Comment: by Justin Marinelli
Justin Marinelli provides insight into the fascinating relationship between Trump’s populism and the nouveau-riche of Silicon Valley.
With Article 50 now officially invoked and the United Kingdom well on its way to leaving the European Union, the British have unequivocally declared to the world that they have in no way renounced their heritage as being among the great trouble-makers of modern history. On the other side of the Atlantic, their American cousins are more than holding their own in demonstrating that shared tradition of rabble-rousing as they enter Donald J. Trump’s presidency. There is a populist surge rising across the western world, and the Anglosphere has been the site of its two greatest victories.
President Trump is arguably the flagship in the armada sailing in on the rising wave of “anti-elitist” sentiment that erupted across the West. As the punk-rock candidate of the 2016 election, he rode into the Oval Office on the votes of Americans who felt that their government had abandoned them while operating solely for the benefit of those with money, power, and connections. Playing to his base, the blue-state billionaire has deliberately portrayed himself as a latter-day Andrew Jackson, that archetypal American populist whose portrait now hangs in the Oval Office. All things evoke their opposites, however, and Trump, in casting himself as the instrument of salvation for those who powered American’s past has established a small but devoted base of well-heeled support within the engine of America’s future: Silicon Valley.
Most notable among this cadre is Peter Thiel, the American entrepreneur, investor, philanthropist, and chess master who was among the most outspoken of Trump’s unexpected supporters, going so far as to speak in his favour at the Republican National Convention in July 2016. Echoing Trump’s rhetoric of decline, he spoke of how “When [he] was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union…Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems”.
While never shy to discuss politics, this election marked Thiel’s emergence as a household thinker of the American Right. Indeed, he has been making many of Trump’s points for years, speaking out about how a decline in innovation and increase in overall stagnation is becoming a growing problem for the United States. Furthermore, he donated $1.7 million to The Seasteading Institute, a foundation dedicated to using floating cities as testing grounds for experiments in politics and governance. However, his most noteworthy political action prior to 2016 was to make a statement that leaves little room for interpretation: “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible”. So which of the two would life-long libertarian Thiel choose if he could only pick one? The question adds an interesting wrinkle to an honest analysis.
In any event, Thiel’s support seems relatively straightforward: he is, like Trump, concerned about American decline and he hopes that a Trump administration will shake things up enough to stoke a resurgence in American innovation. Thiel, in this sense, is something of an open book. Not all those backing Trump are so transparent, however.
Among this more opaque set is Robert Mercer, a tech billionaire who not only donated millions to Trump’s campaign, but who has also provided similar levels of support to the Breitbart News Organization. Supposedly one of the forces that worked behind the scenes to bring about Brexit, Mercer is no stranger to funding right-wing causes, and it is thought that his family’s influence was one of the factors that led to Steve Bannon’s appointment as campaign strategist (and later, White House Chief Strategist) to Donald Trump.
Given his level of political funding, one might think that Mercer might be a household name (or at the very least, a left-wing boogie-man like the Koch brothers). However, Mercer eschews the limelight, speaking in public only very rarely. That he holds conservative beliefs is evident from his established track records of supporting such politicians and institutions, but unlike Thiel, he has penned no essays outlining his convictions. The “shadowy billionaire” cliché would not be out of place in this instance.
Two drops do not make a flood, but neither of these men are lightweights.. How is it that Silicon Valley, ostensibly the most progressive collective in the United States, could find anything in common with a President whose rhetoric hearkens so frequently towards the vision of a halcyon past? The connection lies not only in a deeper analysis of Trump’s vision, but also in the very origin of Silicon Valley itself.
Trump’s calls for an American revival are wrapped in an implicitly industrial aesthetic: one of factories and mines restoring jobs and prosperity to Midwestern Americana. It calls back to the days of unchallenged American supremacy in the post-war years when optimism ran rampant and anything seemed possible. On the surface, Trump calls for a resurrection of the past, but there is nothing in what he says that precludes a focus on the digital realm. Indeed, the core of his message is the same as Thiel espouses: recharging the dynamism of the American economy and ramping up innovation and creativity.
It is clear that Trump himself is aware of this. After all, one of his actions as President-Elect was to assemble a round table of various Silicon Valley figures including not just his aforementioned supporter Peter Thiel, but also tech Titans such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Sheryl Sandberg, among quite a few others. Proclaiming that he was “Here to help”, the incoming President offered an olive branch in hopes of soliciting ideas that could power an American revival.
It might seem odd that the nominal head of the US government bureaucracy would seek the advice of an economic sector that has so loudly trumpeted itself as anti-bureaucratic, but the appeal is one rooted deeply in US history. Silicon Valley was birthed from resources of the US military-industrial complex, and no less a figure than Frederick Terman encouraged bright students to start tech companies with seed money from the Department of Defense and other national security organizations.
This relationship never waned, and even today companies like Palantir Technologies thrive on contracts with the US government. While it is difficult to assess just how much of Trump’s $54 Billion military spending increase will wind its way westward, early indicators hint that those willing to come to the table and make a deal will be quick to reap the rewards. The aforementioned Elon Musk, for example, has won for himself a $100 million dollar contract to put military satellites into orbit, and has been pivoting towards a more co-operative relationship with the administration.
Thus, while tech industry titans do not come off as a natural target demographic for the Populist-in-Chief, the alchemy of the US war machine makes it categorically impossible for any national security President not to be a high technology president. Four years of greasing palms with defense contracts is a potent enough balm to assuage the harshest resistance and even make a few friends in the process. Trump could even throw in a throw in a few high-level civil service positions.
just to sweeten the deal (to say nothing of signing off on laws that facilitate the collection of and analysis of big data).
These connections with the tech community are important not just for the degree to which they facilitate his goals, however. He also needs them to continue his political career. We already live in a cyberpunk world in which democratic elections are won by the side with the more potent technological arsenal. A failure of algorithms can sink even the most sure-fire campaign. Politics is now driven by technology, and the 2016 election (if not the 2008 election) proved that those who wield it most effectively will find themselves with the levers of state power in their hands. To seek alliance with this rising power is elementary realpolitik.
In light of all this, we should not be surprised that the anti-elitist candidate has found powerful backers among the new elite. It is inevitable that Silicon Valley will increasingly flex its political muscle, and in Trump certain of its A-list have found a candidate who spoke of innovation the way they spoke of it themselves, who promised to stymie bureaucracy by cutting regulation, and who would serve as a useful vessel to enhance their own power and advance their own interests. This election served as a turning point, and expect political factions on both the right and the left to emerge from the tech world and and wade into the political arena in the coming years.