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The backlash to Donald Trump's executive order on immigration, which placed major restrictions on immigrants and refugees from seven countries, was quick and fierce. This despite the fact that the seven countries were not selected by Trump but were considered areas of national security concern by the Obama administration.
For some in the public, what they heard was that the order was a ban on Muslims [even though the order never mentions that], and they drowned out any possibility that it might help tighten up potential loopholes in the vetting system.
People are angry. And they aren't just turning their fire onto Trump; they are taking aim at anyone who is even perceived to be supporting his actions. It's not enough for anyone to stay silent, or to offer tepid rebukes. The criticism has to be unambiguous and crystal clear. Either you're with Trump or you're against him.
Given that kind of charged atmosphere, it's not surprising that Elon Musk and Travis Kalanick have taken a significant amount of heat, since both of them are actually part of the Trump administration, having joined the Strategic and Policy Forum in December.
Their role in the administration is not to set any policy, but to give the President their views on how his policies will impact the private sector in terms of economic growth, job creation and productivity. Yet, they are becoming inextricably tied to what Trump does, whether that's fair or not.
This kind of black and white, us versus them, thinking is harmful for the country and, especially, for people who oppose Trump, who are giving up their chance to potentially have representatives who could challenge the President, or at least give him advice he normally wouldn't receive.
Instead, they are potentially isolating themselves even further from the spheres of influence, and from Trump’s ear.
The backlash against Musk and Kalanick
The response from the tech world to Trump's immigration policy was uniformly negative, including from Kalanick and Musk. While neither said they actually approved of the ban, though, both of them offered more measured responses than their peers. That simply wouldn't do for a lot of people.
In an email to his employees, posted on Facebook, Kalanick stopped short of denouncing Trump's executive order altogether, instead simply saying it was ok to disagree with him. Musk, meanwhile, called the order "not the best way to address the country’s challenges."
Uber initially took the brunt of the ire, especially when the company lowered surge pricing to JFK airport, a move that was seen as undermining striking cabdrivers. That same night, #DeleteUber began to trend on social media.
While Kalanick again took to Facebook, this time with stronger language, calling the ban "unjust," while also detailing more concrete measures to help drivers, it wasn't enough to stem the tide of the boycott. So, he quit the Forum.
"Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the President or his agenda, but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that,” he wrote in a memo obtained by Recode. “There are many ways we will continue to advocate for just change on immigration but staying on the council was going to get in the way of that.”
Kalanick seemed to provide some cover for Musk, at least at first, but now the guns have come out for him as well. A report from Buzzfeed identified multiple people who have canceled their Tesla orders in response to his continued presence in Trump's White House.
“While I would like to help fund technological progress to fight climate change, as an LGBT American, raw survival is now the main concern,” one customer told BuzzFeed News. “Learning of Elon Musk’s relationship with Trump was the decisive factor for me.”
Musk's voice matters
That people were disappointed in these two figures for seeming to cow to pressure from above is somewhat understandable, but it misses the bigger picture.
While defending themselves from the backlash that has been pouring down on them, both Musk and Kalanick both made the same promise: that they would use their position on the council to talk to Trump, to give him their arguments about why they felt the ban was the wrong policy. To try to change his mind.
Kalanick promised to, "Urge the government to reinstate the right of U.S. residents to travel - whatever their country of origin - immediately," while Musk used Twitter to crowdsource ideas from people that he would then bring to Trump.
In another statement on Thursday, in which he responded to the controversy, Musk, once again, pledged to leverage his position to try to do some good.
"In tomorrow's meeting, I and others will express our objections to the recent executive order on immigration and offer suggestions for changes to the policy," he wrote.
Now Kalanick is gone, and whatever objections he may have voiced have been silenced. If Musk were to leave as well, neither of them would be able to potentially break through to Trump, to perhaps soften his stance a bit by telling him how his order would hurt their businesses, and other's. How it would be better for them to not even have that ability to make their case at all is hard to see.
It's not just immigration policy that Musk could speak to, but environmental policy as well. I think it's safe to say that Trump, a man who has stated that he does not believe in global warming, and who just appointed an oil executive as Secretary of State, is perhaps not the most environmentally conscious President we've ever had.
Musk, it has been reported by Bloomberg, brought up the idea of a carbon tax to Trump. He also addressed the issue in his most recent statement.
"My goals are to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy and to help make humanity a multi-planet civilization, a consequence of which will be the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs and a more inspiring future for all," he wrote.
Whether or not Musk's interest in the environment comes from actual concern or from his own self-interest, and his ownership of a hugely successful electric car and renewable energy company, doesn't really matter.
One of the most ridiculous arguments being made is that Trump won't listen, or be persuaded, so why bother?
“I understand what he’s trying to do. It’s just that I don’t really agree with it,” another Tesla customer told BuzzFeed. “He’s somehow deluded himself into thinking that by having a seat at the table, he’ll actually be listened to.”
To be sure, the Bloomberg report states that Musk "got little or no support among the executives at the White House" when he raised the carbon tax issue. Whether or not he actually has any influence is not the point, though; it's that this is an issue that perhaps nobody else would bring up to Trump. That different perspective in and of itself is valuable, even if it goes nowhere.
Musk said pretty much the same thing in an interview with Gizmodo last week, when we was asked about the carbon tax policy and if he believed Trump would listen.
"You are missing the point. This is something we need to strive for and the more voices of reason that the President hears, the better. Simply attacking him will achieve nothing," said Musk. "Are you aware of a single case where Trump bowed to protests or media attacks? Better that there are open channels of communication."
Trump's agenda, so far, has been as conservative as it gets. He filled his cabinet with people who wouldn't ever be called moderate, and the same goes for many of his advisers. Simply put: Democrats and progressives have very little voice in this administration. Musk might be the closest thing they have. They'd be wise to embrace him, and use his voice as a way to get some of their concerns into Trump's orbit.
(Image source: AP Photo/Evan Vucci)