Technology

Are we seeing a turning point in Trump's relationship with Silicon Valley?

The announcement that Silicon Valley executives Elon Musk and Travis Kalanick will advise Donald Trump as part of his Strategic and Policy Forum came the same day as a genial meeting between tech industry leaders and the president-elect. 

Tesla chief executive officer Elon Musk enters Trump Tower ahead of a meeting of technology leaders with President-elect Donald Trump in Manhattan on Dec. 14, 2016.
Andrew Kelly/Reuters | Caption

All things considered, Donald Trump's meeting with tech industry leaders could have gone much worse. 

The president-elect and a number of high-profile Silicon Valley executives – including Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg, and Apple's Tim Cook – convened at Trump Tower on Wednesday for a genial gathering, during which Mr. Trump referred to his guests as "amazing" people and reminded them that he was "here to help you folks do well." The meeting, described by one technology reporter as a "watershed moment" for the tech industry, came hours after an announcement that Tesla chief executive Elon Musk and Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick, both outspoken critics of Trump during his campaign, would be taking on strategic adviser positions as part of the president-elect's Strategic and Policy Forum. 

To industry observers, Wednesday's developments marked a distinct shift in tone for the relationship between Trump and an industry that overwhelmingly supported his rival, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, for president. And while it's still too early to tell what that relationship will look like over the next four years, they see potential for cooperation following a heated campaign during which the president-elect openly feuded with some of the very executives who gathered at Trump Tower this week. 

"Certainly the tone has changed dramatically on both sides," says Larry Downes, project director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "I think it is significant. We're starting to see this shift from Trump as candidate to Trump as senior administrator." 

While significant, Mr. Downes says he didn't find the tone of the meeting particularly surprising, as "there have been a lot of signs" since the election "that at least when it came to tech, Trump was going to move closer to what you might consider a more traditional Republican view" that would be welcome to industry leaders: "A traditional Republican administration wouldn't want to interfere with new technologies and would want to let innovation happen in a largely unregulated form ... and that has been the preference of Silicon Valley all along." 

Both Downes and Aaron Ginn, co-founder of the Lincoln Network, an initiative that aims to bridge the gap between Silicon Valley and the government, view the shift in tone as a practical acceptance by both Trump and the tech industry that, like it or not, they'll need to work together to achieve their goals. 

"This is Silicon Valley coming to the realization that, OK, he's going to be president for the next four years ... so we need to be practical and do the duty of our country," Mr. Ginn tells the Monitor in a phone interview. 

On the other side, Downes says, "I think if not Trump, then at least his senior advisers, understand that ... if you’re going to get anything done in the next four years you’re going to rely on a strong tech economy. He can’t really afford to have the whole Silicon Valley hostile to him, and vice versa." 

Wednesday's meeting was arranged by Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder and now-Trump adviser who was ostracized by some in the tech industry for supporting the Republican candidate throughout his campaign. Now, as Trump prepares to take his place in the White House, Mr. Thiel could be a key player in bridging the divide between the president and Silicon Valley. His presence on the Trump transition team alone is a "pretty major step for the influence of the tech community" under the Trump administration, Ginn says. 

The next four years could also mark a difference in the culture of socially liberal Silicon Valley – a change that some say has already begun to take place. The backlash against Thiel after he came out as a Trump supporter sparked renewed debate over ideological diversity in the tech industry even before Trump was elected, as Zhai Yun Tan reported for the Monitor in September: 

In recent elections, some of the most high-profile Silicon Valley executives have been publicly donating to Democratic candidates. Republican employees in the tech sector, however, have been reported to hide their identities and views for fear of judgment. Tensions may be particularly acute this year as the Republican presidential candidate has attacked tech giants – Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg, and Apple CEO Tim Cook – for their position on policy issues ranging from privacy to immigration.

But after PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel’s high-profile endorsement of Mr. Trump and Facebook’s outreach to Republican groups after allegations of bias in excluding conservative news sites in its trending topics, more scrutiny is being placed on what some call Silicon Valley’s lack of ideological diversity.

As of September, Justin Danhof, general counsel for the conservative political foundation National Center for Public Policy Research, told the Monitor he didn't feel the increased attention had translated into actual political diversity in Silicon Valley. 

"I think it’s more just a recognition," Mr. Danhof said at the time. "There is more light being shed on the fact that they are liberal and unwelcoming to conservatives but I think the light hasn’t done anything. In fact, there has been more impunity." 

But Ginn says that, since Trump's election, he's begun to see signs of a changing tech culture, such as Trump supporters wearing "Make America Great Again" hats at work and conservatives growing "much more vocal" about their views. 

Still, he notes, it'll take concrete action, not just complimentary words, for the president-elect to earn the full respect of the tech industry going forward. 

"It's a good gesture for both the camps to meet, but to really win over a lot of the hearts and minds of people in the Valley you need to implement some good policies and actually take the advice that Travis and Elon are giving and implement these changes," Ginn says. "It’s a steep hill to climb. It's not insurmountable, but it's going to be a heavy lift."