Are Tech Titans Really Changing Tune on Trump?

(Josh Peterson, Watchdog.org) America’s technology sector was but one of many corners of the country denouncing the Trump campaign during the election season. But with the changing of the guard comes a public shift in tone for industry leaders looking to maintain their economic and political influence during the new administration.

On Jan. 12, Amazon announced plans to create “100,000 full-time, full-benefits jobs in the U.S. over the next 18 months,” a decision for which the incoming administration was reportedly ready to claim credit.

Amazon’s expansion plans would grow the company’s “full-time U.S.-based workforce from 180,000 in 2016 to over 280,000 by mid-2018,” and likely have a ripple effect on the many small businesses that sell merchandise through the company’s marketplace.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO, stressed in the blog post that the company will continue to be guided by the same principles, such as innovation, that allowed it to succeed in the first place.

“These jobs are not just in our Seattle headquarters or in Silicon Valley — they’re in our customer service network, fulfillment centers and other facilities in local communities throughout the country,” said Bezos.

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Amazon’s news was part of a string of post-election tech company job-creation announcements. But as Politico noted before the New Year, many of the major companies looking to tie their fortunes to the new administration had already been planning to invest in the growth of their U.S. operations well before the election results were tallied.

The nation’s most valuable companies, such as Amazon and Apple, were among some of the Republican presidential candidate’s favorite punching bags during the campaign. Job losses to automation and outsourcing and the burgeoning artificial intelligence revolution are among the many issues that continue to fuel populist economic anxieties.

But in December, President-elect Donald Trump extended an olive branch as both sides were eager for some post-election face time and a public relations photo opportunity at his “tech summit” at Trump Tower in New York City.

“There’s nobody like the people in this room, and anything we can do to help this go along, we’re going to do that for you,” said Trump.

Bezos — who, in a congratulatory post-election tweet, promised to give Trump his “most open mind” — reportedly called the meeting “very productive,” being one of several tech industry heads to signal their desire to reconcile with Trump after the divisive campaign season.

By the numbers

The shift in tone might look opportunistic to culture warriors and pundits on the political left and right who myopically focus on how the socially liberal values of the tech industry have traditionally aligned with the Democratic Party.

The political press’ fascination with the technology sector for the past eight years, for example, largely spotlighted social media companies’ intimate relationship with the Obama administration. And the Silicon Valley elite overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton’s failed run at the top of the Democratic Party’s presidential ticket.

Yet, as the Internet industry came of age over the decade, it also simultaneously sought to curry favor with Republicans as the GOP won and maintained majorities in Congress.

Recent Federal Election Commission data shows Microsoft, Facebook, Alphabet (Google) and Amazon’s corporate political action committee donations for the 2016 cycle favored the Republican congressional majority over Democrats by a 40 percent margin — $2.1 million to $1.5 million.

The numbers are hardly surprising as the nation’s political and economic centers of gravity grapple for common ground with varying success. But to call tech support for Republicans a “right turn” by Silicon Valley, as the New York Times recently dubbed the donations, completely mischaracterizes the depth of financial support the Democratic Party consistently enjoys from the sector.

Of the $276,780,854 total contributions the industry made to political campaigns during the 2016 cycle, $127,616,659 went to Democrats while only $55,106,152 went to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets database. (The rest went to independent expenditures and electioneering communications and was not broken down by party.)

Not only have overall political contributions from the communications and electronics industry skewed heavily Democratic since the 1990s, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets database, in the past three presidential election cycles industry donations to Democrats have boomed, easily doubling that of industry contributions to Republican campaigns.

Narrow focus on the big four also overstates their Beltway influence, given that their PACs contributed to campaigns less than 11 percent of the $33.3 million that came from the industry’s PACs during the last cycle.

AT&T’s PACS, by comparison, contributed $4.4 million, 13.2 percent of the combined industry total. The company’s contributions have favored Republicans since at least 1996.

But political parties and ideologies aside, the nation’s political and economic leadership are finding ways to work together during the transition in support of the new administration’s pro-growth and job creation agenda. On the same day as Amazon’s announcement, Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson were both seen paying a visit to Trump Tower.

“Trump’s appointment of Dina Powell as Assistant to POTUS & Sr. Counselor is a brilliant & inspired choice. I’ve always been impressed by her,” tweeted Schmidt, a former Clinton campaign ally. Powell is a Goldman Sachs executive and former George W. Bush administration official who has repeatedly earned bipartisan praise.

Stephenson — whose own company is seeking to win Trump administration approval for a merger with Time-Warner Cable — spoke positively of Trump’s tax plan on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

“If you get this kind of tax reform, it would have significant implications to capital investment for a company like ours,” Stephenson said. “Yeah, we would probably step our capital investment up.”

Trump singled out the AT&T-Time Warner Cable deal on the campaign trail as an example of the “power structure” that he was fighting against, stating that his administration would block the merger.

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