It’s the 16th July 2020. The Toyota Centre in Houston, Texas is buzzing. The world’s media has descended on the arena to witness one of the key ceremonial moments in American politics: The Democratic Party is about to officially anoint its candidate in the 2020 election. This is the person who, having won a hard-fought primary campaign, will be spend the next four month sparring with Donald Trump, hoping to take his job.
The lights go down. There’s no podium - just a massive screen. The moment arrives and out walks… Tim Cook. And he has a clicker.
The erstwhile Apple CEO knows that this is a big moment. Not only is he now a politician, and one who could potentially save American democracy from the demagogue currently occupying the White House, but this is his opportunity to speak at length to the American people, many for the first time.
The speech is remarkable. Not for its policy content, per-se - Cook’s platform is fairly unremarkable for any Democrat running in 2020: He wants to expand access to healthcare and reduce gun violence. But unlike his vanquished Democratic rivals, like Cory Booker or his running mate Elizabeth Warren, he treats his time on stage, and his rare hour of uninterrupted network TV like a Apple product launch. Using graphics and video to talk through his ideas, and his personal biography.
The performance goes down a storm - and it is seen as revolutionary. It goes viral on YouTube and Facebook. By bringing the audio-visual delivery skills he’d honed at Apple to politics, whatever the result of the election, Cook would be heralded as a genius. The second the speech ended, Saturday Night Live’s writers’ room got to work on a script that they could get their latest star, a British comedian called Paul O’Grady, to perform for the show’s cold opening that weekend.
But among political pundit class, most commentators were still wondering: Why didn’t we see Cook coming? In retrospect, the rise of Tim Cook as a Democratic star seemed obvious - on paper, he was pretty much the perfect candidate.
For starters, he completely neutralises the one attack that Trump has left. Despite the four years of disasters in his wake, the Trump brand was still strong among a certain type of voter. Trump was still seen as a Washington DC outsider, even though he had overseen an era of corruption previously unseen in modern times. The DC establishment’s rejection of the Trump style was still a feather in his bow. Trump was, as he reminded audiences, still a successful businessman. Not many people could be President and still run a profitable multi-national chain of hotels at the same time, right?
Unfortunately for Trump, he is a business minnow compared to Cook. Under Cook’s leadership, Apple became the biggest company in the world, the producer of arguably the most successful consumer product of all time, and the brand name we associate with the most essential possession in our lives. Cook didn’t just mean business - he was business. The viral video that Bill Gates had recorded in support, showing him wearing a black turtleneck and writing “Cook 2020” with an Apple Pencil on an iPad was the icing on the cake.
Cook also blunted Trump’s other remaining attack - that he was a DC outsider. Cook lives and works in Silicon Valley, a place for people that want to make the world better, and a place that (on the surface at least) was a world away from the grimy political machine in Washington, or the greedy capitalists in New York.
Cook was also self-made - at least more than Donald Trump ever could ever have claimed to be. He was from a humble background. He was born in Mobile, Alabama - so-called “flyover country”, not Queens. And his dad worked in a shipyard, and didn’t own a property empire. Crucially, Cook couldn’t be painted as a coastal elite - he could credibly claim to understand Trumpland, because that is where he is from.
So what was Cook’s selling point for voters? Essentially his platform was one of technocratic competence. Instead of the chaos of the Trump era, Cook essentially promised to Make Politics Boring Again. With his moderate Democratic platform, and dull neoliberal policies with a little more redistribution on the side, Cook wasn’t setting out to scare floating centrist voters, or polarise voters like 79 year old Bernie Sanders would have done had he not been beaten to the nomination for a second time.
Perhaps the biggest challenge Cook faced was getting through the Primary, and then if he did that, getting the core Democratic voters out on election day. But here, Cook had another advantage from his own biography. In 2014, Cook came out publicly as gay. And not only was he now the first openly gay nominee of a major party, if elected he would be the first openly gay President of the United States.
The opportunity for another historic first is definitely one that excited democratic base voters - and thanks to softening attitudes over the last couple of decades, Cook’s sexuality was no longer the sort of thing that swing voters are going to care about, and not even something that is particularly going to enthuse an evangelical opposition who at this point were busy trying to ignore their man paying off porn stars.
Perhaps the biggest threat to Cook’s success in the election then is the legacy of his professional life. Though Apple is seen as a huge, American success story, it has also come under assault in recent years as “Big Tech” has entered the crosshairs of political partisans of all stripes. Mark Zuckerberg, after all, had considered running for the same nomination, but his campaign flamed out after a viral video showing him talking to some Florida seniors about VR funerals was deemed “inappropriate”.
The good news for Cook though was that he was mostly able to avoid the problems his commercial competitors had faced: he had long staked Apple as the protectors of user privacy, and the company’s focus on hardware rather than services meant that it largely avoided arguments about algorithms and monopolistic behaviour that bogged down Google and Amazon. Crucially, Cook’s campaign officials appear to believe that on balance, voters will decide that forcibly separating children from their parents on the border is slightly worse than forcing Bono on to everyone’s phone.
At his presentation that night at the convention, Cook concluded his speech by urging Trump voters to “Think Different”.
And now we move on to the closing stages of the election race. There is still speculation that Russia could once again attempt to wade in and swing the election for Trump - but most commentators expect that if that happens, Cook will be able to make some calls to his old colleagues in Cupertino, and have them rig iOS to subtly manipulate you into voting for him instead.
All eyes will now be on whether Cook can now successfully beat Trump in the three events that have been negotiated by the two campaigns: Two debates, one focusing on foreign policy and the other on domestic policy. And then a hot dog eating contest, following a request from the Trump campaign.
James O’Malley is Interim Editor of Gizmodo UK and tweets as @Psythor.