One of the biggest proposals introduced to date by a Democratic presidential candidate running in the 2020 cycle has found an unexpectedly supportive audience: allies of Donald J. Trump.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) plan to break up large tech companies, which she discussed in a speech last Friday in Queens, positioned her as one of the most aggressive anti-monopolists running in a crowded Democratic field.
But while the proposal was meant to serve as a benchmark for others seeking the nomination, it managed to spark a tangible amount of interest in conservative quarters, where the perception exists that the social media giants are too powerful and liberal-oriented. On Tuesday, several of those conservatives found themselves doing the previously unthinkable: claiming common ground with a senator whom President Trump routinely mocks as a fraud.
“Due to their rampant censorship, these companies risk radicalizing conservatives to support policies like what Elizabeth Warren is proposing and that will continue unless they start grappling with their inherent biases and the issue of censorship,” said Andrew Surabian, Donald Trump Jr.’s political adviser, who argued that conservatives could back Warren’s proposal because of their own grievances with Silicon Valley.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), an ardent Trump ally, said he hadn’t followed the specifics of Warren’s proposal but said a similarly aggressive antitrust push from Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), the chair of a House antitrust subcommittee, could win bipartisan support.
“Cicilline in the House is going to go gangbusters on big tech and I'm excited to see what he puts together in legislation,” Gaetz said. “It may get lots of bipartisan support.”
Even Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) got in on the act, tweeting that Warren was “right” that tech giants have too much power while noting that Warren herself had ads on the matter removed from Facebook because of the use of the company’s corporate logo.
Beyond the overtures from GOP lawmakers and top Trump advisers, elements of the online right also cheered on Warren’s call to break up the tech giants. On “The Donald,” the leading pro-Trump forum on Reddit, posters praised the senator’s proposal—in part because they expected that it would alienate Democrats from wealthy Silicon Valley donors.
“Watch Google and Amazons political ideologies change overnight,” predicted one post that received more than 1,000 votes in support.
Warren’s goal is hardly to alienate Big Tech from the Democratic Party, though she most likely will not win plaudits in Silicon Valley for the argument that Facebook, Amazon and Google had “bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else.”
The Massachusetts Democrat had two specific prescriptions for ending what she viewed as the monopoly these companies enjoyed. The first was to pass legislation that would designate a new category for large companies with an annual global revenue of $25 billion or more that “offer to the public an online marketplace, an exchange, or a platform for connecting third parties.” Warren proposes that those companies be classified as “platform utilities,” and be prohibited from both owning the platform and any of its participants. Additionally, under her plan, the utilities would have to “meet a standard of fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory dealing with users,” and they would not be allowed to share or transfer data to third parties. Warren suggested that the Amazon Marketplace, Google’s ad exchange, and Google Search would turn into platform utilities.
The second aspect Warren suggested was appointing regulators to undo recent mergers like Amazon’s ownership of Whole Foods and Zappos, Facebook’s ownership of WhatsApp and Instagram and Google’s ownership of Waze, Nest and DoubleClick.
“We have these giant tech companies that think they rule the earth,” Warren declared at a boisterous rally in Queens on Friday night, where Amazon had intended building half of its second headquarters before folding in the face of local and national resistance. “They think they can come to towns, cities, states and bully everyone into doing what they want.”
Though Warren’s regulatory agenda has long been an object of ridicule for conservatives, many flocked to her call to break up the tech giants, which they view with increasing suspicion. In particular, conservatives have grown increasingly convinced that social media companies are engaged in a pattern of shadow and even overt censorship of their viewpoints—through algorithmic changes to user feeds and even outright bans from the platforms.
Hot points have included the banning of right-wing provocateurs and a short-lived Twitter prohibition on a campaign ad from then-Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). Last year, pro-Trump commentators “Diamond & Silk” appeared at a congressional hearing to allege that Facebook was “shadow-banning” conservatives on social media to reduce their visibility.
Those tensions have prompted more calls from the right for the tech giants to be broken up. In 2017, conservative columnist Kurt Schlichter called for then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to assign Justice Department attorneys to “breaking up these enormous, bloated, anti-competitive conglomerates.” And in language reminiscent of Warren’s own progressive rhetoric, National Review writer Victor Davis Hanson has called the tech founders the “new robber barons.”
Sarah Miller, deputy director of the Open Markets Institute, which advocates against corporate concentration and monopoly power, said that it was not surprising to find Republicans and Democrats agreeing about the pernicious effects of tech companies becoming more and more monopolistic.
“These corporations becoming more and more like private governments is just becoming more apparent to people on both sides of the aisle who are in democratically elected government,” Miller told The Daily Beast, adding that part of their advocacy is centered on pushing the Federal Trade Commission to take more action.
With a growing conservative appetite for a proposal now being championed by a leading Democratic presidential candidate, President Trump could find himself in an odd position: forced to tiptoe around a signature policy of a lawmaker at which he’s directed racist attacks. On Monday, that tiptoeing began. In an interview with Breitbart, the president called Warren’s proposal “funny” because of tech leaders’ traditional support for Democrats.
“Isn’t it funny? Elizabeth Warren called for their total breakup,” he said. “I do smile, though, they’re so protective of her.”
—Sam Stein and Lachlan Markay contributed reporting