Peter Thiel, Patron of the Populist Right

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S1: The co-founder of PayPal and first investor and Facebook entrepreneur Peter Thiel, if you don’t follow Silicon Valley closely, this may have been your first introduction to Peter Thiel.

S2: I build companies and I support people who are building new things from social networks to rocket ships,

S1: he charged onto the stage of the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland under a giant graphic reading Make America One Again. Delegates on the floor went nuts.

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S2: I’m not a politician, but neither is Donald Trump. He is a builder, and it’s time to rebuild America.

S1: One of the people watching that night was Max Chafkin, a reporter and editor at Bloomberg Businessweek.

S3: It’s just very weird to see somebody who has been operating in a world that has seemed small and not significant on some kind of big historical level, like suddenly step onto the world stage as it were.

S1: Max has been covering tech for more than 15 years, and he’s watched Thiel play on bigger and bigger stages as a founder of PayPal, a venture capitalist who could make or break companies and a guy who seems to enjoy playing the villain. Last year, Max published a book about Thiel called The Contrarian, and it’s true Thiel is hard to pigeonhole.

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S2: I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all, I am proud to be an American.

S1: Thiel has been a stalwart Republican donor for years, giving more than a million dollars to get President Trump elected, but now he wants something more.

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S3: He wants to be the patron to the Trumpist wing of the Republican Party.

S1: Thiel is turning away from Silicon Valley. Just recently, he resigned his seat from the Facebook or Medha Board, and he’s put at least $20 million behind to Trumpist Senate candidates. Mack says Thiel wants to be like the Koch brothers for a new generation.

S3: Thiel is trying to do that now with this new part of the Republican Party, the part that is, you know, hyper nationalistic, anti-immigrant, Populist. He wants to be the guy who is the kingmaker.

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S1: Today on the show, Peter Thiel’s grand ambitions. Silicon Valley has his fingerprints all over it. Now he wants to leave his mark on American democracy. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next? TBD a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick with us. Your smartphone would look very different without Peter Thiel. He co-founded PayPal. He invested in Lyft, Airbnb and Facebook. Serving as a kind of Yoda to Mark Zuckerberg during the company’s early years. But what I didn’t know until I read Max’s book were the contours of his early life and how deeply this shaped Thiel and his worldview. Thiel was born in Germany, and his family moved around because his dad, a chemical engineer, worked for various mining companies.

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S3: So he was very young, you know, when his family moved first to South Africa and then to what was then known as Southwest Africa, now now called Namibia. But it’s basically like a South African protectorate, also an apartheid state. And his father worked in in mining. So, you know, the family not not Peter Thiel because Peter Thiel was like six was, of course, very much bought in to this system. And I think this is pretty important because when Thiel got to college, there’s a lot of anti-apartheid activism, you know,

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S1: he comes of age in the sort of divestment era.

S3: Exactly. I mean, that I think is part of the way that he develops this kind of identity. As somebody who’s extremely conservative who who I think he saw the divestment stuff as a personal attack on him, even though, of course, it wasn’t.

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S1: Thiel spent his adolescence in Foster City, California, not far from Silicon Valley. He was quiet. He liked to play Dungeons and Dragons, and he was strikingly smart. After high school, Thiel went to Stanford.

S3: Well, Stanford is a relatively conservative place as far as like elite colleges go right. It’s it’s much more tied in with the corporate world than Ivy League schools. It also was one of the home bases of like Reaganism. But of course, there was a lot of left wing activism, and Thiel ended up constructing an identity that was opposed to all that. And that all gets poured it into this newspaper called the Stanford Review, which was like a rabble rousing right wing paper that did. I think now we have a term for it. We call it like trolling, but like basically attempting to stir up controversy by pushing right up to the line on race or or gender or sexual orientation or whatever, and then getting yelled at for being racist or almost racist, and then using that as a way to kind of generate additional interest. His contemporaries in this are basically Ann Coulter, who is at the Cornell Review, which is a similar paper and who he’s close to with Ann Coulter to this day, and also Dinesh D’Souza, who had the Dartmouth Review, which is a similar, very similar thing. So this was like a current in Republican politics that Peter Thiel very much tapped into and I think used it in creating his tech thing.

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S1: But it wasn’t just Till’s combative politics, it blossomed in college. His in-your-face persona did, too.

S3: I heard a story from some people who are connected to the chess team. Thiel started the chess team in and they were driving out to a chess tournament in Monterey, California. And first of all, its heels heals very fast driver. And he’s he’s like gunning it down this insanely narrow, winding mountain road and he gets pulled over by a police officer. Police officer comes over, has him roll down the window, says, Do you know how fast you’re going? And Thiel proceeds to give this argument that speeding tickets are unconstitutional and in fact, it doesn’t matter how fast he’s going. He was incredibly combative, but also that that has its own appeal, right? People with that much confidence can be off putting, but it can also be very, very attractive

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S1: after college and then law school. Also at Stanford. Of course, Thiel tried a few careers, but none really stuck. He was a lawyer, a Wall Street trader and a speechwriter for conservative politician Bill Bennett.

S3: I mean, I think initially wanted to be like a William F. Buckley or something he he thought of, I mean, he thought he had been this like intellectual heavyweight in college, or at least that’s how he saw himself. And so Thiel tried to make it in in in the legal world. But but really, you know, struck out pretty quickly or decided, you know, he was done with it. And then he latched on to this thing that was happening, you know, basically in his backyard, which is the tech bubble. And with no obvious credentials, not really knowing anyone. He basically inserted himself into Silicon Valley and and kind of against all odds, became this hugely successful entrepreneur. And then, you know, well-known investor

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S1: Thiel struck gold with PayPal, which he co-founded in 1998. The idea of cashless payments between people might seem normal now, but then it was revolutionary. It also fit ideologically as an almost alternate financial system like a precursor to bitcoin tills. Next success came with Palantir, the data analysis company that he co-founded in the wake of 9-11. And yes, the name comes from the all powerful seeing stone in the Lord of the Rings. Palantir software has been used by multiple government and law enforcement agencies. Its work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in particular, has been criticized by civil liberties advocates for targeting undocumented immigrants. When you take these companies together, Mack says, you don’t just see a founder identifying holes in the market. You see someone whose companies fit with his political worldview.

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S3: That’s the thing that makes Thiel kind of different from many of his contemporaries, many of whom a big part of their identity is being like beyond ideology. But Thiel, I think, very much explicitly sees ideology and politics as linked to business. And you know, the coke analogy, I think, is helpful. The Koch brothers had this gigantic industrial conglomerate, and then they had this political project and the industrial conglomerate was generating is generating revenue, which is pouring into the political project, which is helping to shape policy, hopefully to allow the industrial conglomerate to make more money and feels kind of the same situation. Except it’s like a post-industrial conglomerate. And it’s just it’s a bunch of his investments in Facebook and Palantir and Airbnb and so on. And he’s been trying to craft policy to basically allow those companies to operate more or less unfettered. And it’s it’s worked in a lot of ways.

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S1: He also plays a very big role in shaping Facebook and really Mark Zuckerberg. And I wonder if you could lay out for me how influential Thiel is in the way Silicon Valley thinks.

S3: Zuckerberg has complete control of Facebook today. He has the super voting shares, and no one could tell him what to do. Not even Peter Thiel. He got that situation because of Peter Thiel Peter Thiel prior to investing in Facebook, had kind of developed this idea that founders should be all powerful in their companies and helps Zuckerberg rejigger the Facebook cap table to give them that control and then uses that fact to kind of convince basically every other venture capitalist in Silicon Valley to do the same thing. So now you look across the valley and there are all these companies run by basically all powerful dudes, dudes. Yeah, for sure. PayPal, early on was an unregulated bank, more or less a bank that just didn’t bother getting regulated and just said, screw it, we’re just going to start moving money around instead of trying to, like, figure out how to do what they want to do legally focused mostly on marketing. And that became, I would argue, the model for a lot of these companies, right? Where you don’t you don’t actually bother with, you know, trying to follow the rules. What you try to do is just grow really quickly so that you’re it’s a fait accompli that people just have to just sort of accept what you’ve done.

S1: Move fast and break things.

S3: Exactly. And that has been copied by like every single tech company, whether or not Peter Thiel is involved or not. For a long time, even people who are very critical of the tech industry basically accepted this idea. That disruption was like a societal good, and Thiel was really important in pushing that narrative and getting everybody else to believe it. But I think it’s it’s left us in a situation today in 2022, where you have these gigantic companies worth hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars. We’re still operating as if they were reading Peter Thiel’s like playbook or something.

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S1: There’s one other playbook in Peter Taylor’s life that is worth a close read.

S4: Here’s something to gawk at. Gawker.com will cease publishing next week, marking the end of an era as

S3: the parent

S1: company Thiel secretly funded the 2013 lawsuit brought by wrestler Hulk Hogan that destroyed the website Gawker. Gawker had published Hogan’s sex tape, and Thiel quietly agreed to fund Hogan’s suit, eventually spending $10 million. Full disclosure here I am friendly with people who lost their jobs because of the lawsuit and Gawker subsequent bankruptcy to understand why it all happened. You have to go back to 2007 to a post on a Gawker blog that outed Thiel as gay. The headline read Peter Thiel is totally gay people. Even though Thiel was out to friends and family, Mac says he viewed the blog as a tremendous invasion of privacy.

S3: Gawker was covering Peter Thiel very, very aggressively at this time, and it’s important to say Peter Thiel went through a huge not just this personal turmoil of being outed by a blog, but also had a sort of business turmoil where he went from being like the most successful hedge fund manager on Wall Street. In early 2008 to just being basic, like for his hedge fund basically collapsed, he had to turn it into a family office, and Gawker was all over that

S1: by his own telling. Thiel started to look for a way to put Gawker out of business to find a case against a site that he could bankroll. Here he is, explaining his thinking in 2016.

S4: My initial view was that what you were supposed to do was you were supposed to take your beatings, crouched down, go into a fetal position and then hope they moved on to somebody else and and sort of around 20, 2011. One of my friends convinced me that that if if Gawker could get away with this sort of sociopathic repeat behavior over and over, it was this tragedy of the Commons. They would continue to ruin lives one after another.

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S1: Maybe you listen to this and have no sympathy for Gawker. But there’s no denying that Thiel suit and the threat of other suits like it reverberated throughout American newsrooms. He became a kind of boogeyman to journalists, but to certain donors and some people in the tech world, it made him heroic.

S3: Beating up on media outlets is a, you know, does really well. And when he showed up in 2016 at the RNC, that was his main credential. When people were talking about especially conservatives were talking about it, right? He’s the guy who beat Gawker and and and that I think became a calling card for him and has become a calling card both as a way to make sure that people don’t criticize him and they do what he want. I mean, it really, as somebody who wrote a book on this and, you know, has been in a lot of these conversations, it really hangs over anybody who has any kind of negative feelings about Peter Thiel or is tempted to say something about what what something to happen at one of his companies or or just do. Anything that might potentially down the road piss him off because he has a track record of moving very, very aggressively towards any kind of critic, so it serve that purpose. And then it also serves a purpose of kind of turning him into this right wing folk hero.

S1: When we come back. Forget Facebook. Thiel is betting on J.D. Vance now. He’s left the Facebook Medha Board, you wrote a story with the headline that he is quote, taking his talents to Mar a Lago, which made me laugh. Very nice, LeBron reference. What’s he going to be doing with his time now?

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S3: Well, I think what he’s trying to do is to be this patron to what he sees as as, I think, the ascendant part of the Republican Party, and so that means trying to find candidates who are basically who have similar politics to Trump. So super nationalistic, Populist, anti-immigration and hard line, you know, you know, cultural reactionaries and give them money and hopefully, you know, get them into into positions of power. And I think the hope is sort of twofold. I think it’s one is that he kind of agrees with those ideas. But the other, of course, is many of Till’s businesses bump up against the government in lots of different ways, and he has been over the course of his career, incredibly effective at both carving out regulatory space for these kind of unregulated or gray area companies to operate. We’re just, you know, getting money from the government in the case of Palantir. So he has a lot to gain economically from having a great, a great amount of political power.

S1: Two of the candidates that he has backed J.D. Vance in Ohio, Blake Masters and Arizona, both Trumpists. Both have claimed that the 2020 election results were fraudulent, but neither of them was polling all that well. Like what if? What if Thiel fails at this? You noted that he’s a better tech investor than a political one, but if he makes a bad bet?

S3: Yeah, I think I’ve been watching the his departure from the board of Facebook Metta and this kind of turn into politics really in a really close way. It’s very interesting because in a lot of ways, it’s like the culmination of his career. On the other hand, you know, giving up a board seat on one of the world’s biggest and most valuable companies to back a couple of candidates who are polling around five to 10 percent and also to get a board seat on the dating company founded by Trump’s former briefcase carrier, which is this it’s called the right stuff. It’s actually an investment Thiel Thiel recently made in a in an online right wing dating site. I mean, it’s quite a comedown from being the right hand of Mark Zuckerberg now. On the other hand, even if Thiel doesn’t win, just standing these candidates up and making them legitimate will kind of create a force of gravity on around him. And in order he is right, you know, anyone who wants to raise money from Peter Thiel kind of knows that their sort of positions you have to take.

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S1: I feel like often Silicon Valley is looked at as a libertarian place or a place with sort of a grab bag of ideologies. But when I read your work and look at the totality of Thiel’s life and his companies, it feels like it would be a mistake treating him as a libertarian.

S3: Yeah, I don’t think he’s a libertarian, at least not in the way that they like. I think normal people use the word I. He’s something closer to an authoritarian. He’s sad. You know that he thinks democracy and freedom are incompatible. And when you look at kind of, you know, a lot of his writing and a lot of things he’s done, I mean, the view is more is not like liberty for all its liberty for tech billionaires. And it’s this idea that the world would be a better place if we just sort of let these geniuses who are building the future just have absolute control both over their companies and probably over the world. And these pseudo authoritarian or outright authoritarian ideas are more common in Silicon Valley than you’d imagine even on the left. There is this kind of like the sort of solution s like, let’s just let Silicon Valley fix this. You hear that from Democrats as well. And I think I think that is very much a thing that Thiel has been responsible for. And I think there’s a lot of potential danger there, too.

S1: Max Chafkin, thank you so much. Thanks. Max Chafkin writes for Bloomberg, and he’s the author of the Contrarian, Peter, Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power. That is it for the show today. TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks were edited by Jonathan Fisher and Tori Bosch. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer for Slate Podcasts. TBD is part of a larger What Next family, and it’s also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. I want to recommend that you go back and listen to Tuesday’s episode of What Next? It’s a conversation with a mom who lost her son at Sandy Hook about the long road to a settlement with Remington, which made the gun that killed him. Thank you so much for spending this time with us. We will be back next week with another episode. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.