IBM CEO Ginni Rometty recently sent an email to her employees detailing her involvement with, and counseling of, the Trump administration. In it, Rometty claimed that her meetings with the Trump administration as part of the president’s business advisory are purely an opportunity to promote IBM’s values and technological expertise. “IBM does not espouse a partisan or political point of view,” the letter states. “Alone among our major competitors, we do not make political contributions, and we do not endorse candidates for office. We never have.”
While semantically correct, Rometty’s claim that IBM has never directly promoted a political point of view is tragically disingenuous. Make no mistake: Rometty and IBM have chosen to cooperate with and support Trump’s racist immigration policy. While the text of Rometty’s memo attempts to paint IBM as a patriotic company willing to roll up its sleeves and work with any Commander-in-Chief, Rometty and IBM’s recent words and actions tell a different story.
In her memo, Rometty never denounces the travel ban. She claims IBM has supported and cared for employees and families directly affected by the ban, and that IBM will work with the Trump administration to address the ways in which technology could permit lawful immigration and travel. But Rometty’s word choice clues us into IBM’s tacit acceptance, or arguably willful indifference to the ban. Here’s how: Unlike Trump and Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Rometty doesn’t use the word “ban” at all. Instead, she refers to it as a more benign “executive order affecting immigration and travel.” She uses the phrase “touched…by the executive order” instead of using words and phrases like “detained,” “harassed,” and “refused entry.” These words provide clarity to the effect the ban has had on immigrants from the Islamic world more than the word “touched” ever could. IBM declined to provide additional comment about Rometty’s memo.
Rometty doesn’t say IBM’s technology will help the US government (one of IBM’s biggest clients) safely provide entry to the overwhelming majority of harmless immigrants and refugees from the seven countries addressed by the ban. Instead, she writes that she hopes for her company to help permit “lawful immigration and travel.” Lawful under whose terms: the Trump administration, or the judicial branch of the US government?
Over the weekend, immigration enforcement raids were conducted in six states. These operations are part of Trump’s overtly racist and patently false overture to Middle America that promises to bring jobs back to American citizens. Trump’s claim is two-fold: First, that too many illegal immigrants are stealing jobs that could be done by American workers. Second, that American companies such as IBM, which he denounced publicly while on the campaign trail, are moving jobs to other countries in order to avoid paying taxes and higher wages.
Rometty and IBM have since collaborated with the Trump administration when discussing these issues. In a November letter to then president-elect Trump, Rometty reassured Trump that companies like IBM could still find jobs for Americans and that some of these jobs didn’t even need to be done by college graduates, an assertion that plays directly to a huge swath of Trump’s base. Rometty and IBM also expressed support for Trump’s massive tax rate deduction for business, a proposal that Trump’s adversaries believe will be devastating for lower income Americans.
In perhaps her most transparent instance of pandering to Trump, Rometty and IBM penned an op-ed for USA Today, in which she pledged IBM would spend $1 billion to train and hire 25,000 American employees. The op-ed and its curious publication date (the same day Rometty met for the first time with the Trump administration as part of his advisory council) made it seem as if Trump’s messaging had spurred the investment. But IBM later told PCWorld that the investment didn’t represent new plans, and that the company at any given time has thousands of positions available. Rometty also penned the op-ed just weeks after completing its third round of domestic firings in 2016, the result of which will send thousands of jobs to Asia and Eastern Europe.
Some Historical Backstory
More than 120 tech companies have signed an amicus brief opposing the executive order on immigration, including Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. Even Uber backed away from the Trump administration, after the company’s presence on the advisory board and catastrophic public relations missteps triggered the #DeleteUber campaign, a movement that resulted in more than 200,000 users deleting their account. Retailer Nordstrom recently dropped Ivanka Trump’s fashion line from its shelves and some NBA teams are boycotting Trump Hotels on road trips. This is all to say that it wouldn’t be completely unheard of for a major corporation to stand publicly against Trump’s immigration policy.
In fact, one would expect IBM to be sensitive to these issues given its history of dealing with the most nefarious of regimes. It is claimed by investigative reporter Edwin Black, the author of “IBM and the Holocaust, The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation” that IBM from the onset of Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power, provided the Nazi party with the information technology to “organize, systematize, and accelerate Hitler’s anti-Jewish program.” According to Black’s research, which some have criticized for being overwrought, “The punch cards, machinery, training, servicing, and special project work, such as population census and identification, was managed directly by IBM headquarters in New York.” Additionally, “In 1937, with war looming and the world shocked at the increasingly merciless Nazi persecution of the Jews, Hitler bestowed upon [IBM president Thomas] Watson a special award—created specifically for the occasion—to honor extraordinary service by a foreigner to the Third Reich.” Watson, the award-winner, is who Watson, the IBM supercomputer, is named after. Watson later returned the award, but only after the FBI began investigating the significance of his ties to the Nazis.
Companies aren’t required to attack the Commander-in-Chief. We get it: Your business has to make money and making money becomes more difficult when you’ve alienated half of the country’s population (well, 46 percent anyway, given that Trump lost the popular vote). It becomes especially difficult when the president has the potential to use Twitter to besmirch your brand and sabotage your stock value. Only CEOs with a moral desire to resist the president’s policies should be expected to do so.
However, IBM’s veiled support for Trump’s policies—at the expense of its own foreign-born employees and undocumented immigrants in the US—is quite frankly a pathetic example of a company trying to cozy up to Trump while also attempting to maintain the guise of neutrality. It’s hypocritical, it’s obvious, and it’s in some small part in IBM’s historical DNA.
A #DeleteIBM movement won’t hurt the company nearly as much as it hurt Uber, given that IBM predominantly sells business-to-business (B2B) hardware and software. In order for IBM to feel the pain of an anti-Trump backlash, its enterprise clients will have to put pressure on Rometty to back away from Trump and the advisory board. This is unlikely to happen. Even if it did, IBM still counts the US government as one of its biggest clients.
Instead, I implore IBM’s clients, stockholders, and board members to take this occasion to remind the company of its past dealings. Playing both sides of the fence benefits those executives beholden to the bottom line, but taking a stand against injustice and racism benefits us all.