Earth problems

After Trump won, this SpaceX exec quit his job to solve America’s polarization problem

Dex Torricke-Barton

To Trump opponents, the country is going to hell in a hand basket. Hate crimes and swastika graffiti have been on the rise. White supremacists have descended on D.C., chanting “Heil Victory.” Trump’s main presidential priority seems to be to advance his business interests.

Trump supporters see the world differently. The hate crimes are fabricated. The offensive graffiti was left by Trump haters using symbols of their perceived oppressors. They believe Trump’s campaign promises shouldn’t be taken “literally” (and indeed, he has started walking many of them back). They say they voted for Trump because he promised a better economy, not because they’re racists and misogynists.

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A country divided

With this election, the polarization of our country has been overwhelming, and made worse by the fact that one candidate won the popular vote and the other the electoral college. In Silicon Valley, some in the tech industry have called for liberal-leaning California to secede. Other tech CEOs sent out letters to their workforces, urging them to try to move forward and carry on despite the “emotional roller coaster of toxic rhetoric.”

It all offers a frightening prospect for the next four years, so frightening that Dex Torricke-Barton, an English expat based in L.A. with a high-profile job as head of communications at Elon Musk’s SpaceX, quit his dream job last Monday. He decided he needed to spend his time not on our future on Mars but on our present problems here on Earth.

“Ensuring a promising future for humanity means solving social problems now.”

“Ensuring a promising future for humanity means solving social problems now,” Torricke-Barton told me by phone. “There are real divisions emerging but I think we can overcome them… People who voted for Trump previously voted for moderate Republicans and Democratic candidates—given those shifting allegiances, there’s the chance to change that.”

Last week, Torricke-Barton launched a nonprofit, Onwards.World, dedicated to bridging America’s divide, in the hope that a candidate like Trump won’t have the power to tap into people’s worst fears again in four years. As an immigrant from England and the son of a Burmese refugee, he’s alarmed by the conservative nationalism emerging around the world.

“This has been an election marked by repeated attacks on immigrants, minorities, women, and many other communities,” he wrote in a Facebook post announcing his departure from SpaceX last week. “I don’t want to watch while the world slips backwards.”

Since the former speechwriter for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Eric Schmidt announced his nonprofit—with the slogan, “Now is the time for unity”—he’s received thousands of messages of support from people, he said on a day when he was “knee deep in fundraising meetings.”

With the nonprofit, Torricke-Barton plans to embark on a listening tour through middle America. He said it could take the form of “town halls or one-on-one meetings.” He then plans to produce a report with a series of case studies on the people that Trump referred to, after his win, as “forgotten men and women.”

“In the Rust Belt and places that have been at the sharp edges of economic change, we’re on the path to becoming a deeply divided society where we no longer agree on some of the fundamental concepts that have powered the America Dream,” said Torricke-Barton. He hopes to find common ground for people divided by this election, and then to come up with solutions for their problems, primarily in the form of job and skills training.

He thinks his experience working with companies like Google and Facebook, that have fundamentally changed the world, means he has a roadmap for “how to achieve change and build products that make a concrete difference.”

“This election was not swung to Trump by the Facebook algorithm.”

Since the election, many people have blamed one of those companies, Facebook, for the role it may have played in the election. Could it have done more to suppress fake news stories? Do its algorithms create filter bubbles that radicalize voters?

“Trying to solve the filter bubble online is a distraction from the divisions that are playing out in the real world,” Torricke-Barton replied. “This election was not swung to Trump by the Facebook algorithm. There were real problems facing these communities that were not being solved.”

Torricke-Barton hopes that his nonprofit’s efforts “equip people with the skills to have a more constructive debate,” allowing them to engage with people with wholly different opinions rather than going to war with them.

I asked Torricke-Barton what he thought about the other post-Trump idea that’s emerged from some California elites: the Golden State breaking off from the union to form its own country.

“It’s unrealistic and represents the introverted world view that Silicon Valley needs to break out of,” he said. “We don’t solve our problems by running away from them.”

Torricke-Barton predicts that most people who are currently outraged and moved to do something to stop Trump will find their enthusiasm waning in the coming weeks. “People will go back to their normal lives and try to just ride out the next four years,” he said. But Torricke-Barton says he is in it for the long haul.

I asked him what his measure of success would be when the next presidential election comes around.

“Four years from now, the most valuable thing will be that more people feel they can have informed conversations with their neighbors.”