Hamilton, Burr, Tech, and Trump

on March 9, 2017

On Wednesday, Disney CEO Bob Iger was asked at the Disney shareholders meeting why he was participating in one of President Trump’s advisory councils. He responded with a quote from the musical “Hamilton” saying, “He wanted to be “in the room where it happens” — as important decisions were being made and influenced. I thought about this quote and it struck me there are quite a few one-liners from Hamilton applicable to the conundrum facing the leaders of large tech and other companies in how they deal with the Trump administration.

The World turned Upside Down

Under the Obama administration, tech companies and their leaders occupied privileged positions. As advisors and even members of the administration, with a fairly free flow of personnel between Silicon Valley and the White House, and lots of other, mostly positive, interactions. However, during the presidential campaign last year, it became clear this relationship would be very different should Trump win. He singled out Amazon and Apple in particular for criticism and suggested he would exert pressure on both as president. In many cases, tech leaders have gone from being the smartest in the room to being on the outside.

In the Room where It Happens

No wonder CEOs like Bob Iger have tried to seize what opportunities they’ve had to interact with the administration and try to exert influence. Elon Musk has officially explained his cooperation with the administration in similar ways. Meanwhile, Travis Kalanick was attacked for his presence on one of the president’s advisory councils until he finally stepped down, having initially made the same argument.

Talk Less, Smile More

The line about being “in the room where it happens” belongs to Aaron Burr, the villain of Hamilton, whose defining characteristic is refusing to take or state a position on any issue for fear of backing the wrong horse. He argues Hamilton should “talk less, smile more”, a policy exhibited by a number of prominent tech CEOs at a meeting with Donald Trump late last year (grimacing was perhaps a better description for some of the faces on display). At that early stage, it felt as if these leaders of industry had been cowed into submission, fearful of speaking up and angering the administration. Yet, these executives have important agendas to push with any administration, including regulatory reform, repatriation of overseas cash, and immigration for skilled workers.

The Same Rights as You and I

The tipping point for engagement with the administration seems to have come with the executive orders on immigration signed in late January, which led to protests in airports and calls to boycott businesses which seemed to be going along with the policy (notably Uber). Though some of the early statements from tech companies focused on the direct impact on their businesses from restrictions on immigration, those quickly spread to moral condemnations of the limits on refugees entering the country and other elements of the policy. It seemed the tech companies had suddenly found a voice which had been lacking in the early weeks of the new administration and they were using it forcefully. Several joined lawsuits against the orders, which were successful in halting the ban on immigration, at least temporarily.

History has Its Eyes on You

The big tech companies seem to be more concerned now with angering their employees, and at least some of their customers, than with angering the administration. They’ve continued to weigh in on subsequent policies such as access to bathrooms in schools for transgender students. But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s an open question whether these companies have a duty to represent first and foremost their shareholders, their employees, their customers, or a set of values independent of any of those individual groups. We’ve already seen the backlash against companies like Starbucks for promising to hire refugees, for example. Both today’s customer and history will judge these companies and their leaders for their actions but it’s far from clear all customers feel the same way about these issues – indeed, polls have suggested a majority were in favor of the executive orders on immigration.

Do You Know how Hard It is to Lead?

In this context, it must be very tempting to follow Aaron Burr’s advice and keep quiet on the major issues of the day, given that any strong views expressed on these controversial subjects are likely to alienate at least some customers (and, potentially, employees too). And yet, many people in Silicon Valley and beyond are looking to these companies for leadership – tech companies have been among the most outspoken on the administration’s policies, in part as a reflection of the relatively liberal workforces they employ. Do these companies want to lead on these and other issues over the next four years? Do they want to face the consequences?

This is not a Moment

The back-and-forth between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, as portrayed in the musical, mirrors what must be the internal discussion happening at a lot of tech companies. Hamilton, of course, ultimately wins out in terms of position and prestige but is ultimately (historical spoiler alert) killed by Burr, so the outcome there was mixed to say the least. It may well be he same for tech companies as they continue to work through how to engage with an administration that continues to exert a lot of power over their fate. And, of course, this isn’t just a moment in time – this relationship is going to continue to play out throughout the course of this administration.