This certainly is a good election cycle for strange stories. One of the strangest involves high-flying Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and Facebook board member. In less than three months, Thiel rocketed from a low-profile delegate role in the Donald Trump presidential campaign all the way up to a juicy prime-time slot during the climactic final session of the Republican National Convention last week in Cleveland, separated from Trump himself by only two other speakers.
So … how’d he do that?
Peter Thiel, from “stealth” Trump delegate…
Thiel’s appearance at RNC 2016 left most observers scratching their heads. After all, high-profile Trump supporters are as rare as unicorns in corporate America — particularly in the tech industry, and especially in Silicon Valley.
Thiel’s status as an out gay man also made his appearance an oddity. The Republican party has ginned up anti-LGBT sentiment with steadily increasing fervor since the 1990s, and at RNC 2016 the party outdid itself.
How bad was it? The platform approved at RNC 2016 horrified the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization with roots in the 1970s that advocates for a more inclusive approach by the party. Log Cabin president Gregory T. Angelo fired off a note to members that began, “There’s no way to sugar-coat this: I’m mad as hell — and I know you are, too.”
Angelo called it the “most anti-LGBT Platform in the Party’s 162-year history.”
“The platform also makes homophobia and the denial of basic civil rights to gays, lesbians and transgender people a centerpiece,” wrote the New York Times Editorial Board. “It repudiates same-sex marriage, despite strong support for this constitutional right in the nation at large. The party invokes ‘natural marriage’ and states’ rights for determining which bathrooms transgender people may use, and it defends merchants who would deny service to gay customers.”
Anti-gay legislation has become a signature Republican issue on the state and national level. Despite some mixed signals from Trump and other high-profile Republicans, in the end the party gave the base what it wanted.
Thiel must have seen the writing on the wall. Nevertheless, he signed on to become a Trump delegate last spring. Though he did not announce the decision and refused requests for comment, his name appeared on the rolls in California in May, representing the 12th Congressional District in San Francisco.
One can only wonder why all the secrecy, though from a business angle Thiel could have ample reason to keep a low political profile.
At least three sensitive Thiel-related issues came to a head within days or weeks of the reporting on his new status as a Trump delegate: the so-called “trust-building” meeting between Facebook and conservative stakeholders, his admission that he secretly funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media, and preparations for a lawsuit against the U.S. Army (yes, the U. S. Army) by Palantir. That’s the sprawling data mining company co-founded by Thiel, in which he is still a major shareholder.
… to featured speaker at RNC 2016
That finally brings us to RNC 2016. On the eve of Thiel’s speech last Thursday, I hazarded a guess that the theme would be based on the commencement address he read off to newly minuted graduates at Hamilton College in May (that makes sensitive issue No. 4, for those of you keeping score at home).
Thiel did not disappoint. Like his Hamilton address, his RNC speech (Time graciously provides a transcript) is based on the theme that something is horribly wrong with America in general, and with American technology in particular.
That’s what accounts for all the head-scratching. Certainly, delegates did not come to Cleveland to hear a lecture about malaise in the tech sector, but that’s what they got.
One line of Thiel’s RNC speech in particular stands out:
“… in 1968, the world’s high-tech capital wasn’t just one city: all of America was high tech.”
Those of you familiar with the persistence of extreme poverty through the 1960s in urban slums and regions like rural Appalachia may experience a bit of trouble seeing how that statement reflects any kind of objective reality, but there you have it.
Thiel’s total dismissal of the current tech revolution sticks out like a sore thumb in the laundry list of social ills that other RNC speakers unspooled. So, why the insistence on decline in the tech sector?
A look back at Thiel’s notorious statement on women’s suffrage may provide a clue. It appears in an April 13, 2009, essay he wrote for the libertarian journal Cato Unbound:
“… The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics. Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.”
By May 2009, the editors at Cato Unbound had received enough blowback to provide Thiel with an opportunity to explain himself in a footnote to the original article. He seems to have taken the opportunity to dig himself into a deeper hole:
“I had hoped my essay on the limits of politics would provoke reactions, and I was not disappointed. But the most intense response has been aimed … at a commonplace statistical observation about voting patterns that is often called the gender gap.
“It would be absurd to suggest that women’s votes will be taken away or that this would solve the political problems that vex us. While I don’t think any class of people should be disenfranchised, I have little hope that voting will make things better.”
Given Thiel’s dismissal of women’s contribution to American democracy, it’s possible that his comparison between technology in the 1960s and 2016 has something to do with the fact that women were rarely represented in the tech sector 50 years ago.
The tech renaissance of recent years — truly a golden era in terms of clean energy, biomaterials, automotive technology, nanoscience, biotechnology, medicine and many other fields — has occurred in step with the diversification of the workforce. By omission, Thiel insists that none of this counts.
Follow the money
If the woman angle is too much of a stretch, there’s always the money angle. RNC 2016 is far from the first time that Thiel has dipped his toe into the political shark tank. In 2012, he backed the presidential candidacy of Ron Paul to the tune of well, lots, according to the Nation:
“According to recently filed FEC disclosure documents, Ron Paul’s Super PAC, Endorse Liberty, has received nearly all of its money from a single source, billionaire Peter Thiel. So far, Thiel has contributed $2.6 million to the Super PAC, providing 76 percent of the its total intake.”
Trump’s fundraising difficulties are the cause of much speculation, and political insiders are now openly accusing him of staying afloat by leveraging his business connections with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.
Nailing down substantial sources of U.S. cash is an imperative for the Trump campaign. Thiel’s “rich-as-hell” portfolio and political history makes him an attractive area of focus.
As for what Thiel gains by allying himself with Trump, we’ve previously noted that the two men share a comfort zone with the white nationalist movement.
Last month, we also noted that Thiel could be maneuvering for a position in a President Trump administration, leveraging the national security platform provided by Palantir’s software. That would account for lines like this in his RNC speech:
“… And it would be kind to say the government’s software works poorly, because much of the time it doesn’t 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.”
It seems that the idea of a Palantir-Trump nexus is catching on. Last week, Bloomberg has this to say:
“Perhaps the biggest Thiel-backed beneficiary of a Trump administration would be Palantir. The company, recently valued at $20 billion, still isn’t profitable and has struggled to retain employees over the past year. Today about half of Palantir’s sales — it booked deals totaling $1.7 billion in 2015 — comes from companies such as BP; the other half comes from the National Security Agency, the FBI, branches of the U.S. Department of Defense, and other government entities … “
As Bloomberg reports, the notable exception to all this is the U.S. Army, which so far is sticking with its long-term contractors despite the Palantir lawsuit.