Reid Hoffman's stand against Trump exposes the cowardice and hypocrisy of other tech moguls
In yesterday’s New York Times, financial reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin revealed that “with few exceptions,” almost all of the business titans he has interviewed over the past few months have been aggressively critical (“even derogatory”) of Donald Trump.
The piece is a must-read for two reasons.
First, as a profile in cowardice. Sorkin explains that after criticizing Trump every one of his subjects has quickly added ““I could never say that on the record.”
Almost as quickly, I ask why. The answer is almost universal: fear.
Fear of being targeted by Trump on Twitter. Fear of a mob of rabid Trump supporters showing up with pitchforks. And, yes, fear of a hypothetical President Trump getting revenge by passing legislation that will target their business interests.
That fear is well founded. As Evan Osnos reminds us in this week’s New Yorker, “During the campaign, [Trump] has accused Amazon of ‘getting away with murder tax-wise,’ and vowed, if he wins, ‘Oh, do they have problems.’”
But Sorkin’s piece is also a profile in courage. Specifically the courage of LinkedIn founder, Reid Hoffman, who has committed his time and money to oppose the racist, misogynist, Islamophobic bigot inexplicably chosen by the Republican party as their candidate for ruler of the free world.
In doing so, Hoffman joins Dustin Moskovitz as one of the vanishingly small number of Silicon Valley billionaires willing to put even a tuft of hair above the parapet and criticize Trump by name, rather than hiding behind innuendo and broad policy statements designed to keep the mob at bay.
Unlike many of his peers, Mr. Hoffman has taken to publicly denouncing Mr. Trump. Last week, he pledged to donate $5 million to a veterans’ group if Mr. Trump released his tax returns before the last presidential debate in October.
And now he has gone so far as to release a card game, “Trumped Up Cards: The World’s Biggest Deck” that pokes fun at Mr. Trump. The website that sells the game describes it as “a multiplayer card game where players need really big hands to win.”
The game, which is modeled after “Apples to Apples” or “Cards Against Humanity,” includes a free pass called, “Play the women card” and uses the tagline: “This is a game, democracy isn’t.” The box, in tiny print, says, “Made in China, just like Trump-branded ties, dress shirts, suits, cuff links, eyeglasses, pens, lamps, mirrors, salad bowls, body soap and teddy bears.”
Not that Hoffman was unaware of the risks of publicly attacking the most personally abusive presidential candidate in American history:
“People are fearful that, especially in a circumstance where he might be in a position of extreme power as a potential presidential candidate, that that would be used in a retaliatory way, that would be used in vengeful way,” Mr. Hoffman told me in an interview. “Everyone gets worried about being attacked, and part of the logic and mechanics of bullies is that they cause people to be fearful that they’ll be singled out and attacked.”
Mr. Hoffman continued: "It’s the same thing like on school grounds, when people won’t go help the kid who is being bullied because they’re worried that the bully will focus on them."
Two quick disclaimers before I continue. First I should point out, before the Trump trolls do, that Hoffman is a partner at Greylock which has a small investment in Pando. Of course, Trump supporter and well-documented asshole, Peter Thiel has a similar sized stake via Founders Fund. So let’s call that a draw.
Second, I know very little about Reid Hoffman, the human being. I’ve met him (I think) twice and he seemed perfectly charming, but one never knows with billionaires.
What I do know is that it speaks well of the otherwise mild-mannered Hoffman that he’s willing to risk a personal and business onslaught from Team Trump in order to do the right thing.
“I’ve had a whole bunch of [concerns] from people around me,” Mr. Hoffman said. “People who have legitimate concerns about, ‘Would LinkedIn become a target for Trump’s ire and attacks? Would he make Second Amendment jokes about your friends and family?’”
It also speaks loudly of the abject cowardice of almost every other Silicon Valley mogul that so few of Hoffman’s peers will publicly support his stance.
Cowardice and hypocrisy.
Cowardice, because many of Hoffman’s pals are richer than Trump, and perfectly well equipped, intellectually, psychologically, and finacially, to fend off the candidate’s attacks. The risks to a billionaire of standing up to Trump are a drop in the ocean compared to the risks to the American people if they elect a monster.
Hypocrisy, because what many of Hoffman’s peers in Silicon Valley say they’re worried about -- trolls, abuse, bullying, retribution for taking a stand -- is precisely what millions of Internet users -- particularly women, and members of minority groups -- fear every time they use Twitter or Facebook or any number of online services.
Compare: I’m frightened to express my views about Donald Trump lest he send a mob to threaten my family and destroy my livelihood.
Contrast: I’m frightened to express my views about [feminism/racism/bigotry/soup] on Twitter, lest it rile up a mob to threaten my family and destroy my livelihood.
The Zuckerbergs and Dorseys of the world couldn’t possibly make a public statement criticizing Trump by name lest they become victims of abuse, but they’re perfectly happy to force their users -- the folks that made them billionaires -- to live that same nightmare every day by repeatedly failing to prevent bullies dominating platforms like Twitter and Facebook. (It’s either ironic, or fitting, that one of the few social networks where bullying isn’t a significant problem is LinkedIn.)
Hoffman tells Sorkin that he still hopes that some of his friends on both sides of the aisle will do the right thing.
"I’m hopeful maybe in the next week or two I might be able to persuade a couple of them, but thus far all of my requests to my friends for public quotes have been demurred — maybe out of fear of retaliation."
Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps they’ll realize that, whether Trump wins or loses, history judges harshly anyone who stays silent during the rise of a tyrant. Especially when they do so to protect their own wealth and power.
But based on past performance, it seems unlikely that many tech titans will -- in the parlance of Silicon Valley -- grow a pair. For all their love of military jargon and blather about chewing broken glass and bleeding for their companies, most Valley disruptors and “risk-takers” balk when it comes actual physical or moral bravery.
So perhaps at least Hoffman’s chickenshit chums will take this as a teachable moment. A moment to reflect how that feeling of terror -- that Trump will send his Twitter hate mob after you for daring to tell the truth -- is very often how it feels to Tweet while female, or black, or gay, or any number of other demographic groups abandoning social media in droves thanks to your unwillingness to fight bullying.
It’s not nice feeling, is it?