Tonight, in Cleveland, Silicon Valley billionaire, Facebook board member, and Donald Trump delegate Peter Thiel will address thousands of party members and journalists at the Republican National Convention. Although he has never concealed his own fringe political views—such as his contention that human freedom and representative democracy are incompatible—Thiel’s open embrace of Trump has inspired some soul-searching in the proudly progressive technology sector. Among that crowd, he’s typically considered a brilliant if mercurial oracle, while the broader public has, for the most part, treated Thiel with confusion and fascination, most recently over his years-long covert campaign to bankrupt Gawker Media. Thiel, who has styled himself as a deep, innovative, and strategic thinker about the big questions facing the world, will, tonight, have the biggest audience he has ever had. So what is he going to ask for?
Thiel’s speech is likely to be the most sober that convention-goers have heard in what has been, up to this point, a remarkably content-free festival of anger and confusion. Early reports about the address have indicated that Thiel intends to praise Trump’s anti-interventionism and “economic credentials.” (He also reportedly plans to acknowledge that he is proud to be a gay man.) But from the vantage point of Thiel’s philosopher-capitalist persona, there isn’t much of substance in Trumpism to praise: His political agenda is mostly a posture, an attitude of defiance. Which may explain both why Thiel has signed on to Trump’s campaign, and why Trump has granted him one of the most high-profile slots in the convention schedule, just three speakers before the candidate himself. Trump needs ideas, and Thiel needs a political vehicle for his.
Those ideas boil down to a belief that the conventional givens of bourgeois capitalism—monopolies are bad, democracy is good, equality is a virtue, all people must eventually die—are little more than superstitions hindering the advance of the human project. Bold visionaries who are capable of seeing through the shibboleths of the Enlightenment can, and should, refashion the world after their own desires. They can live forever, make their own laws, travel through outer space, control the flow of information, ingest the content of the world’s conversations into servers under their control. As for the rest of us—we are users of services he has funded to distract us, providing the data he can monetize to fund his dreams.
Thiel has never been shy about his radical elitism. He’s repeated his ideas in dozens of interviews, and argued in print that “the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms—from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called ‘social democracy.’” The Silicon Valley milieu in which he travels has always tolerated his intellectual quirks within the ideological context of disruption—the idea that staid, calcified commercial sectors are ripe targets for attack if you know which rules to break. But Thiel’s assistance in the the coronation of Trump represents a different kind of disruption, a political one, which has alarmed the socially progressive and fiscally conservative members of Silicon Valley’s investor class.
Those people are baffled by the billionaire’s turn to Trump. One associate, PayPal cofounder Max Levchin, told Bloomberg: “Every time I read [about Thiel’s support for Trump], I typically check the calendar because I’m not completely sure it’s not April 1.” An open letter signed by 140 prominent members of the tech industry argued that Trump “stands against the open exchange of ideas, free movement of people, and productive engagement with the outside world that is critical to our economy—and that provide the foundation for innovation and growth.”
This ideological mismatch has inspired at least one conspiracy theory to explain Thiel and Trump’s odd alliance. “I think Peter Thiel supports Donald Trump because he believes it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to weaken America’s attachment to democratic government,” Jeff Bercovici recently opined in an essay for Inc. magazine. Citing unnamed people familiar with his thoughts about Trump, Bloomberg’s Max Chafkin and Lizette Chapman reported that Thiel “loves disruption, in the Silicon Valley sense of ‘creative destruction,’ as opposed to the usual connotation of ‘making things worse,’ and has weighed the candidate’s demagoguery against a hope that a Trump administration would clear the way for further disruption.”
To support this theory, both Inc. and Bloomberg cite Thiel’s clandestine plot to destroy Gawker Media by funding a series of frivolous lawsuits against the company, in apparent retribution for Gawker’s unflattering coverage of him and his friends. “As he showed with his years-long legal stalking of Gawker Media, Thiel is perfectly happy keeping his machinations hidden from view, and acting through proxies,” Bercovici noted. “He has evolved into a calculating operator, a man who nursed a decade-long grudge against a blog while secretly spending millions to destroy it,” Chafkin and Chapman, the Bloomberg reporters, wrote.
Thiel’s motivations become much more legible if you begin with the premise that he is endorsing Trump not because he believes in the candidate’s particular policy prescriptions—such as the systemic victimization of an entire religion—but because he wants to instrumentalize Trump in an effort to propagate his vision of a political future in which elites are liberated to radically remake the system of governance to better serve their interests. For all its antediluvian populism, Trumpism shares certain structural characteristics with Silicon Valley’s bleeding-edge ideology. Trump moves fast, and he breaks things. He iterates. He pivots. And if successful—perhaps even if he’s not—the disruption he causes to the calcified political order could make room for new ideas about the relations between economic classes, and between the government and the governed.
This is not as crazy as it might seem. Social theorists have studied the ideology of “accelerationism” for decades, and political activists still speak of “heightening the contradictions”—i.e., forcing societal change by making society increasingly intolerable. Where Thiel differs from, say, radical activists, is that he is attempting to harness the angry energy of a faux-populist political campaign in order to usher in the destruction of politics itself. What’s more, he has very specific ideas of what kind of world should rise from the ruins, and, unlike most people, has the monetary means to bring many of these ideas to life.
As has been widely documented, Thiel is deeply skeptical of traditions and institutions that, while beneficial to mankind on the whole, might clog up his plans to reshape the planet. In a 2009 essay for Cato Unbound, for example, he wrote, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” In the same piece, he argued that libertarianism would never flourish because of “welfare beneficiaries” and “the extension of the [voting rights] to women.” After readers criticized the obvious corollary—that Thiel believes women should not vote—he offered a short, dismissive response: “While I don’t think any class of people should be disenfranchised, I have little hope that voting will make things better.”
Another target of Thiel’s scorn is higher education. Although he attended Stanford University for college and law school, where he forged valuable connections in the tech industry, Thiel now believes that higher education is an elaborate scam. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States,” he told TechCrunch in 2011. “To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.” The same year, he began paying would-be college students $100,000 to either promise not to go to college or drop out entirely so that they can focus on building startups.
Thiel believes in establishing sovereign cities on floating ocean barges, where inhabitants would be free from government’s rules or regulations. The Thiel Foundation has pledged “up to to $1,000,000” to the Seasteading Institute, whose stated purpose is “to enable seasteading communities—floating cities—which will allow the next generation of pioneers to peacefully test new ideas for government.” The institute’s FAQ page openly encourages American seasteaders to renounce their citizenship to avoid taxes on income and capital gains acquired while seasteading.
Perhaps most infamously, Thiel has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into clinical research to prolong the human lifespan, perhaps indefinitely. In the aforementioned Cato Unbound essay, he said he stood against “the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual.” In a 2012 interview with CBS, he added, “There are all these people who say that death is natural, it’s just part of life, and I think that nothing can be further from the truth.” His vision of the world is based on the idea that nothing, not even his own body, should limit the power or potential of Peter Thiel.
Next month, Thiel is scheduled to attend the annual conference of the Property and Freedom Society in Turkey. The gatherings of the society, which promotes “uncompromising intellectual radicalism,” are “salons for white supremacists and their fellow travelers, and for libertarian extremists whose ideology creeps right up to crypto-Nazism,” according to the investigative journalists Brandon Thorp and Penn Bullock:
The group’s founder and Thiel’s host is Hans Hermann-Hoppe, an anarcho-capitalist former professor at the University of Nevada. Hoppe sets the tone for these gatherings. In his book Democracy: The God That Failed, he envisions a stateless “libertarian order” that purges homosexuals and literally anyone who believes in democracy. “They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society,” Hoppe writes, referring to “advocates of parasitism, homosexuality, or communism,” among other undesirables.
The through-line that animates all of Thiel’s ideas is a profound distrust in the notion that equality itself is a worthwhile end. It takes just a bit of imagination to game out his anti-death campaign into the ultimate inequity—unequal distribution of access to life itself. Thiel believes in monopolies, and that he who moves first deserves the spoils. If, against reason, an effort he funds ever cracks the code of life extension, that product would be the ultimate unicorn—Uber for life—available only to those who are able to pay, and protected from competition by patents and copyright law. (One promising life-extension technique, researched at Stanford University, involves transfusing older adults with the blood of young donors. It has been used to treat Alzheimer’s patients with some apparent effect. But what if its beneficial effects are more widely applied? Tony Wyss-Coray, the founder of Stanford’s Wyss-Coray Laboratory, told The Guardian that “healthy, very rich people” began asking him if his lab’s research could help them live longer. It’s not hard to imagine a Thielist future in which members of the overclass literally purchase the blood of the young poor in order to lead longer, healthier lives than their lesser counterparts can afford.)
Thiel reacts poorly to those who challenge his vision. When Gawker’s Valleywag blog began writing about Thiel’s failed hedge fund Clarium Capital—including his apparent decision to conceal his sexuality from the wider public so that Clarium could more easily penetrate petroleum markets controlled by repressive governments—he responded by calling Valleywag “the Silicon Valley equivalent of Al Qaeda.” In the world imagined by Peter Thiel, people who criticize Peter Thiel are terrorists. And, judging by his secret war on Gawker, he’s willing to destroy his critics in the press, not with any counter-arguments, but with his checkbook.
This is a startling vision for how the world should work. In this world, wealthy elites, having escaped from terrestrial society and been injected with the blood of the young, can live forever, while the less lucky are relegated to a death-bound underclass lacking the protections of a discernible government. It is one in which any criticism of the ruling powers deserves harsh punishment. It is profoundly anti-democratic. At the same time, it represents the terminus of Silicon Valley’s scariest misconception, which is that the interests of the technology industry and the interests of humanity are one in the same.
What does Peter Thiel want? He wants everything. And, based on his support of Trump, he appears willing to trade the world that we have, in all of its imperfections, for the world that he wants.