Silicon Valley tycoon Peter Thiel delivered a very animated endorsement of Donald Trump during a primetime speech Thursday at the Republican National Convention. The billionaire venture capitalist, who sits on the board of both Facebook and Palantir (the secretive CIA-backed data analysis company), grinned widely through a speech that attempted to transfer some of Thiel's own techno-futurist sheen to the Republican nominee. All told, it was as compelling as it was confusing.
Ever since Thiel's name showed up on the delegate list, fans and friends and even critical observers of the billionaire have insisted that there must be some grander motive driving a rationalist titan of industry to support Trump. Granted, Thiel is an outlier even among freaky technophiles. But Thiel, who has a lengthy record of donating to conservative candidates dating back to at least 2000, has previously focused his public appearances on causes that improve his image as an independent thinker and inspire innovative startups to seek him out as an investor. Surely there had to be some long con on democracy at play.
At a conference in May, for example, Thiel's friend and fellow PayPal co-founder Max Levchin said: "It wouldn’t surprise me if the underlying reality of [Thiel's] choice were the sheer contrariness of what he is doing." Eliezer Yudkowsky, an influential board member at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute — an artificial-intelligence nonprofit that counts Thiel as its top donor — wrote a Facebook post promising to "eat my shirt, or at least chew on it extensively, if Peter Thiel is actually a Trumpist." Even when Yudkowsky later amended his post, he still clung to disbelief: "Okay, I have no idea what Peter Thiel is actually trying to do, except that the objective doesn't rely on Trump becoming President."
Quora threads popped up trying to puzzle out Thiel's motives. Inc. magazine threw out the wild theory Thiel was trying to "weaken America's attachment to democratic government," because there "had to be more to it."
But then again, there's a way in which Thiel and Trump are actually a natural fit. Both are unabashed capitalists. Both share a disgust for the media when it reports outside their comfort zone. Both have a conflicted relationship with government: Palantir, one of Thiel's main success stories, relies on government contracts (despite Thiel's libertarian leanings); Trump would like to be in charge of our government. Both have personal brands that rely on "bombastic theories to drive [their followers] wild," as The Intercept put it. Neither has suffered for his ideological inconsistencies.
And those of us searching for some shrewd chess move in Thiel's speech tonight got more obfuscation than answers — and very few signs that support the idea that Thiel has a grander goal in mind.
Take the highlight of Thiel's speech, his announcement that he is "proud to be gay." It was genuinely moving, a major milestone for the Republican party. But just before that line, Thiel said this:
When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union. And we won. Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares? ... I don't pretend to agree with every plank in our party platform, but fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline. Nobody in this race is being honest about it except Donald Trump.
Was Thiel trying to whitewash the revelation that he spent $10 million on lawsuits to bankrupt Gawker after it published a post saying that he was gay? Or was he deftly trying to nudge conservatives forward in a way that wouldn't alienate the audience at the RNC? "Who cares?" and the line about "fake culture wars" — a longtime hobby horse for Thiel, who wrote a co-wrote a book equating multiculturalism with the decline of Stanford University — seem to point to the former.
Thiel's position on big government likewise sent mixed messages. For a libertarian, he sure made government spending sound swell:
It is hard to remember this, but our government was once high-tech too. When I moved to Cleveland, defense research was laying the foundations for the internet. The Apollo program was just about to put a man on the moon.
The biggest disappointment to his colleagues back home, however, might be that Thiel did not equivocate in his support of Trump as president.
Trump has thrown blows at a number of Silicon Valley power players during the course of his campaign. It would have been difficult to position him as a friend to the money-minting sectors. Instead, Thiel linked Trump to a "bright future" by focusing on the halcyon days of the past — his own youth in Cleveland as the child of German immigrants, the moon landing (a popular touchstone for billionaire technocrats like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Yuri Milner). Then he contrasted that promise with our present decline, and returned to the theme of Trump as a builder (itself a quasi-buzzy tech term).
Today our government is broken. Our nuclear bases still use floppy disks. Our newest fighter jet can't even fly in the rain, and it would be kind to say that government software works poorly, because much of the time it does not even work at all. That is a staggering decline for the country that completed the Manhattan project. We don't accept such incompetence in Silicon Valley and we must not accept it from our government. Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East. We don't need to see Hillary Clinton's deleted emails, her incompetence is in plain sight. She pushed for a war in Libya and today it is a training ground for ISIS. On this most important issue, Donald Trump is right. It is time to end the era of stupid wars and rebuild our country.
Thiel was expected to argue that Trump's antiwar stance made him the better candidate. (Trump's record as an noninterventionist has been inconsistent.) But who predicted that he would make the Trump campaign sound so technologically progressive?
Perhaps we will learn more about what Thiel really believes based on his next big political speech: In September, he's scheduled to give a talk on free market monopolies at the annual Property and Freedom Society event in Turkey, which some have described as welcoming white nationalists and neo-fascists.
Facebook declined to comment.