Withdrawal and its Discontents

3 February 2017

On 2 February, Elon Musk, the CEO of American car manufacturer Tesla, tweeted in defence of his decision to remain on Donald Trump’s advisory council. That same day, Travis Kalanick, the chief executive of Uber announced he was stepping down from that same council.

As a result of their presence on Trump’s advisory board, both Musk and Kalanick have been subject to a barrage of public disapproval, ardently voiced across social media. Yet ridding a council of third-party advisors, those who potentially hold views that conflict with those of the president and who, in theory, have the potential to inspire an alternative point of view, is thorny territory.

Donald Trump’s announcement of an executive order that bans citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US for a period of 90 days, and those fleeing from war-torn Syria indefinitely, sparked outrage across the world. Here was proof that Trump’s racist promises proclaimed throughout his election campaign were not empty threats. As a result, protests have been held across the world and public-facing brands have been quick to disassociate themselves from the US president. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings described Trump’s actions as “so un-American it pains us all,” while Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, said that the US should “keep our doors open to refugees”.

On 28 January, in response to the executive order issued by Trump, New York taxi drivers staged a one-hour strike at JFK airport, the destination of a well-attended protest against the order. Uber however defiantly continued its service. This, coupled with Kalanick’s disputed presence on Trump’s advisory panel, sparked a social media campaign that resulted in the hashtag #DeleteUber trending on both Twitter and Facebook. It is estimated that more than 200,000 customers deleted their Uber accounts as a result of the campaign and although Uber itself has not confirmed this figure, demand was enough for the company to implement an automated deletion process. Uber's decision to continue its service in the midst of a politically important strike was fundamentally wrong and a move that, somewhat transparently, was motivated by greed. The public pressure placed upon Kalanick to quit Trump's advisory board, is however more problematic.

It is worth noting that Kalanick’s departure from the board wasn’t without a fight. In a statement released on the company’s website, Kalanick speaks out against the travel ban stating it will "impact many innocent people." However, perhaps more significantly, in the same statement Kalanick argues that the opportunities presented by having a platform to directly voice his criticisms of Trump's policies is a valid reason to remain on the board. “I’ve always believed in principled confrontation and just change; and have never shied away (maybe to my detriment) from fighting for what’s right,” he writes. Musk’s reasoning echoes Kalanick’s. “Advisory councils simply provide advice and attending does not mean that I agree with the actions by the Administration,” he writes. In the same tweet, Musk voices his intention to express his objections to the executive order as well as offering suggestions for changes to the policy.

Demonising every person or brand associated with Trump risks eradicating multiplicity in the voices with the power and platform to influence change. Association with Trump's administration is toxic and ought to be entered into carefully, but it is worth remembering that had Kalanick remained on the advisory board, there would be one more voice to potentially oppose and speak out against Trump’s pursuit of racist, sexist and vitriolic policies.