The day Donald Trump was elected president, Doug Derwin came into a lot of money. Derwin is a lawyer turned venture capitalist, and he'd cashed in on a successful investment. Like so many wealthy, Silicon Valley types, Derwin used the windfall to buy a Tesla electric car and stick it to the man -- or at least to the climate-change deniers he thought Trump represented. "One of the reasons I felt good about buying it was as a sort of statement in opposition to what was happening around me," Derwin says.
But, as Derwin's order worked its way through Tesla's manufacturing backlog, he had second thoughts. Elon Musk, Tesla's co-founder and chief executive officer, was meeting Trump and joining committees in the new administration. The more Derwin dwelled on this, the angrier he became. And so, after receiving an email in February saying his Model S sedan was finally ready, Derwin cancelled the purchase. He still cut a check for $150,000 -- only he donated it to the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Trump was using Elon to legitimise himself," says Derwin. "It says a lot to low information voters that Trump can't possibly be that bad because here is Elon Musk hanging on his every word. That's why I canceled the order. A principled opposition is important here." Musk declined to comment for this story, but he has argued that moderates should engage with Trump, rather than leaving only extremists advising the president.
Derwin's personal protest has now morphed into a full-on public campaign to force Musk to sever all ties with the president. Derwin is the secret backer of billboards that appeared in recent weeks near Tesla's headquarters and factory in Silicon Valley that said "Elon: Please dump Trump." And, on Monday, he launched a website featuring videos of upset Tesla owners, "Elon: Dump Trump" bumper stickers and hats and shirts that say, "Resist."
It's just the start. Derwin, 59, is prepared to spend US$2 million on Musk-Trump protests. He's bought $500,000 worth of media, including ads that will run April 23 in the New York Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News, and television ads that will appear during Meet The Press, Morning Joe and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. He's going to set up information booths on college campuses in a bid to dissuade young engineers from working at Tesla or Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Musk's rocket company. He's going to offer to pay people who sent in deposits for the upcoming Tesla Model 3, if they cancel their orders. And he's going to partner with anti-Trump groups in Silicon Valley to make the Musk attack part of their campaigns.
Derwin stuck to Silicon Valley law and startup investing most of his career. He's never owned a Tesla and did not follow Musk's every move as millions of others do -- which makes his new fixation all the more quixotic. His anger stems more from a dislike of Trump, with Musk serving as a proxy for that rage.
"The worst thing that happens is that I lose some money and maybe make a public idiot out of myself," he says. "But it seemed to me that it would make sense to push back on Trump in a way that I could."
Musk has become a cult of personality, and it's understandable that loyal customers were upset when he started showing up at Trump Tower and then joined Trump's business advisory council. Musk has been a relentless fighter against climate change. Many Tesla customers share Musk's concerns and bought his products as statements. Trump, by contrast, has described global warming as a hoax and loosened environmental policies, while surrounding himself with people who dispute the scientific climate-change consensus. It's been hard for many Musk fans to square this circle.
Uber Technologies Inc. Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick was quick to leave Trump's business advisory council after an online backlash. Musk, though, has held his ground amid criticism on Twitter and in the press. Musk's old friend and business partner Peter Thiel is a close Trump adviser, so there's a meeting of the minds there. Musk has also argued on Twitter that it makes sense to have a moderate voice as close as possible to Trump to sway him on issues.
Musk is supremely logical and smart enough to capitalise on opportunities like having a close relationship with the president. Time and again, Musk has watched lobbyists from automotive, aerospace and energy sectors sway policies in favor of incumbents, while positioning Musk and his companies as radical hucksters. Now he may have an edge with the administration and could turn things in his favor.
If you're a man who wants to settle Mars and have electric cars swarm the Earth, then having friends in high places makes sense. Musk, for example, has been pushing to get Pete Worden, a longtime commercial space supporter, tapped as the new director of NASA. Worden advised SpaceX early on and could advocate for the company.
Derwin, though, argues Musk has already lost whatever influence may have existed. Despite Musk's presence, Trump has moved to cut funding to the sciences and the Environmental Protection Agency, while rolling back regulations against coal mining companies. "Short of putting a big pile of old tires on the White House lawn and lighting them on fire, I don't know what Donald Trump could do that is worse for climate change," Derwin says. "Musk got rolled by Trump. He has gotten absolutely nothing."
Derwin recently told Musk's camp about his campaign and asked to meet with the CEO. Musk declined, but did have three top lieutenants sit down with Derwin. Nothing much came of the meeting, Derwin said, prompting him to go live with the web site and other efforts. Musk declined to comment through a spokesman.
"If Elon will resign from the boards and speak out against what Trump is doing, I'll call off the campaign," Derwin says. He's pledged to donate US$1m to the charity of Musk's choice, if Musk dons a "Resist" hat and tweets that he disagrees with Trump's climate-change policies.
Derwin has his work cut out. Musk revels in the opportunity to prove critics wrong and rarely backs down from a fight. The uproar over advising Trump has died down, and Musk continues to dazzle fans and confound naysayers: Tesla's share price has surged to records this year and SpaceX has upended the aerospace industry by proving the abilities of its reusable rockets. The baggage that comes with Trump associations in Silicon Valley circles seems to have done little to dull Musk's shine.