Home NEWS Business Silicon Valley Now Has Its Own Populist Pundit

Silicon Valley Now Has Its Own Populist Pundit

21 min read
0
0

Mr. Hilton is unfazed. “I certainly have experienced a degree of curiosity, yes,” he said.

This fish-out-of-water existence is the latest chapter for Mr. Hilton, 47, who was once credited as designing the modernized British Conservative image that helped get Mr. Cameron’s party elected in 2010. That was before Mr. Hilton moved to Silicon Valley in 2012, after Ms. Whetstone had taken a top communications job at Google; Mr. Hilton later turned on Mr. Cameron over “Brexit.”

For the past five years, Mr. Hilton has been quietly building a new life in Atherton, raising his two children with Ms. Whetstone, writing about how he has given up his cellphone, hosting annual Cinco de Mayo parties and tending a large flock of pet chickens (his favorite is a brown hen named Hermione). Last year, he published a United States version of his book, “More Human,” about the need for a populist revolution in government and business, and wrote favorably about Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton.

Now he is Fox News’s newest host, representing its first major foray into the tech world, and the network is experimenting with Mr. Hilton’s more esoteric take on the brash Fox News style.

Photo

Steve Hilton on his Fox News program, “The Next Revolution With Steve Hilton.”

Credit
FOX News Channel

“Traditional television anchors might ask more shorter, pointed questions; they might try to trap their guests,” said John Finley, senior vice president for development and production at Fox News. “Steve’s about having an intellectual discussion.”

Can it work? “We’re in the process of finding out,” Mr. Finley said. “It’s definitely something different.”

On a recent Sunday in Los Angeles, Mr. Hilton arrived for breakfast a little late, wearing a gray T-shirt, neon green shorts and flip-flops. He is petite but muscular, clean-shaven and with bright blue eyes. On his wrists were worn-out festival bracelets from Glastonbury and Coachella.

He had chosen one of the trendiest places in the city, Rose Cafe (with a menu featuring avocado tartine and lemonade made with tangerine oil and filtered water), to talk populism. Mr. Hilton ordered shakshuka, beet hummus and tea with milk.

“What’s going on for half the country? Who’s lost out? The victims of elitist agenda; standing up for them, being a voice for them,” Mr. Hilton said. “That’s the idea behind positive populism, that’s what drives the content.”

Mr. Hilton’s mission with his Fox News program, he said, is to create a working-class coalition uniting supporters of Mr. Trump and Bernie Sanders with the rage that fueled the Brexit movement.

“My argument is: Let’s blame the people who are responsible,” he said. Those people, he added, are the “global elite.”

It’s an ironic position for Mr. Hilton to take given that he is part of that global elite — he and his wife live in a $12.5 million home in one of America’s richest ZIP codes.

Photo

In 2006, Mr. Hilton, right, visited the Arctic with Gregory Barker, left, at the time a member of Parliament in England, and David Cameron, then the leader of the Conservative Party.

Credit
Andrew Parsons/PA Images, via Getty Images

But Mr. Hilton insisted he is not one of the elites he targets in his show. Over a subsequent meal in Menlo Park, Calif., he hit the table with his fist as he described how being elite “is about what you believe in — those people, I see them as my enemy. They have taken control of the levers of power.”

Some of that sense of being an outsider may come from his childhood. The son of Hungarian refugees, Mr. Hilton was raised by his stepfather, who was a construction worker, and his mother, a clerk, in the seaside town of Brighton, England. As a child, he won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital School in Horsham, a school for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“He was a scholarship boy,” said Michael Gove, a British Conservative politician. “Sheer talent brought him into that orbit, but he wasn’t really cut from the Savile Row cloth. To call him an outsider would be an exaggeration, but he’s certainly not an insider.”

Mr. Hilton does not think his childhood was the factor. “It’s no hard-luck story,” he said.

Mr. Hilton attended Oxford University and afterward took a job at the Conservative Central Office in 1990. Mr. Cameron was then head of the political unit, and Ms. Whetstone had joined three months earlier. In 1992, Mr. Hilton coordinated the advertising in a surprise general election in which the Conservatives won.

Over time, Mr. Hilton became Mr. Cameron’s closest adviser and godfather to his first son. With Mr. Hilton’s advice, Mr. Cameron softened his look, ditching his tie and hugging a husky on a trip to highlight global warming.

Mr. Hilton soon developed a reputation as the quirky, secretive figure behind a radically conservative agenda and was often featured in the tabloids for his casual clothes, bare feet and sweaty post-bike-ride look. In 2008, he married Ms. Whetstone.

“David Cameron was immensely able and charismatic,” Mr. Gove said, “but it was Steve who was the idea dynamo.”

Yet by 2012, their relationship was fraying. Mr. Hilton thought Mr. Cameron was compromising too much with the European Union and moving too slowly on their vision to cut bureaucracy. The two began to drift apart, and Mr. Hilton moved to California. The fallout was complete when Mr. Hilton returned to Britain last year to campaign against Mr. Cameron in favor of Brexit. The two no longer speak, Mr. Hilton said.

Photo

Mr. Hilton at a party in 2016 for his book, “More Human,” which is about the need for a populist revolution in government and business.

Credit
Nate Pesce for The New York Times

When Mr. Hilton landed in Silicon Valley, he was known locally as the eccentric husband of Ms. Whetstone, who later left Google for Uber’s top communications and policy job. (She left Uber this year and has joined Facebook.)

Mr. Hilton took a teaching job at Stanford’s design school. Then he had an idea for a website that makes it easier to find and give to small-time political campaigns.

With a group including Ms. Kordestani, he formed Crowdpac, whose headquarters are in a large loft in the South Park neighborhood of San Francisco. Crowdpac scrapes publicly available data to show where candidates’ funding comes from and to score them on a scale of liberal to conservative. It also has tools for people to set up political campaigns of their own. The goal, Mr. Hilton said, is to lower the barrier to political participation.

Crowdpac, which has raised $8.5 million from investors like Index Ventures and SV Angel, has since become part of the tech world’s sometimes shaky efforts to engage with politics.

“Silicon Valley is reluctantly becoming more engaged in politics,” said Reid Hoffman, a Crowdpac investor and a founder of LinkedIn, who recently started his own political initiative called WTF (Win the Future). “Rather than taking the world only as we find it, Steve also imagines the world evolved.”

For Mr. Hilton, Crowdpac is where his conservative leanings stand out the most. He said the company isn’t excited to be part of “this whole thing,” referring to his Fox News program. “We’re nonpartisan, but most of our employees are very liberal,” he said.

Although the PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has been Silicon Valley’s most famous Trump supporter, Mr. Hilton said he hadn’t met him. (According to some reports, Mr. Thiel may not be as ardent a fan of the president as he once was.) In fact, Mr. Hilton said he didn’t mingle with any pro-Trump people locally.

“I literally don’t know any others,” he said, before clarifying that he doesn’t quite identify himself as a supporter of the president but rather of the populist movement that Mr. Trump rode to the White House. Mr. Trump is “just the start,” Mr. Hilton said.

His friends said they see the fiery conservative as an unusual and fun addition to a typically homogeneous social scene, especially in Silicon Valley.

“Steve wants to disrupt the political status quo, and that’s what Silicon Valley is good at doing,” said Joanna Coles, chief content officer of Hearst Magazines, who is a frequent guest at his dinner parties. She said that she doesn’t agree with his politics but that his dinner parties are “fabulous.”

“You just have to smile,” Juliet de Baubigny, a partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, said of Mr. Hilton. “I hope that we’ll always have different points of opinion around the table. I hope that we will always have Trump supporters in the mix.”

Are there a lot of Trump supporters in the mix?

“At the moment, sadly, he’s the only one,” Ms. de Baubigny said. “But I’m grateful for the fact that we have one.”

Mr. Hilton said the tech industry’s lack of interest in politics gives it the potential to be radically conservative. “A lot of the foundational philosophical approaches of tech leaders are actually all about decentralization of power,” he said.

The knowledge of politics in Silicon Valley is “cursory,” Mr. Hilton said, adding that that has been particularly true when it comes to populism. “The last couple years, I’ve been trying to convey to people what lies behind the phenomenon,” he said.There’s a lot of: ‘Well, what about Mexicans? What about women?’ Well, O.K., but there’s a really big issue that life for half the country has gotten increasingly grim.”

Last year, during his book tour for “More Human,” Mr. Hilton began appearing on Fox News programs to talk about Brexit and what it meant for the chances of Mr. Trump, then a candidate. After the election, Fox News offered Mr. Hilton a program. He and the network soon worked out a structure for the program with segments like “Swampwatch” and “Decadent DC.”

In its first few weeks, Mr. Hilton’s guests included the education entrepreneur Salman Khan, the feminist legal scholar Joan C. Williams and some Bernie Sanders supporters who said they had a plan to elect an entirely new Congress. Mr. Hilton makes gestures at traditional Fox News anger, but he often politely softens his attacks. (In a monologue about how the Axios founder Mike Allen of “Decadent DC” doesn’t understand Mr. Trump, Mr. Hilton added that Mr. Allen was “wonderful, hard-working and courteous.”)

Mr. Hilton’s program has also become a surprising landing spot for liberals.

“When I went on the show, a bunch of progressive friends of mine were complaining, like, ‘Why would you go on this right-winger’s show?’” said Zack Exley, a former senior staff member for Mr. Sanders, who appeared on the program last month. “What Fox does all day every day is they point at immigrants, they point at activists, whipping up racism, that’s what they do all day long. But Steve for an hour points at corporate power. If we can’t engage with somebody who’s doing that, that’s crazy.”

Mr. Hilton said he’s staying for the long haul.

“We didn’t move here so I could save American democracy,” he said. “But I’ve embraced it with the zeal of a convert.”

Continue reading the main story


Source link

Load More Related Articles
Load More In Business
Comments are closed.

Check Also

Shell of Old G.M. Surfaces in Court Fight Over Ignition Flaw

And that was when old G.M. ran afoul of new G.M. — still the nation’s largest automaker. O…