The new president, it seems, is a trend-setter — even when he’s not using Twitter. When he was inaugurated last week, Trump became the first commander-in-chief to have held no prior experience in either elected office or military service.
Mere weeks after his stunning victory in November, a new whispered rumour started doing the rounds in the famously cloistered corridors of Silicon Valley: could another New York-born billionaire tycoon with no political or military experience launch a bid for the White House?
The tycoon in question is Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of social media behemoth Facebook. The sixth richest person in the world, Zuckerberg’s sprawling internet empire reaches almost every corner of the planet — with the major exception of China, where it is blocked by the government.
Zuckerberg has thrived as much in the guise of emperor as inventor, gobbling up billion-dollar rivals like Instagram and Whatsapp in deals that seemed profligate at the time but look shrewd in hindsight. He has also shown a knack for snapping up top talent for his team — not least Sheryl Sandberg, wooed over from fellow tech titan Google to become his COO in 2008.
So what, exactly, would stand in the way of a Zuckerberg run — especially now that the American electorate has betrayed a penchant for high-profile billionaires? Were Zuckerberg to challenge in 2020, President Trump — famously quick to question his opponents’ eligibility — might quite reasonably insist on seeing his birth certificate. The constitution prohibits Americans under 35 years old from becoming president — a milestone that the prodigious Zuckerberg, 32, will only reach eighteen months before Americans return to the polls.
For a reasonable chance of success, Zuckerberg would need to follow Trump’s suit by finding a political party, rather than funding both. Like the new president, Zuckerberg has showered donations across the political spectrum like confetti, donating to congressional leaders like Republican Paul Ryan and Democrat Chuck Schumer.
Yet even beyond his bipartisan benevolence — a hedging tactic common in Silicon Valley — Zuckerberg does not neatly fit on the ideological spectrum. His lobbying group, FWD.us, has taken up causes which might seem to appeal to the diverse, aspirational coalition which propelled Barack Obama into the White House, including reforming the country’s broken immigration systems and improving its underfunded schools.
Zuckerberg is also on record — on his Facebook page, of course — pledging support for the Muslim and LGBT communities. Yet his forward-focused campaign group has also earned ire from progressives: one of its subsidiary organisations has endorsed liberal heresies like the Keystone pipeline project and drilling in the Arctic.
More troubling to voters of all stripes, however, might be the idea of someone with such fierce control of the world’s information running for the planet’s most powerful office. Zuckerberg has a complicated relationship with privacy, seeming to hail its death as a social norm in 2010, all the while condemning state interference in his users’ private communications.
Nor has Facebook inspired confidence with how it handles political content. The site’s trending news section has been variously accused of displaying ideological bias, constructing ‘echo chambers’ around its already polarized users, and disseminating ‘fake news’ — all cited as influences on the outcome of this year’s election.
Yet the unlikely election of the norm-shattering Trump may provide the Facebook head with leeway on these and other concerns. And it just so happens that Zuckerberg has recently begun talking rather like a prospective candidate. His stated ‘personal challenge’ for 2017 is to visit 30 US states for the first time, to ‘talk to more people about how they’re living, working and thinking about the future.’ If rumours of Zuckerberg’s political aspirations are to be believed — ‘he wants to be emperor’, confidants have suggested — then expect Iowa and New Hampshire to feature prominently in his itinerary.