Feb 13, 2017 · 8 minutes

In the beginning there was an astounding lack of courage for an industry that pretends it’s full of reckless contrarian mavericks above the law.

Everyone from well known liberals like Sheryl Sandberg and Eric Schmidt to guys who laugh in the face of Wall Street like Jeff Bezos all went to meet with the then only President Elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower, sitting meekly behind their Trump waters. He wasn’t even the President yet. They weren’t summoned to the White House. And his kids were in the meeting.

They looked mopey. But they were there.

Elon Musk-- supposedly the inspiration for the movie version of Tony Stark and who has devoted his life and fortune to combating the dangers of climate change-- joined Trump’s advisory team. Travis Kalanick-- a man who built his company and image as the poster child for libertarian DISRUPTION! tucked his tail in between his legs and joined it as well.

Even the very outspoken Box CEO Aaron Levie and the very outspoken Mark Cuban said we needed to give the new president a chance.

All of those “Trump is an idiot” Tweets from the campaign, the jokes, the “I’m with her!” seflies in the profile pics, the comments about Trump’s foolishness and dangerousness were gone, gone, gone. Some companies -- I'm looking at you, Intel -- were even willing to give Trump credit for a factory he had nothing to do with.

All in the name of fiduciary duty, an amorphous concept about which Autodesk outgoing CEO Carl Bass said “‘Fiduciary duty’ is the thing you say when you’ve run out of other excuses.”

The excuses for meeting Trump were both universal and specific. Bezos wanted to know if Trump could help Amazon get into China. Facebook and Google which own 85% of digital advertising and show no sign of satiety-- presumably-- doesn’t want to be anti-trusted. Ditto: Amazon which controls an astounding 45% of ecommerce in the US.

Meanwhile, Uber has regulatory fights going on throughout the country at state and municipal levels. They range from employee classification to fingerprinting drivers to whether or not they can put their “self-driving cars” (with humans behind the wheel) on various city streets. There are roughly $70 billion ways Uber can be fucked with when it comes to the government.

Elon Musk has fewer ways he can be fucked with, but those he does have are more existential. Tesla is fighting state-by-state regulations when it comes to dealerships and how its cars can be sold. SolarCity faces a powerful utilities lobbying group that gives it a price disadvantage in the market. And SpaceX sells primarily to NASA. Someone’s gotta fund that trip to Mars. Trump is well aware it could be his “Kennedy moment.” He needs something to inspire…. To distract from the dog fight in his administration, the polls showing Americans are 50-50% on whether he should be impeached a few weeks in, the protests, and the Grammys, SNL, and every celebrity on earth openly mocking him. (Oscar speeches are next!)

And as we’ve already written: Tim Cook of Apple was the most vulnerable. His tenure as Steve Jobs’ successor hasn’t had the best reviews-- nor have the products that have emerged out of it. And he makes devices in China. Again, from Carl Bass: “He is incredibly vulnerable because the question is so literal. Are you going to make these in the US? No one understands where Facebook’s servers are, but the question of ‘Where do you make these iPhones?’ is something Trump can turn into something.”

But those are the specifics. And those make sense. Some of those are very real concerns, and you can debate what a CEO’s duty is in each case. I’m personally more sympathetic with some than others.

But beyond each of these individual cases, here is what surprised me about tech’s initial reaction to Trump: The fear. People we have come to view as invincible by global business standards were absolutely terrified of the retribution and the irascibility of Donald Trump.

Forget actions. They couldn’t even muster words when Trump went after causes they’d devoted their lives and fortunes to fixing. It took the risk of an employee revolt to muster words. Even tepid condemnation about policies, let alone the man himself.

Mark Zuckerberg has previously donated $100 million of his own money to start an organization to support for undocumented immigrants. Dead silent. Sheryl Sandberg has build her brand on women linking arms and deserving equal rights. Not a word said about Trump or the Women’s March until goaded into it. Musk-- who has openly called out reporters who got a single fact wrong about Tesla-- dead silent on all of Trump’s climate change denial.

Who have Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk ever kowtowed to? Ever? Who have they ever pushed their core beliefs aside to appease?

This is fear I have never seen from these particular people. Fear I didn’t actually know they could feel. After all, long time friend Jason Calacanis once explained Musk’s outrageous bets and business gambles by explaining he didn’t have “the fear chip” in his brain. At our PandoMonthly, Musk told a story of wrecking his sports car on 280 after the ill-considered words “Watch this!”

Fear chip: Activated.

The only reason these people found even words was the Muslim Ban threatened the freedom of many of their employees and the foundations of Silicon Valley, and their own employees threatened to revolt if they didn’t.

As if thawing Han Solo-style out of carbonite, they have slowly started to take a stand. Words first. Then donations to Planned Parenthood and matching grants to the ACLU. But that wasn’t quite enough: Employees wanted to see actions.

Bezos acted first in supporting the suit against Trump’s executive order.

Airbnb offered free housing to those impacted by the ban and produced an in-your-face-Trump Super Bowl ad (which it crowed about in the press and on social media ICYMI…). Indeed, Brian Chesky is the only one who didn’t go to the original meeting or join any advisory boards.

Kalanick got backed into a no-win situation where he dug in his heels, then quit Trump’s advisory board after the #DeleteUber movement.

Google’s Sergey Brin joined the SFO protests and the walk out on Google’s campus.

Craving safety in numbers more than 100 tech companies filed an Amicus brief backing an overturn of the travel ban. (The only stance I’m aware of that Musk has taken against Trump, and Tesla was added long after the initial press announcements.)

They had to be pushed, shoved uncomfortably to this place of doing a modicum of the right thing. These are idealists, or they once were. How great was this fear?

And….a funny thing has happened: So far, Trump hasn’t retaliated. Pretty much industry wide.

This during a period when he hung up on the Prime Minister of Australia.

When he told the Ninth Circuit judges he’d “SEE [THEM] IN COURT!” which is like yelling at Trolls you’ll SEE THEM UNDER THE BRIDGE! “Uh, ok, we’ll charge you another toll then…”

During this period he also took time out of his national security briefing to rage-Tweet at Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s line of products.

And he lost his shit when a woman played his press secretary on SNL.

This wasn’t a particularly balanced week for him.

The closest we’ve come to any retaliation is a reported story that he was pissed at Kalanick. But no Tweets. No attempts to tank stocks. No Boeing moments. No Nordstrom moments. Silence. Silence from a man who shows absolutely no discipline. He made more threats about tech during the campaign.

What is going on?

There are a few possibilities.

  • These people were irrationally afraid. Trump needs them. For their capital, their job creation, their American dream story, their platforms, their sheer cash that the GOP would love to have during election time. If you want to get really conspiracy theorist about it: The federal government needs tech, because it wants all of our data.
  • There is some pretty convincing “Oh they don’t mean it...:” mollifying Trump behind the scenes. Somehow he thinks tech is still his ally in this.
  • He simply hasn’t done it yet… for some reason. But it’s coming.

Either way, it should embolden CEOs who have hid behind fiduciary duty out of fear of an unhinged response. So far those in tech acting against Trump haven’t gotten it. Employees who were so furious a few weeks ago, should push their CEOs to go even further the next time Trump wants something from tech or does something unhinged. (In five, four, three…)

Tech may have far more leverage than it thought. More than Federal Judges seem to have in Trump’s head. Tech can be the hero. Tech can redeem itself from a greedy bro age of surge pricing, contract labor, and runaway valuations.

Tech can lead again when it comes to values.

This is also good news, because all of these companies are global. They employ people outside of the United States, they rely on those markets for their massive reach and valuations. They don’t want to be perceived as a lackey to such a globally unpopular and mistrusted President. They don’t want to set any precedent of fear in reaction to government. Any sense that they are willing to cave on user promises in the name of security and safety of the US would be disastrous for freedom, privacy and… yes even their own fiduciary duty.