PALO ALTO, Calif. >> After years of scorning the political process, Silicon Valley has leapt into the fray. The prospect of a President Donald Trump is pushing the tech community to move beyond its traditional role as donors and to embrace a new existence as agitators and activists.
A distinguished venture capital firm emblazoned on its corporate home page an earthy anti-Trump epithet. One prominent tech chieftain says the consequences of Trump’s election would “range between disastrous and terrible.” Another compares him to a dictator. And nearly 150 tech leaders signed an open letter decrying Trump and his campaign of “anger” and “bigotry.”
Not quite all the action is anti-Trump. Peter Thiel, a founder of PayPal and Palantir who was the first outside investor in Facebook, spoke at the Republican convention in July. The New York Times reported Saturday that Thiel is giving $1.25 million to support Trump’s candidacy even as other supporters flee. (He also recently gave $1 million to a super PAC that supports Sen. Rob Portman, the Republican freshman running for re-election in Ohio.)
Getting involved in politics used to be seen as clashing with Silicon Valley’s value system: You transform the world by making problems obsolete, not solving them through Washington. Nor did entrepreneurs want to alienate whatever segment of customers did not agree with them politically.
Such reticence is no longer in style here.
“We’re a bunch of nerds not used to having a lot of limelight,” said Dave McClure, an investor who runs a tech incubator called 500 Startups. “But to quote Spider-Man, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’”
McClure grew worried after the Republican and Democratic conventions as Trump began to catch up to Hillary Clinton in the polls. He wanted Silicon Valley to do more, and so late last month he announced Nerdz4Hillary, an informal fundraising effort.
An initial group of donors pledged $50,000; the goal was to ask the “nerdz” for small donations to match that sum. They have not come through yet. “We’re kind of optimistic we’ll get the other $50,000 in a few weeks,” McClure said.
That relatively slow pace reflects Silicon Valley’s shifting position: Even as it becomes increasingly free with its opinions, it has been less free with its checkbook. The most recent data, from late August, shows Clinton taking in $7.7 million from the tech community, according to Crowdpac, a startup that tracks donations. By that point in 2012, Crowdpac says, President Barack Obama had raised $21 million from entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.
Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder of the business networking site LinkedIn, offers a snapshot of Silicon Valley’s evolving approach to politics.
Hoffman was a top Obama donor, giving $1 million to the Priorities USA political action committee, something several of his peers did as well. Last month, Hoffman garnered worldwide publicity for saying he would donate up to $5 million to veterans’ groups if Trump released his taxes, a remote possibility that never came to pass. He has castigated Trump in interviews, saying he was speaking for those who were afraid.
Hoffman’s outright donations, however, have been smaller this election cycle. In May, he gave $400,000 to the Hillary Victory Fund. Asked if there was more recent giving that had not shown up in federal election records, Hoffman cryptically responded in an email, “Looking at some PACs, etc.” He declined several opportunities to elaborate.
Even as Priorities USA has raised $133 million this election cycle, far exceeding its total in 2012, its tech contributions have dwindled. The only familiar tech name this time around is John Doerr of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, who gave $500,000.
AOL co-founder Steve Case said his September endorsement of Clinton, via an op-ed in The Washington Post, was the first time he ever publicly declared for a candidate. “I always focused on policy and avoided politics,” he said. “But if Trump were elected president, I would be disappointed in myself for not acting.”
He was less certain about donating money to Clinton, saying it was “probable” but “not certain.”
Mason Harrison, Crowdpac’s head of communications, explained the gap. “Donors give to support candidates they love, not to defeat candidates they fear,” he said.
A few billionaires are taking the opposite approach, acting instead of talking. Dustin Moskovitz, a founder of Facebook, said he was giving $20 million to various Democratic election efforts — the first time he and his wife, Cari Tuna, have endorsed a candidate. He declined to be interviewed.
Part of the problem for Clinton is that, however preferable she may be to Trump in the tech community, she pales in comparison to Obama. After some initial misgivings, Silicon Valley found its champion in him. There has been a revolving door between tech and the Obama administration, just as previous Democratic administrations had a revolving door with Wall Street. In June, Obama seemed to suggest that he might become a venture capitalist after his term ends.
Clinton is not as enthusiastic toward Silicon Valley and its disruptive ways. In a speech in the summer of 2015, she noted that startups in the “on-demand or so-called gig economy” — Uber, Airbnb and their ilk — were “unleashing innovation” but also “raising hard questions about workplace protection and what a good job will look like in the future.”
The Clinton campaign declined to comment. The Trump campaign did not respond to a query.
Perhaps being vocal is a temporary condition after all. The venture firm CRV was in the spotlight at the end of August with its blunt anti-Trump message, which included the earthy epithet. A few weeks later, it cleaned up its website. The partners went from employing a publicist, to seek out attention, to declining interviews.
“We reached everyone we wanted to reach, and hopefully influenced opinions,” said Saar Gur, a CRV venture capitalist. “Then the buzz died down and we went back to our day jobs, which are super busy.”