Peter Thiel’s Oddly Conventional Defense of Trump

Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire investor, seemed out of place, diminished, when he walked up to a podium at the National Press Club on Monday. Thiel has made a fortune and cultivated a public persona based on his confident predictions about technologies that most of us barely understand. His mode of talking, in the past, could be called utopian/dystopian Manicheanism. He has described a marvellous world that could be—space colonies and abundance fuelled by biotech, cheap energy, and brilliant robots—and then explained why our risk-averse culture and stifling, confiscatory government prevent us from achieving what should be ours.

At this most recent speech, though, he spoke about a topic we know all too well: Donald Trump. The core of Thiel’s message came in a line that seemed designed to generate laughs. “No one would suggest that Donald Trump is a humble man,” Thiel said. “But the big things he’s right about amount to a much-needed dose of humility in our politics.” Suggesting humility as Trump’s true strength is essential Thiel: provocative, surprising, and based on the idea that he sees something in plain sight that the rest of us have missed.

Thiel was one of the few successful businesspeople to endorse Trump at the Republican National Convention this summer and, more recently, he pledged $1.25 million to support his campaign. While this is a trivial amount to Thiel, personally, and would be unremarkable in a normal Presidential campaign, it is among the largest single gifts in support of Trump (most of the money was given to a super PAC that backs Trump) and generated enormous anger among Thiel’s peers. After hearing calls to have Thiel kicked off the board of directors of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg wrote a note to staff defending him. “There are many reasons a person might support Trump that do not involve racism, sexism, xenophobia or accepting sexual assault,” Zuckerberg wrote. Similarly, Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator, an influential startup incubator, wrote a series of tweets simultaneously attacking Trump for being “abusive, erratic . . . unfit to be President” and also defending his decision to keep Thiel as an adviser to Y Combinator; “YC is not going to fire someone for supporting a major party nominee.”

Soon after the controversy arose in mid-October, Thiel announced plans to give this talk to defend himself and the man he wants to be President. His speech is unlikely to change minds about Trump, though it probably will shift how some people think of Thiel. It revealed that, contrary to his pose as a Delphic seer and public considerer of the inconceivable, he is a conventional, right-leaning scold, comfortable with vague assertions. (Thiel also responded to questions about his secret financing of Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker for publishing Hogan’s sex tape, offering the dual argument that he was driven by a desire to give Hogan—a mere “single-digit millionaire”—his day in court and to protect the First Amendment.)

Thiel laid out a grim, near-apocalyptic view of America, one in which citizens are “stuck in a broken system” and as he put it in the post-talk discussion, that America “is on the Titanic and we’re going to sink.” He listed familiar reasons for American despair: rising medical costs, a huge trade deficit, student debt. The protagonists in his national drama are Trump voters that he, generously, counts as fifty per cent of the American population. The villains are élites in their coastal bubbles of Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., who “do not intend to tolerate the views of half this country.” These élites, he said, have destroyed our government’s competence. The U.S., he argued, used to do great things like sending people to the moon and building the interstate highway system, but now it can’t do anything right. He supports Donald Trump, he said, because Trump “rejects the false, reassuring stories that tell us everything is fine.” Thiel explained: “Very unusually for a Presidential candidate, he has questioned the core concept of American exceptionalism. He doesn’t think the force of optimism alone can change reality without hard work. Just as it’s about making America great, Trump’s agenda is about making America a normal country.” Thiel defined a normal country as one that doesn’t have a trade deficit, doesn’t fight many wars, and that has a government that “actually does its job.”

While some of Thiel’s statements were explicitly wrong—far fewer than half of Americans support Trump, whose unfavorable ratings have hovered around sixty per cent—most were what might be called truth-adjacent. Yes, student debt has risen and there are real issues to address, but it is hardly a sign that the nation is in collapse. (Thiel is famous for railing not just against student debt but also against the idea that a college education is worthwhile.) Trade has, indeed, hurt many Americans, but it has also helped many others—and the help far outweighs the hurt. Also, it is not just a tiny coastal élite who support it; most Americans do. The U.S. has a pretty “normal” trade deficit, lower than that of Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. Thiel’s talk felt much like other political speeches. The building blocks of his argument were a mishmash of decontextualized thoughts reassembled to form a simplistic narrative of good and evil, heroes and strawmen. Thiel’s odd but fascinating past statement suggested the possibility of a thoughtful, if idiosyncratic, synthesis of libertarianism and Trumpian populism. But that wasn’t the case. Thiel’s speech—celebrating big government projects, condemning trade and the price of a college education—was as much a rebuke of libertarianism as of Republicanism.

Thiel has earned his place among technology visionaries. He created PayPal and was among the first to understand Facebook’s power. I’d be curious to hear what he thinks the next decade holds for Internet-related startups. He used to present radical libertarian views that didn’t catch on but were fun to hear about. He was, for example, probably the most famous supporter of the seasteading movement, which imagined anarcho-libertarian societies built on artificial islands. Some of his statements over the years have been very troubling. In 1998, he co-authored a book condemning affirmative action and diversity efforts on college campuses as anti-white. Ten years later, he wrote, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” He explained his thinking, in part, by pointing out that women got the vote and women are “notoriously tough for libertarians.” Thiel received a bit of a pass for these offensive ideas because they seemed to be the unfortunate side effects of his radical libertarianism and the privilege of a deep thinker exploring the outer reaches of acceptable discourse.

But the man who spoke at the National Press Club had no deep, coherent philosophy. He seemed libertarian at times and, at others, he supported a far more activist government. Throughout, he presented an insufficiently examined enumeration of urges and angers, not a program for governance. His ideas are such an odd assortment of left-wing, right-wing, and wingless nihilism that it’s hard to think of any movement or thinker that shares them—other than Donald Trump.

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