies like Google, Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM would make the cut, while more trivial distractions, like Slack and Twitter and Netflix, would not. It is also no surprise that organizations with whom Trump has known beefs—Apple and Amazon, for example—would be invited to learn how to kiss rings.
The Bay Area prides itself on its total unconcern for superfluous social practices. Or, at least, for the appearance of forgoing them in the name of efficiency. Pomp is a distraction from work. But in New York and Los Angeles (and in Washington) there are explicit ways of doing things. Who is invited (and when) matters. Where, and how they are received does likewise. The display is as much a part of the outcome as the outcome. These are the lessons taught by high society, by show business, by affairs of state. For people like Michael Bay and Donald Trump, they work for moments of unbridled influence over a small group of important people in a small room as much as for the work itself, or the wealth it produces. Ultra-rationalist Silicon Valley cannot grasp the concept of the socialite. And yet the world still runs on the deeds a small few exert over a great many, in technology no less than entertainment or politics. Perhaps the time has come for technology leaders to learn this lesson.
* * *
Hollywood has never been terribly interested in Silicon Valley, except as a target of contempt (David Fincher’s The Social Network) or mockery (Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley). Technology’s encroachment into the core business of entertainment, in the form of iTunes, Spotify, Netflix, and Amazon Video, for example, certainly has annoyed entertainment players in New York and Los Angeles. But it has annoyed them partly because technology people are so uncool—not just because they might steal the incumbents’ business.
But against all odds, if slowly, technology has become cool. iPhones are cool. Instagram is cool. When you Netflix and chill, it doesn’t really matter what show is on. Silicon Valley, meanwhile, has never been tempted by the lure of Hollywood-style glamour and ceremony. Bedazzled, award-show pomp like the Oscars feel old-fashioned compared to shirtsleeved product-announcement keynotes. Who cares what someone’s wearing when they make a billion dollars?
Donald Trump is not just a real-estate developer excoriating Silicon Valley for building intangibles with foreign labor in a cultural and economic vacuum. He is also a Hollywood mogul expressing his aesthetic and personal disdain for technology’s social values. And like Michael Bay, he does so with an aesthetic exactly opposed to Silicon Valley’s data-oriented rationalism, its visual minimalism, its understatement, its isolationism, and its earnestness. And gaudy and grotesque though it may be, anyone who believes that the wealthy technology leaders called to Trump’s court will turn their backs on the promise of power may come out looking naive.