Can Silicon Valley Survive? - CATEGORY Report today: TITLE

There’s a secret society in Silicon Valley. “Imagine an engineer at Google, let’s say he’s a conservative—a red meat conservative. Does he want to go work at the Heritage Foundation? Probably not,” Aaron Ginn, age 29, tells me at a “hacienda-style” D.C. bar called Mission, apparently in reference to the San Francisco neighborhood turned into a trendy enclave during the last tech bubble. “What would that do for his career? But if he wants to offer his tech skills to Heritage, he can do that at night through us.”

Ginn co-founded the Lincoln Network with fellow Romney campaign veteran Garrett Johnson, 31, in 2013 to link up right-of-center outliers in the insular, competitive, and staunchly liberal tech hub south of the San Francisco Bay. The group holds networking events, debates, and hackathons, and they crop up at techie conferences. But they’re also known for a new initiative called “Deployed” that gives conservative outfits gig economy-style access to coders’ spare time. Like Uber, but for under-the-radar right wing tech bros.

Before he became Romney’s brand growth guru in Boston, Ginn defined a movement called “growth hacking,” a way for startups to expand rapidly while they’re still young—and when they shuttered the campaign, he returned to Silicon Valley for what would be the second half of the Obama administration with another sort of movement in mind. He would help conservatives in tech come out of hiding.

“Most people are private,” says Ginn, a Texan who wears a chunky silver cross on a choker-length black necklace. But Johnson—a national champion shot-putter and Rhodes Scholar (whom I tried to convince to run for office)—counters confidently, “It depends.” Some tech types shrink from confrontation, yes, but, “Other people thrive on debating and arguing, so it really depends on your personality.” Johnson evidently falls into the latter camp. Most of their members are under 35 and know they’re an ideological minority; they only talk about politics with each other, Ginn explains.

Peter Thiel, tech’s most prominent Trump supporter, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO and presidential candidate Carly Fiorina are exceptions. So, for that matter, are Silicon Valley transplants like Sarah Pompei, who now campaigns for the ride sharing app Lyft as she once did for Meg Whitman and Mitt Romney.

In 2014, the fall of Firefox Mozilla CEO and co-founder Brendan Eich, a registered independent, reaffirmed the need for a “safe space” like Lincoln Network. Eich stepped down from the post within weeks after his donation to Proposition 8—the ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage in California—sparked backlash inside the company and inspired Firefox boycotts. Today, of course, it's the inevitable dismissal Google's identity politics dissenter James Damore, whose unorthodox (by Silicon Valley standards, anyway) but not exactly conservative ideas made him unemployable and an enemy to all that is right and good—thereby proving his point about, ahem, "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber."

Some of their members are evangelical Christian social conservatives, while others have simply grown to recognize that startup culture’s reflexive aversion to conservative ideas is counterintuitive. Many in “the Valley” aren’t politically engaged enough to know that their libertarian ideas about the free flow of information and their hunger to turn a profit tend to clash with the candidates they support. Plenty of tech professionals are corporate libertarians who just don’t know it yet, Ginn said. Lincoln Network runs on an attraction-rather-than-promotion recruitment model: They welcome converts, but know better than to “evangelize” to their friends and neighbors.

Still they’re not total outliers: Like the rest of the Valley, Ginn finds Mike Judge’s thoroughly researched satire Silicon Valley a little too real. Toward the end of the HBO sitcom’s latest season, the scrappy cohort of heroes hatches a plot to force every smartphone at a crowded conference to download their data compression app Pied Piper. (And as they fudges their user numbers, the storyline hinges a true-to-life treatment of the moral gray area Ginn’s “growth hacking” innovation has come to inhabit in the hands of its latter-day adopters.)

In that same episode, the fumbling CEO invites the gang to look through their smartphones—demonstrating that because no one ever uninstalls apps, the conference-goers won’t notice a new one. It turns out that Gilfoyle, the surly but lovable Satanist co-founder of Pied Piper, still has the “McCain-Palin” app from 2008. Cue a chilly silence.

It’s a great little scene. But Ginn and I have different reads on it. I laughed because Gilfoyle’s open about his Satan-worshipping but in the Valley having been a College Republican is something you keep close to the chest. Ginn says I have it wrong, and he’s given it a lot of thought.

“Gilfoyle is my favorite character on Silicon Valley,” he tells me—because he represents the traditional hacker: “Anarcho-capitalist, libertarian, and isolated, he doesn’t like people and yet he’s stuck with [CEO] Richard through thick and thin. A true Satanist wouldn’t do that.” And of course he supported McCain. “Gilfoyle cares most about self-determination and independence, so who else was he going to vote for?” Gilfoyle is, in many ways, Lincoln Network’s target audience in that, just under the unconventional surface, he’s a classic Republican.

“The act of starting a company that employs people is an act of creating jobs and creating value,” Johnson points out. And at that Ginn jumps in, “When you’re a startup, you are capitalists. You’re self-determining your own life. You are freely associating with individuals offering their own labor—and that’s what we talk about at our events.” Their audience tends to catch on pretty easily.

And it’s actually helped recruiting, Johnson notes, to have a President Trump in the White House: “People come us saying, ‘OK, Trump is a crazy guy. What does a real conservative think?’” Had Clinton won, “We’d be irrelevant,” Johnson imagines: Her business-friendly centrism, necessarily inoffensive to deep-pocketed tech-sector donors, wouldn’t have riled the Valley’s repressed free-marketers. Since her loss, however, the rageful resistance has worked in Lincoln Network’s favor.

When Berkeley burned, and lengthened its list of disinvited speakers for fear of further violent and censorious protest, “A lot of left-leaning friends in the Valley messaged me, ‘What’s going on at Berkeley?’” They’re aghast, Ginn observes, because open source coders knows in their bones that innovation depends on free expression.

He and Johnson also see young founders in the Valley changed by the sobering side of success—the part where you actually have to run a business.

A mutual friend of Johnson and Ginn’s, “a rabid lefty,” changed his tune when he started hiring people. He looked back at his younger, democratic-socialist self and saw, “It’s easy to be the person who doesn’t have the capital or ownership equity and to criticize how the owner spends capital. It’s easy to turn to the boss and say, ‘You can pay me $15 in minimum wage because I think you can.’” Hardly to the first to tread this path, “He realized the burden of actually paying people, and sustaining other people’s families.” And, there were Ginn and Johnson, waiting to say they’d told him so., set News , Photos, Profile, Video, Artist & Celebrity World complete.

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