Tonight, Peter Thiel, an openly gay immigrant hailing from San Francisco, will address the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. His speech will close out the coronation of Donald Trump as the nominee of his party, which three days earlier finalized a platform affirming the definition of marriage as “between one man and one woman.”
Thiel may seem an unlikely warm-up act for a raving nativist like Trump. But the pair are actually an impeccable ideological tag-team. In fact, Thiel outmatches Trump both in the preposterousness of his capitalistic ambition and in the sheer pathology of his political inconsistency.
Like Trump’s, Thiel’s speech will be one of the few in Cleveland (or Philly, for that matter) worth viewing in full, if only because the libertarian billionaire is, even more so than the man he’s opening for, a bizarre and fascinating man—his support for Trump is just one more strange item on a long list. And, unlike those who have taken the stage before him, Thiel isn’t a retired general, washed-up actor, incendiary evangelical, or reality show star, but a complicated member of the Silicon Valley elite.
Many Americans found Thiel the same way they found Donald Trump: on a screen, presented as something between caricature and real-world business figure. In The Social Network, Hollywood’s 2010 rendition of the Facebook creation myth, Thiel’s character appears briefly to write Mark Zuckerberg a $500,000 check and suggest that he utterly betray his best friend and co-founder, Eduardo Saverin — a fictionalized version of one of the greatest moments of treachery in modern business history. And unless you’re within or near the tech bubble, this may be your only impression of Thiel, who, despite his titanic stature in the startup sector, never crossed over to the national stage before Thursday night.
It’s a testament to Thiel’s contradictions that he’s so poorly understood even back home. In Silicon Valley, the tech sector was amazed when Thiel backed Trump as a party delegate — aberrant behavior in a community that sees itself as essentially open-minded and tolerant. How could a California futurist, who co-founded PayPal and beat every other VC in town to Facebook, support Stone Age politics? Thiel, who was born in West Germany, was a lifeline to startups founded by and employing people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds — and now supported a presidential candidate who’d like to make life considerably harder for many of those same people.
In truth, extreme ideology was old hat for Thiel by the time Trump’s 2016 campaign began; he’s been a strong donor for both Ted Cruz and Ron Paul. Thiel gave hundreds of thousands of dollars over multiple campaigns, going back to at least 2009, to support Cruz, the Texas senator who pledged to make his opposition to gay marriage “front and center” in his presidential campaign and proposed a constitutional amendment to preserve bans on the practice. During the 2012 campaign, Thiel donated over $2 million to a Paul-supporting Super PAC.
Thiel has also postured as a libertarian, and even as his ideology shifts toward something more nihilistic — The Economist now calls him a “corporate Nietzschean” — he continues to rail against government programs like Medicare and Social Security. Meanwhile, he is chairman and co-founder of Palantir Technologies, a mass-surveillance-software company that makes a good deal of its money selling to the government; Palantir’s clients reportedly include the Depart of Defense (including the NSA and various military branches), the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the CIA. Thiel is, inexplicably, pro-monopoly. And don’t forget that Peter Thiel believes death is nothing but a bug in the feature set of mankind, and one he can buy his way out of.
What, if not ideological incoherence, could make Thiel a better pairing for Trump, for whom free trade is bad, but corporate interests are good; military spending is good, but military intervention is bad; immigrants are bad, and he married one? Voters love Trump’s wealth and crazed chatter — Thiel is just one more “self-made man” with bombastic theories to drive them wild.
Trump supporters (clearly) don’t mind some hefty dissonance between policy talk and stories of grand success in business — if anything, the former tends to annoyingly distract from the latter. So even though Thiel, like Trump, is a bundle of grandiose, self-negating ideas that don’t add up to much of anything, he has an easy job crafting a script for himself.
He can tout his co-creation of job creator PayPal (perhaps best not to mention its five foreign-born founders).
He might rant about how political correctness is tanking the United States, a topic on which he is a published author.
He can flaunt his shrewd early investment in Facebook, the source of his billions.
He can even tantalize convention-goers with his vision of a floating techno-libertarian archipelago, far from the reaches of the federal government (no Syrian refugees allowed, of course).
Or perhaps Thiel could repeat his 2009 suggestion that American democracy suffered when the right to vote was extended to women (casual misogyny has polled well so far in this election).
But where Thiel and Trump are perhaps most aligned is in their shared disdain for a free press.
Trump, of course, tolerates the media only when it functions as something approximating his own personal megaphone. Otherwise, Trump is relentlessly anti-media, a stance that has become a key part of his anti-establishment campaign: Like most politicians, the press is “phony,” “dishonest,” and “disgusting,” and Trump is its victim.
Accordingly, Trump has declared that under his presidency, he will “open up our libel laws so when [the press] write purposely negative and horrible and false” articles, “we can sue them and win lots of money. … We can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.”
Trump’s comments were widely understood as an open attack on press freedom, even if the mechanics are unclear (under the 1964 Supreme Court ruling New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, a cornerstone of the American free press, public figures like Trump may already sue journalists for incorrect and defamatory statements made with a knowing disregard for the truth, that is, for “purposely negative and horrible and false” articles).
Thiel also wants to coercively halt the speech he finds most offensive, but he has done so through a private legal campaign rather than legislation. For nearly a decade, Forbes revealed in two stories earlier this year, Thiel has secretly funded lawsuits intended to put Gawker Media, my former employer, out of business, because the billionaire does not like their work. Granted an exclusive interview with Thiel, the New York Times essentially confirmed that storyline.
Thiel insisted to the Times that he cherished freedom of speech and journalism but believed Gawker to be “a singularly terrible bully” that acted completely outside the public interest. Yet even as he acknowledged spending somewhere “in the neighborhood” of $10 million to finance multiple lawsuits to muzzle the web publisher, he refused to detail exactly how many cases he was behind or name any of the news articles at issue, save for one involving a sex tape, published by Gawker, starring wrestler Hulk Hogan and resulting in a $140 million invasion-of-privacy judgment against the company, a verdict that is now under appeal.
News reports have speculated that other Thiel-backed lawsuits against Gawker Media, via the same firm that represented Hogan, include two pieces by me; consider that an awkwardly indeterminate disclosure. One of those stories challenged claims by Massachusetts entrepreneur Shiva Ayyadurai (the plaintiff) to have invented email; similar stories have run in the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. (Ayyadurai told Forbes and the Times that Thiel was not funding his case “to the best of my knowledge.”) Another was an in-depth feature involving a reporter named Ashley Terrill who claimed she was harassed and surveilled by a Tinder co-founder.
The editor-in-chief of investigative magazine Mother Jones has called Thiel’s campaign part of a “pattern of press intimidation“; the director of the First Amendment Coalition said it could have a “chilling effect” and make “editors … think twice before writing another critical story”; and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s journalism school called Thiel’s plot “sinister” and “especially troubling” because “even a successful digital publisher can be threatened with ruin by a concerted litigation attack.”
Thiel, of course, doesn’t see things this way. His strategy of “specific deterrence,” as he dubbed his intentional legal harassment of a disfavored news organization, represents another way, should Trump find himself unable to “open up” libel laws, for the wealthy and powerful to silence their critics — or anyone, really. Both Thiel and Trump, despite being wealthy white American men and therefore essentially disqualified from victimhood, have somehow cast themselves simultaneously as bullied and bully, and will find in Cleveland an audience of potential voters who feel the same way, both about the media and themselves.
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