Is Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley investor, shorting democracy at Trump’s convention?

In the spotlight.
In the spotlight.
Image: Reuters/Rick Wilking
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In a way, Peter Thiel has been waiting for Donald Trump his entire life. At his side, he might disrupt the greatest legacy operating system of all—liberal democracy.

The technology investor tonight became the first Republican National Convention speaker to say that he is gay, and proud of it, in an arena of people whose representatives would not endorse an item in their party platform merely recognizing that opinions about gay people in society are “diverse and sincerely held.”

“I don’t pretend to agree with every plank in our party’s platform, but fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline,” Thiel told the cheering audience.

Perhaps the first thing to understand then, for Thiel—who declined to speak to Quartz—is that the personal has never been political. Or rather, to judge by his writing, his politics is so intensely personal and anti-conformist as lead him to question basic forms of social solidarity.

Since his college days, when he founded a conservative magazine, Thiel has been labeled politically incorrect. In 1995, he co-wrote a book called The Diversity Myth that drew on his time as a student at Stanford to argue that multi-cultural politics were destroying the American university.

Many of his colleagues in Silicon Valley, where he built a $1.5 billion fortune by co-founding Pay Pal and investing in Facebook, are bewildered by his decision to back Trump. But Thiel’s embrace of the billionaire builder can perhaps be explained the same way that the evangelical embrace of a thrice-divorced New York City libertine can: Trump, too, says things that are unpopular in society at large.

Thiel’s speech was ultimately Trumpian boilerplate, harkening back to a lost golden age and the opportunity that seemed available to his parents’ generation. Recalling the creation of the nuclear bomb and the Apollo program, he suggested that the United States government should be investing more in large research and science programs, not exactly traditional libertarianism.

Urging Americans to back Trump, Thiel argued that only he could fix the economy. But Thiel’s public record suggests he may believe the economy will ultimately be fixed in a different way than the activists in the audience.

Most Republican delegates didn’t know who Thiel was when I approached them over the course of the last few days.

Those that did knew him from his legal war against Gawker Media, the internet publication that publicly outed him in 2007 —beforehand, his friends and colleagues knew he was a gay man. Unable to sue Gawker for libel in that case, he bided his time, financing several lawsuits against the company. The effort culminated in a judgement against Gawker for posting a sex tape featuring the wrestler Hulk Hogan that drove the website into bankruptcy, though has yet to shut it down or complete a bankruptcy auction.

This victory over the liberal media is appreciated by the delegates even if his sexuality is not, but the details of his views seem to simply escape the notice of many delegates here, who often identify more closely with Christianity and American populism. Those that do notice are the few gay delegates scattered amid delegations from moderate states.

“I’m excited for the first time in the history of the Republican national convention to have a speaker to say ‘I’m a proud gay man,'” said Christian Berle, a Republican delegate from Washington, D.C., who is gay. “Peter Thiel is not here because he’s gay, I’m guessing…I think he is here because he’s a billionaire who happens to be gay.”

Among them there is a sense that Thiel, whose philanthropy ranges from schemes to extend human lifespan to giving 18 year-olds $100,000 grants to finance their own ideas of entrepreneurship or learning, hasn’t been interested in pushing for public acceptance of LGBT Americans.

“It’s been frustrating,” Berle says. “Thiel is a man who on his own and through his connection has made a huge sum of money, but as a gay man to my knowledge he’s never been a donor for any one of the organizations that advocate for gay rights. Or represent gay Republicans. When I was at Log Cabin Republicans I certainly never saw a check.”

The venture capitalist’s political priorities have been figuring out ways to shake free of the liberal democratic capitalism gave him the stage to make his fortune but apparently restrain his agency in ways he still finds all to uncomfortable.

At times, he has seemed trend toward the kind of alt-right politics of a Milo Yiannopoulos, a younger gay Trump supporter whose performative racism and anti-feminism has earned him an internet following. A 2009 essay arguing that democracy was incompatible with freedom and that women’s suffrage may have been a mistake highlights those views.

Since then, Thiel has downplayed the essay. In a more recent discussion with economist Tyler Cowen, he allowed that ”I think calling our society a democracy, whatever may be good or bad about democracy, is very, very deeply misleading. We’re not a republic. We’re not a constitutional republic. We are actually a state that’s dominated by these very unelected, technocratic agencies.”

Combined with his fears of general technological stagnation and his view that globalization is in abeyance, he says that “we will realize that 2007 was not just the peak year of the finance boom, but also the peak year of globalization, like maybe 1913.”  Which, by the way, puts us today in 1922—the early days of the Weimar Republic.

What to do? He told Cowen that “the challenge is that a lot of these agencies have become deeply sclerotic, deeply nonfunctioning, even though the alternatives to them, politically, often seem to be even worse.”

Tonight, he told Republicans that “our government is broken.” It suggests his citation of the Apollo project is more to point out what can no longer be done than what could be realized today. For someone like Thiel, the response to sclerotic system seems straightforward: Creative destruction.

Trump, at least, is a person to do that, and that alone may explain why Thiel is backing the Republican whose personal inclinations seem far from libertarian but also likely to throw the US into a crisis with his election. It may reflect his inherent contrarianism, his pessimism about society, his dislike of the politics of society, and give him a platform to enunciate it. We may never know his true motivation.

Thiel has bet big against the United States before, and lost. After selling PayPal, he started a hedge fund called Clarium Capital that made a huge, and ultimately correct, bet against the US housing market, reaping massive returns when the bubble popped in 2008. Yet Thiel insisted on continuing his short position on the US economy through 2009, and caught off-guard by the economic recovery, saw 90% of his gains slip away.

Sometimes, pessimism misses the mark.

“I’m not sure whether subjective happiness should be the most important metric at which we evaluate things,” Thiel told an audience member at Cowen’s event when asked whether the super-wealthy were really happier than other people. “There’s many other metrics we can use.”

Gwynn Guilford provided additional reporting in Cleveland.