Why is PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel backing Donald Trump for president? After listening to Thiel explain his position at the National Press Club on Monday, one might conclude that it has much to do with the eccentric billionaire’s dark obsession with bubbles.
Immigration bubbles, housing bubbles, dotcom bubbles, stock bubbles, trade bubbles, war bubbles—Thiel hates them all, considers them downright “catastrophic.” As such, he is frustrated by the foolish compulsion of Americans (especially Baby Boomers) to again and again “buy into” the rosy promise of bubbles. “Whenever there is a hard problem, people want to believe in an easy solution,” he lamented. They “deny reality,” and soon another bubble begins to “inflate.”
Most politicians foster a bubble mentality, charged Thiel, by peddling “falsely reassuring stories.” But Trump is different. He’s not one of those out-of-touch elites insisting “everything is fine.” He doesn’t think “optimism alone without hard work” can fix the U.S. Rather, Trump can “viscerally feel the decline” and, in response, is pioneering “a new American politics that overcomes denial, rejects bubble thinking, and reckons with reality.”
Condensed version: The libertarian-contrarian Thiel has long argued that the U.S. has been on the skids since the 1970s, so Trump’s message of America-in-the-toilet strikes him as pure genius.
Few big-name Trumpkins have prompted as much bewilderment and turmoil as Thiel. His headline speech at the Republican nominating convention was weird enough. But then in mid-October, he announced he was giving $1.25 million to the Trump cause. Not a huge sum by the standards of fat-cat donors, but enough to send Silicon Valley into a flurry of How could hes! and No he did nots!
Admittedly, Thiel has always been an odd bird, with his passion for, as he called them Monday, “fringy” causes (seasteading, anti-aging measures, the development of a civilization-altering artificial superintelligence somewhat creepily known as The Singularity…). And Thiel’s libertarian political leanings led him to back the decidedly fringy Ron Paul in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential races.
But to actually provide material aid to Donald Trump in all his race-baiting, immigrant-bashing, misogynistic, sexually predatory, religiously bigoted vulgarity? That was beyond the pale for many in the left-leaning Bay Area--not to mention the immigration-friendly Silicon Valley. There were immediate calls from within tech world for companies to sever ties with Thiel. Both Facebook (on whose board he sits) and Y Combinator (with whom he is a part-time partner) felt compelled to defend their continued relationship with him. At the press club, Thiel downplayed the drama, even as he voiced surprise at “the pushback.” He allowed, “I really didn’t think that there would be this sort of visceral reaction.”
Maybe. But from what we’ve seen and heard from Thiel, one gets the feeling that Trump’s gift for provoking outrage is central to the nominee’s appeal for his fellow billionaire. Like Trump, Thiel himself takes great pride in being a disruptive force. He favors revolutionary ideas and people with big plans for blowing things up and remaking the world. (His foundation even set up a grant-making body aimed at turning “wild ideas into world-changing technologies.”) He loves to slam Silicon Valley for thinking small. (A Twitter critic, one of his pet quotes is, “We wanted flying cars, and instead what we got was 140 characters.”) And in 2010 he established a fellowship to provide $2 million in grants to urge young entrepreneurs to quit college and start their own enterprises.
Also like Trump, Thiel loves to grump about multiculturalism and political correctness. (He in fact wrote an entire book on “The Diversity Myth”). He seems to feel strangely vindicated by the abuse he is taking over Trump. Early in his prepared remarks (which ran about 15 minutes), Thiel mentioned that the LGBT-interest publication The Advocate, which had once praised him as a gay innovator, was now asserting that in fundamental ways he is “not a gay man.” He informed the assembled journalists, “The lie behind the buzzword of diversity could not be made more clear. If you don't conform, then you don't count as diverse, no matter what your personal background.”
And, of course, like Trump, Thiel likes to play hardball with the media: After years of warring with the gossip site Gawker (which kinda, sorta outed Thiel in 2007), the billionaire secretly bankrolled the Hulk-Hogan-sex-tape privacy lawsuit that bankrupted the site. In his speech, Thiel called Gawker “a singularly sociopathic bully.”
On a gut level, in other words, Trump and Thiel seem made for each other in many ways.
Unless, that is, you start really thinking about Thiel’s professed horror of slick, out-of-touch politicians who assure voters they have simple solutions to the nation’s complex problems. Simplistic ideas like, say, “build a wall,” or “ban all Muslims,” or, more fundamentally, Trump’s message that voters need only to put their faith in him because he is “the only one who can fix this.”
Looked at this way, Trumpism may be the biggest bubble to hit the body politic in decades. And when it inevitably pops, this time Thiel will be as much to blame for the resulting catastrophe as anyone.