Tech CEOs Played Themselves by Associating With Trump

The ultimate celebrity-businessman is causing problems for a new breed.

Getty Images / Drew Angerer

Before he even took office, President Donald Trump summoned some of the most well-known and influential technology company CEOs for a meeting at Trump Tower; those in attendance included billionaire CEOs such as Tesla’s Elon Musk, Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Google Co-Founder Larry Page. The executives, who were there as members of Trump’s Economic Advisory Council, flanked the smiling president-elect in the many photographs that came out of the event. It was a closed-door conversation, and the press were not allowed in the room or meaningfully briefed on what was said. But the image-conscious Trump emerged with a minor PR coup, as he sat photographed in a boardroom flanked by the titans of the free market, implicit in the moment that they all supported his agenda.

That union, always awkward, would be short-lived. Trump, who promised to run government like a business, has quickly enacted policies that have caused considerable headaches for some of the best-known businessmen in the country. And it’s been especially pronounced for leaders of the tech sector, who are not used to such criticism.

It began less than a week after he took office: Trump signed an order that prohibited people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. Spontaneous protests over the so-called “Muslim Ban” erupted at airports across the country. “We got water, we got granola bars, we got democratic rage, whatever,” shouted a protester at LAX. In New York City, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance stopped service to and from JFK. Uber not only kept its drivers working, but removed surge pricing, too. Protesters interpreted the action, which CEO Travis Kalanick later claimed was to help activists move bodies, as strike-breaking. The #DeleteUber campaign began on Twitter and spread like wildfire. The company reportedly lost 200,000 customers because of it.

Four days later, Kalanick very publicly announced his resignation from Trump’s Economic Council. That began the unraveling of what was always a tenuous partnership between celebrity-businessman-president and a new generation of well-known chief executives, who are feeling real heat for the first time.

“Trump produces a very personified economy, and therefore it’s easier for people to think that, Well the guy from Uber has agreed to serve on Trump’s board of advisors,” Lawrence Glickman, a professor of history at Cornell and author of Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America, tells Inverse. “It was amazing how quickly that boycott spread, and it was obviously very effective because he tried to back down from being seen or depicted as a Trump supporter.”

That CEOs would be punished for associating with Trump is a great irony, given that the president helped pioneer the era of the modern celebrity-businessman.

CEOs have long been subjects of national fascination, and after a period of largely faceless corporate post-war growth, they began to become admired celebrities in the 1980s. The conservative Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973, became a powerful voice in national policy when it guided President Ronald Reagan’s transition into office; Reagan spent his two terms largely deregulating industries and decrying government interference in the market. Jack Welch took over as CEO of General Electric in 1981 and earned the reputation of a management guru, growing profits while mercilessly slashing the company’s workforce. In 1982, Forbes magazine introduced the “Forbes 400,” an annual list venerating the richest Americans. After the economic malaise of the late 70s, these business leaders were heralded as heroes.

“In the 80s there were deep structural changes going on in American corporate governance and finance, basically the end of a major phase of managerial corporate capitalism,” Eric Guthey, a professor at Copenhagen Business School and co-author of Demystifying Business Celebrity, tells Inverse. “This got dramatized in the media, [with depictions of] by the corporate takeover artists and the likes of Ted Turner. It made for better copy, and probably contributed to the new era of celebrity business figures.”

Trump, who took over control of his family’s real estate business, was the flashiest of all these celebrity CEOs, and made for the best copy. His name and notoriety often outstripped his actual business success, especially during the ‘90s. By design, he became a walking headline, often providing the copy to New York tabloids himself. His golden tower on Fifth Avenue played into the era’s aesthetic, documented with reverence by Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Trump embodied a new strategy that began in that era: selling products — and capitalism — by selling personalities.

“There’s been a lot more business celebration in our culture, certainly since the age of Reagan,” says Glickman. “Business leaders have been much more popular than political leaders for a long time.”

The tech sector’s original celebrity CEO, Bill Gates, was the opposite of Trump, a bookish genius who got rich by pioneering personal computers, not public monuments. His friend Steve Jobs was much flashier and set the standard for the current batch of tech leaders: public speakers selling the future, as well as their own genius.

The CEOs who joined Trump’s economic forum do not stick their names on buildings or flaunt their (considerably greater) fortunes, but all still enjoy some level of fame. While Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t at the CEO council — COO Sheryl Sandberg was at the table — he’s arguably the most famous. With his electric car company Tesla and aerospace company SpaceX, Elon Musk has become a quasi-oracle of future technology. Bezos constructed a retail and cloud computing empire that bullies its way into new industries each year. Page shares responsibility for the biggest web network of all-time. Cook, like his Apple predecessor Steve Jobs, emerges from the shadows to show off the new and improved iPhone. Their public statements and pronouncements have been treated with seriousness and reverence. Naturally, their responses to Trump have made headlines.

“This is definitely new territory for tech CEOs, who until now have generally been able to enjoy the halo of Silicon Valley’s story: Smart, interesting people creating cool, new, interesting companies and lots of wealth,” Peter Kafka, who covers the industry at Recode, tells Inverse. “With a few small exceptions (ones regular people don’t often see), big brand name tech companies usually generate positive coverage, whether it’s around ‘gee-whiz’ stuff they’re making, or all the money they make making that stuff.”

Before the age of Trump, tech executives had largely been able to avoid the populist backlash that has consumed politics — or at least political rhetoric — throughout the last decade. The financial crisis of 2008 turned public perception against Wall Street, creating a visceral anger at those responsible for the economic chaos, especially after they went unprosecuted in the years to follow; the Occupy movement, Bernie Sanders campaign, and even Trump’s neo-populist rhetoric took advantage of the anger directed at bankers and so-called “Wall Street types.”

It’s not as if Silicon Valley has remained scandal-free. Uber has been sued over and over for its treatment and classification of workers; Apple products are made in Chinese Foxconn factories filled with overworked, sometimes-suicidal employees; Airbnb has been accused of allowing discrimination against customers and helping to gentrify neighborhoods.

But for the most part, they have weathered those storms. It has helped that the tech sector has long projected a vaguely progressive image; leaders choose jeans over suits, companies make sure to publicize diversity initiatives, and support LGBT rights. Plus, marketing progress is largely the opposite of shouting “Make America Great Again.”

But when name-brand tech executives began paying visits to Trump Tower — with some donating to his inauguration — they became targets.

“What’s happening now is they’re no longer on a pedestal, and they’re being seen as having a relationship to this very divisive presidency, Glickman says. “They can no longer claim to not have a political stake in the status quo. People are being asked to take sides.”

After feeling post-election pressure, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would move to filter out the “fake news” that many suggested distorted public opinion during the election. Then Trump’s orders limiting immigration from seven majority-Muslim nations provided a broader flashpoint, and tech CEOs were forced to quickly act to stave off the wrath of the free market.

After some Tesla customers said they canceled their orders, Musk tweeted several times about the need for “moderates” to advise Trump. The GrabYourWallet campaign, which has targeted companies that sell Trump-branded items, has trained its fire on Amazon; the company has also had to address employees who wanted the company to stop advertising on Breitbart, the white supremacist news website formerly run by Steve Bannon, now Trump’s chief strategist. Airbnb made the last-minute decision to dust off and tweak an old commercial emphasizing its newfound commitment to diversity and aired it during the Super Bowl. Suddenly, they have to appear as if they oppose a man who, in image if not substance, embodies modern American capitalism.

“The idea that their brands and companies are suddenly under attack for associations with Trump is hard thing for them to get their heads around,” Kafka says. “I think that’s true for bigger companies as well, which is why you see people like Disney CEO Bob Iger passing on last week’s event [with Trump]. I realize Disney said there was a schedule conflict, but my hunch is that in under different circumstances/presidents, Iger would have found a way to make it.”

Since, many tech companies have joined an amicus brief against Trump’s travel ban, a way to further distance themselves from him (and protect access to a decent chunk of their labor force).

Though no one has developed a catchphrase as blunt or well-known as “You’re Fired,” tech CEOs have engaged in their own version of the reality show. Silicon Valley’s biggest names thrive under bright lights of packed auditoriums, wearing wireless microphone headsets and commanding the stage, making pronouncements and predictions about the future. The TED Talk is the tech version of The Apprentice, with slightly more intellectual cred.

“Thought leadership” is now a booming business, and allowed executives to become digital prophets. They’ve taken to the spotlight, which has now made it easier for activists to put them in the crosshairs.

“This is a perennial phenomenon that we may see again soon. People eventually get tired of the Men in Black, the hotshots and hucksters,” Guthey says. “Then corporate PR machines and the media usher in the Men in Brown — schlubby CEOs who seem boring and harmless. Don’t be fooled, this is just part of the narrative cycle, and they are celebrities just the same — celebrated for their bland demeanor and bad fashion choices.

It seems unlikely that any of the executives would step down from their company leadership roles, as long as boycotts don’t eat too deeply into their bottom lines. But their behavior just may adjust to meet the concerns of the backlash. Zuckerberg has announced he will visit all 50 states this year to meet average Americans, while Bezos has sworn off getting involved in electoral politics. And so, while the executive switchover that Guthey described may not happen in tech, the industry’s CEOs look like they’re assuming some humility to adapt to the new disruption.

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