In the days after the presidential election, a liberal friend quoted the 1976 movie Network to me. It’s a film about how extensively corporations control politics and media in the United States, but in the context of Trump, it suddenly struck him as perversely reassuring.
“There is no America. There is no democracy,” goes the quote. (It is delivered, fittingly, by a network executive.) “There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. … We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a collage of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business.”
The implication: Whatever President Trump did with the government, the country was actually governed by powerful corporations. These corporations have an interest in a mostly peaceful world, with mostly free trade and some patina of civil rights. It is corporate America that would block the president’s worst excesses. And as Trump has taken office, and his administration has worn on, I’ve seen versions of this idea floating around the conversational ether. If things get really bad, we are assured, the richest companies will save us.
The past few months have shown how incorrect this view is. Some of America’s most powerful companies have faced off the Trump administration—and they have lost. Consider the fate of the so-called travel ban.
Just a week into his presidency, President Donald Trump announced a sudden, sweeping change to the country’s immigration system, prohibiting citizens and refugees and from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for at least 90 days. He also ordered the government to give preferential treatment to Christian refugees and “persecuted religious minorities” coming from those countries. More than 700 travelers, some of whom were in the air when the order was announced, arrived in the United States and were immediately detained. Thousands of Americans swarmed to airports around the country to protest the policy.
Within a day, the technology industry placed itself on the rhetorical side of the protesters. “It is not a policy we support,” said Tim Cook in an email to Apple employees. “Apple would not exist without immigration.”
Jeff Bezos agreed. “This executive order is one we do not support,” he said in an email to his employees, promising to marshal “the full extent of Amazon’s resources” to support employees affected by the policy. Marc Benioff, chief executive of Salesforce, posted a tweet quoting the Gospel of Mark and the hashtag #NoBan. Travis Kalanick, then the chief executive of Uber, labeled the policy “unjust.” They were not alone: Dozens of technology CEOs spoke up in the first days of the ban.
Few tech employees were ultimately affected by that particular version of the policy—because, within a few days, federal courts had frozen it. As the months passed, the Trump administration issued two more versions of its travel ban. Yet the industry continued to make its preferences clear. “If we stand and say nothing, we become a part of it,” said Tim Cook, after the incident over the first ban passed.
As the case reached the Supreme Court, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and more than 175 other tech companies filed an amicus brief in this case arguing that the policy marked “a fundamental shift in the rules governing entry into the United States” and that it was already “inflicting substantial harm on U.S. companies, their employees, and the entire economy.”
“The Order will have the immediate, adverse consequence of making it far more difficult and expensive for U.S. companies to hire some of the world’s best talent and impeding them from competing in the global marketplace,” the brief said.
The companies lost. On Tuesday morning, the Supreme Court announced it would let a modified version of the travel ban stand.
Fewer technology executives spoke out this time. Google, Apple, Facebook, and Uber all declined or did not respond to a request for comment.
“While disappointed with today’s SCOTUS travel ban decision, we will continue to support the legal rights of our employees and their families,” said Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, in a tweet.
“We are profoundly disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the travel ban—a policy that goes against our mission and values,” said Brian Chesky, the chief executive of Airbnb, in a statement issued with the company’s two other co-founders.
“To restrict travel based on a person’s nationality or religion is wrong,” he continued. “We believe that travel is a transformative and powerful experience, and we will continue to open doors and build bridges between cultures around the world.”
Technology companies have historically taken an outsize interest in immigration policy, including with their lobbying dollars. Many tech companies rely on H1-B visas in order to bring programmers and other specialist workers into this country.
But Stu Loeser, a consultant who advised technology companies on this issue, told me such interest didn’t drive opposition to the travel ban.
“Tech companies didn’t oppose this ban because they recruit a significant number of employees from Iran, Libya, Yemen or the other countries directly affected,” he said in an email. “They opposed it because anything designed to be a Muslim ban is inherently prejudiced—and anything that says to the world we don’t want self-starters to come here will hurt America in the short and long term.”
Technology executives may also take a personal interest in immigration policy because they themselves are immigrants. The CEOs of Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Tesla, and Uber are immigrants. And more than half of all U.S.-based startups worth more than $1 billion were founded or co-founded by immigrants, according to a 2016 report from the National Foundation for American Policy.
These statistics have not swayed the Trump administration. And the White House is attacking programs that the technology industry does have a financial interest in. Over the past year, it has increased scrutiny of H1-B visas and moved to end an Obama-era program that allowed foreign entrepreneurs to start their company in the United States.
The entire episode should suggest to companies that a certain kind of rhetorical opposition to the president’s policies—filing an amicus brief here, issuing a strongly worded comment there—does not work. In fact, this approach seems to be failing across the board. Nearly all of corporate America opposes President Trump’s tariffs, but this has not dissuaded the president from planning a trade war with China. Nor were appeals from American corporations—including Exxon, Walmart, and the carmakers—enough to keep the United States in the Paris Agreement on climate change.
The usual tactics of corporate dissent don’t seem to be working. Now the question is: Will corporations go any further to get their way? Or will they keep issuing strong comments and amicus briefs, and otherwise stay out of President Trump’s way?