Thiel is a real American character, down to his endless contradictions. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, Thiel’s father moved the family to Ohio when he was very young. Thiel is a committed Christian who hates what he calls “the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual,” by which he means bodily death. Accordingly, he is investing millions in an “immortality project.” Finally, he is openly gay, speaking at a convention that has endorsed aggressively anti-LGBT policies.
Thiel attended Stanford University for philosophy and law. Like Newt Gingrich, Thiel is a self-conscious intellectual, fond of Leo Strauss, Ayn Rand, and René Girard. His failure to secure a Supreme Court clerkship under Justice Antonin Scalia led him to the technology industry. He founded PayPal during the first tech boom, aiming to start a pan-global currency. In 2004, he founded Palantir, a startup-like contractor that works with large corporations and national-security agencies. Now he controls four massive financial funds, including a general hedge fund and a venture-capital pool.
For most of the last decade, Thiel has fashioned himself as an old-fashioned libertarian with a techno-futurist bent. Like many Republicans, he supports paring back regulation—but his crusade against government goes much further than that. He has invested in “sea-steading” operations, which seek to create new floating city-states on enormous ships that float beyond national borders. He preaches that interplanetary space travel is important not because there is some universal human drive to discover, but because other planets don’t have laws yet.
Many California-based designers and developers have a techno-libertarian bent, even if most of them ultimately pull the level for Democrats. But Thiel goes further in his ideology than almost anyone else—including in his support for Trump. Last week, more than 140 CEOs, investors, and leaders from across the sector publicly denounced Donald Trump’s candidacy. And earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, criticized Trump, though he avoided saying his name. “Instead of building walls, we can help build bridges,” Zuckerberg said, alluding to Trump’s most famous policy proposal.
But maybe Thiel’s support for Trump shouldn’t come as a surprise. Survey his ideas over the past two decades and unrelated events come into focus. Peter Thiel emerges as a kind of richer, suaver Donald Trump.
First, Thiel seems to believe that the post-1970s economy has left most Americans behind. Talking to The New Yorker in 2011, he implied that older elites had grown out of touch with regular Americans to a dangerous degree. Most college-educated Boomers benefitted from postwar affluence in a way that their less educated peers did not, he said. Sounding almost like a leftist, he blamed the globalized Information Age for consolidating wealth (including his) and destroying manufacturing jobs. “You have dizzying change where there’s no progress,” he said.