Trump and Silicon Valley: An Unbridgeable Gulf?

header-hoover-institution-fellows1-1By Bill Whalen

Although he’s an inveterate New Yorker, Donald Trump is no stranger to California.

His property holdings in the Golden State include a 52-story skyscraper in downtown San Francisco and a golf club south of Los Angeles — L.A. being the locale of the television wing of Trump’s business empire.

Politically, Trump won big in California’s June presidential primary. However, Santa Clara County and Silicon Valley, the tech-rich expanse running north from San Jose through Stanford University’s campus, proved a reluctant dance partner.

And as far as November goes: no interest in dancing at all.

In fairness, Trump isn’t the first Republican to struggle in the land of seven-figure two-bedroom cottages. Mitt Romney received only 27 percent of the countywide vote in November 2012. George W. Bush never cracked 35 percent in his two presidential runs (this author ate well in 2000, earning free lunches from local moderate Republicans who mistakenly wagered that a born-again conservative Texas governor could be pro-choice because, well, his mother probably was pro-choice).

In the June 7 Republican primary, Trump got 62.9 percent Santa Clara County’s vote. That’s 12 points below his statewide average – not to mention 11 points below what Romney earned in June 2012. Another way to look at Trump’s Silicon Valley numbers: 37 percent of the vote went to four Republicans who’d been out of the race a month or longer.

Besides recent electoral history, Trump has a bigger problem in this Northern California wealth concentration: the disdain he’s inspired among some of Silicon Valley’s more prominent members, corporate leaders who sport progressive outlooks and moderate temperaments.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has laced into Trump (though not by name) for perceived fear-mongering. Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape (he surprised Silicon Valley by going with Romney in 2012), regularly ridicules Trump via Twitter. Apple’s Tim Cook has his own approach: He’s agreed to raise money for House Speaker Paul Ryan; his company won’t provide financial or tech support for Trump’s big show in Cleveland.

Add it up and Trump, as far as Silicon Valley goes, looks a lot like Matt Damon trudging across a Martian valley—a stranger in a most inhospitable land. So why the Trump disconnect? Here are three possibilities:

The Policy Gap. Let’s begin with the obvious: the Trump brand as it relates to immigration, trade and comity. Trump says he wants to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall, ban Muslims from entering the U.S., and engage in tariff wars with China. He punctuates these positions with unfortunate rhetorical flourishes such as impugning the loyalty and honesty of entire segments of second-generation Americans—for example, the Indiana-born “Mexican” judge.

It’s hard to imagine a worse trifecta for appealing to a Silicon Valley that: (a) sees immigrants as entrepreneurs, not interlopers, (b) has an economy highly reliant upon Washington’s relationship with Pacific Rim trading partners, and (c) prides itself on the ability to adapt to emerging challenges such as the U.K. “Brexit” vote.

The Style Gap. It’s not that Trump’s unpopular because he has an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School – a blood rival for Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Rather, it’s more about presentation.

In an age in which tech hipsters have done to the necktie industry what JFK did to hatmakers, Trump still dresses like it’s the ’80s – dark suits and power ties. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley’s dress code barely qualifies as corporate casual – last Friday, Zuckerberg attended a Stanford panel discussion with President Obama rocking a T-shirt and jeans.

About that panel: It also included entrepreneurs from Egypt, Peru and Rwanda listening intently as Obama offered generalities about the virtues of an interconnected world. After many visits to California, Obama has mastered the art of talking about something and nothing at the same time.

What are the odds of Trump pulling off the same jacket-off, feel-good, nerd-cool presentation?

The Business Gap. As his Twitter feed can attest, Trump’s no stranger to technology. But his business empire? That’s a different story. Silicon Valley’s landscape is notable for its lack of towering temples of glass steel. A lack of luxury hotels is a long-running complaint among locals.

As for golf courses and five-star resorts, that would be Pebble Beach and the Monterey Peninsula – a two-hour drive from the Facebook campus in Menlo Park and the Googleplex in nearby Mountain View.

In other words, Trump’s rise to fame doesn’t stand on the shoulders of circuits, chips and semiconductors. His business pursuits don’t tie into larger social causes, such as improving schools and strengthening cultural ties. He boasts about making deals, not remaking the world.

This isn’t to suggest that all other politicians are a natural Silicon Valley fit. Rather, it’s that some have learned to play by Valley rules. Before his failed presidential bid, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush made inroads by talking a good game about immigration and education and the start-up culture. Obama, based on his personal looks and political outlook, could easily be mistaken for a Sand Hill Road venture capitalist.

But not Trump – not unless he adapts his more outlandish ideas. Or comes to Northern California and extends an olive branch. Of course, by then Silicon Valley may have built a wall of its own – to keep him out.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow who follows California and national politics. He can be reached at

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