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In mid-January, following a special meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, the venerable free market organization, after appearances by Condoleezza Rice and Niall Ferguson, Peter Thiel was to deliver a closing speech on “Big Tech and the Question of Scale.” The commencement speech was the latest in a series of public remarks and interviews in which the PayPal founder and Facebook investor showed his prominence in conservative politics.
Thiel has long been a political donor; in 2016, he gave $4 million to various campaigns, including $1 million to a Trump-supporting super-PAC, on whose behalf Thiel spoke at the Republican National Convention. He is known for funding the right-wing James O’Keefe hoax and has been an enthusiastic sponsor of activist and intellectual organizations, such as The Stanford Review, a conservative publication he founded in the 1980s. Earlier this month, he announced an investment in a Midwest-focused venture capital fund led by Hillbilly Elegy author and social curator JD Vance.
But unlike other big right-wing donors, Thiel seems determined to be known for his intellect as much as his wallet. Over the past year, he’s played the role of an outraged patriot, endorsing Trump’s trade war and bizarrely accusing Google of “seemingly treacherous” behavior in its dealings with China. He teaches intermittently at Stanford. vanity lounge possesses writing about his dinner parties in Los Angeles, where guests (including, at least once, the president) hold “in-depth discussions” on the issues of the day. Last year, George Mason University professor and economist Tyler Cowen called Thiel “the most influential conservative intellectual along with other conservative and libertarian intellectuals.”
This nascent Republican chew is a far cry from the ultralibertarian seditionist who encouraged entrepreneurs to leave the United States and start their own country at sea. But Thiel is no stranger to inconsistency. For decades, he cultivated a reputation as a Silicon Valley radical anti-state; in 2009 he wrote that Facebook, in which he was an early investor, could “create space for new modes of dissent and new ways of forming communities not bound by historical nation states”. Yet six years earlier he had co-founded the most “statist” company of the 21st century: Palantir, the global surveillance firm used, for example, to monitor Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. Can you really claim to defend individual freedom if you take advantage of a government mass surveillance contractor? Are you really a libertarian if you are a prominent Trump supporter?
It would be easy enough to attribute the apparent contradiction in Thiel’s thinking to expediency or pettiness (notably, he funded a lawsuit, in secret, to bankrupt Gawker, my former employer) or perhaps even to a mind less ambidextrous than incoherent. But it is worth trying to understand his political background. Thiel’s growing prominence as an intellectual and benefactor to the conservative movement — and his legendary status in Silicon Valley — makes him at least as prominent as more public tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg. In fact, he still dominates Zuckerberg: Recent reports suggest that Thiel was the most influential voice in Facebook’s decision to allow politicians to lie in ads on its platform. What Thiel believes now is likely to influence the next generation of conservative and libertarian thinkers – if not what the president believes the next day.
How do you reconcile Thiel’s post-national techno-libertarianism with his bloodthirsty authoritarian nationalism? Strangely, he wants both. Today’s thielism is a libertarianism with an abstract commitment to personal liberty but no particular affection for democracy – or even for “politics” as a process by which people might make collective decisions about the distribution of power and resources. Thiel married into state power not in order to participate in the political process, but in order to circumvent it.
If we wanted to construct a genealogy of late Thielism, a starting point might be a relatively little-read essay Thiel wrote in 2015 for the conservative religious journal. First things. Thiel is a Christian, though clearly a heterodox believer, and in “Against Edenism” he argues that “science and technology are natural allies” to what he sees as the innate “optimism” of the Christianity. Christians are natural utopians, Thiel believes, and because “there will be no return” to the prelapse paradise of Eden, they should support technological progress, even if that may mean joining “atheistic optimists”. , personified in Goethe’s Faust essay. At least Faust was “motivated to try to do something about everything that was wrong with the world”, even if he, you know, sold his immortal soul to the devil.
Thiel suggests that growth is essentially a religious obligation – “to build the kingdom of heaven today, here on Earth” – and that stagnation is, well, demonic – the chaotic sea “where the demon Leviathan dwells”. This binary appears frequently in Thiel’s writing, where “progress” is always aligned with technology and the individual, and “chaos” with politics and the masses. If Thiel has an apocalyptic fear of stasis, you can begin to see why his politics have changed over the past few years, as it has become less clear whether the booming tech industry has actually added much to the economy or to the world. human happiness, much less demonstrated “progress”.
Where some of his fellow libertarians moved to the center, attempting to build a “liberalism” with a relatively strong welfare state and mass democratic appeal, others found themselves articulating a version of what Tyler Cowen , in a recent blog post, called “state-capacity libertarianism,” a concept he says was influenced by Thiel’s thinking. At its essence, it is the admission that “strong states are still needed to maintain and expand capitalism and markets”. Where Thiel would disagree with state-capacity libertarians like Cowen is that he does not simply believe in strong states in the abstract as agents of economic progress. He is supposed to be a uniquely American “national curator,” at least according to his lecture schedule. Thiel has suggested in the past that such conservative nationalism is the only thing that can provide the cohesion needed to recreate a strong state. “Identity politics,” he suggested in a speech at the Manhattan Institute, the free-market think tank, is a distraction that keeps us from operating at “the scale we need to focus on for this country”. MAGA policy is the only way to grow.
It is in this context that it makes sense for a gay, cosmopolitan libertarian like Thiel to support a red-meat conservative like Kansas Senate candidate Kris Kobach. The technological advancement that Thiel associates with his personal freedom and power is threatened by market failure and political chaos. A strong centralized state can restore order, engender progress, and open up new technologies, markets, and financial instruments that Thiel could take advantage of. And as long as he allows Thiel to earn money and host dinner parties, who cares if his boundaries are cruelly and ruthlessly enforced? Who cares if its leader is an autocrat? Who cares, anyway, if it’s democratic? In fact, it might be better if it weren’t: if the left’s engagement in “identity politics” is divisive enough to prevent technological progress, its threat goes beyond the kind of belligerent religious authoritarianism that represents Kobach. A Thielist government would be aggressive toward China, a country Thiel is obsessed with — while appearing, in its centralized authority and close government-industry ties, to look a lot like it.
There is, of course, another context in which it makes sense for Thiel to associate with social conservatives and nationalists: his bank account. Thiel’s ideological shifts have always corresponded to his personal financial interest. His newfound patriotism is probably best understood as an alliance of convenience. The US government is the ship best suited to reach its immortal techno-libertarian future (and a lower tax rate), and it’s happy to ride it as long as it’s traveling in the same direction. And if that doesn’t work out, well, he actually bought New Zealand citizenship.
*This article originally appeared in the January 20, 2020 issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe now!