Silicon Valley tycoon Peter Thiel has certainly carved out a unique space for himself in the 2016 election cycle. In the latest development, Thiel — who co-founded PayPal and is a Facebook board member — penned an op-ed in support of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, which appeared in the Washington Post last Tuesday.
After spilling much ink on a critique of the D.C. Metro, Thiel wrapped up the op-ed by stating that the first step toward improving our government would be to provide voters with the ability to tell transit workers, “You’re fired.”
If that doesn’t make any sense to you, join the club. A growing number of media and political observers jumped all over the op-ed for not making any sense. However, it makes perfect sense on one important score.
Peter Thiel and Donald Trump
For those of you new to the topic, Peter Thiel presents a rather unusual figure in the 2016 election cycle. Part of his uniqueness stems from his role as the only A-list tech billionaire to publicly support Donald Trump for president.
Thiel actively pursued that singular role despite the virulently anti-LGBT planks in the Republican Party platform. (Thiel is an out gay man.)
For reasons unknown, Thiel kept his support for Trump strictly under wraps during the primary cycle. In May, his name appeared on rolls as a California delegate for Trump, but Thiel made no announcement or public comment on that status.
Many political observers were rightfully surprised, then, to see his name surface again as a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention. And that role was no small potatoes.
Thiel managed to wrangle himself one of the most important speaking slots of the entire convention. He appeared on the final night, just two speakers behind Donald Trump himself.
The only two people separating Thiel from the newly-dubbed presidential nominee were Trump’s own daughter and campaign advisor Ivanka Trump, and “longtime friend” Tom Barrack, the billionaire investor who developed a business model that involves rehabbing entertainment properties — and entertainers, too.
Voting is good for me, not for thee
By providing voters with firing-power over individual workers, Thiel presents a granular vision of American democracy. The new empowerment of the electorate is quite a turnabout for Thiel, who opened his widely referenced 2009 essay on Libertarianism by stating, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”
In the same 2009 essay Thiel had this to say about enfranchising women and poor people:
“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.”
Hey generals: You’re fired!
That brings us Peter Thiel’s new op-ed. It appeared under the title “Trump has taught us this year’s most important political lesson,” online at the Washington Post on Tuesday, Sept. 6.
There is so much to pick apart in terms of content — Vanity Fair writer May Kosoff provides one good example — but the timing is just as interesting.
In fact, the timing is just about the only thing about the op-ed that has some kind of logic to it.
The op-ed appeared on the eve of a critical point in the 2016 general election. That would be NBC’s televised “Commander in Chief Forum,” which aired live on Sept. 7. Though not actually a debate, the forum provided voters with their first chance to see Trump and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, in the same venue.
During his segment, Trump exhibited the kind of managerial style he so aptly displayed during his reality show tenure on “The Apprentice.”
Recall that Trump’s catchphrase in the show was, “You’re fired!” In this context, the Thiel op-ed makes perfect sense. It’s an attempt to legitimize the same style as a qualifier to hold the office of Commander in Chief.
With that in mind, check out how Trump would deal with generals that he deems incompetent (as reported by the Associated Press):
“Leveling unusually harsh criticism against the military, Republican Donald Trump said Wednesday night that America’s generals have been “reduced to rubble” under President Barack Obama and suggested he would fire some of them if he wins the presidency in November.”
In that context, Thiel’s op-ed is on firm logical footing. Here is the last paragraph in full:
“One elementary principle is accountability: We can’t expect the government to get the job done until voters can say both to incompetent transit workers and to the incompetent elites who feel entitled to govern: ‘You’re fired.’”
Without that context, the op-ed is a mashup of the ridiculously obvious (yes, having the fewest possible employees work at the highest levels of efficiency is a good thing) and the just plain ridiculous (how, exactly, are “voters” going to have a “say” in individual personnel matters?).
To top it off, Thiel undercuts his entire argument with the phrase “incompetent elites who feel entitled to govern.” It’s a rather on-point description of Thiel’s own candidate — a man with an economically “elite” family background, no previous experience in government, and a business record that is spotty at best.
Earth to Peter Thiel: The Metro is already being fixed
Speaking of timing, Thiel’s deep-dive into the fallibilities of the D.C. Metro is curiously mis-timed. This is how he introduces it:
“Similar dysfunction is everywhere, at every level. One of the most dramatic examples is in the nation’s capital: Metro was a marvel when it opened in 1976, and today it’s an embarrassing safety hazard.”
Anyone with experience in civic infrastructure (disclosure: like me) will tell you that complex, mechanical and cyber systems have a relatively short lifespan. Even a sewage treatment plant needs to be overhauled and updated every 30 years or so. That all takes time, planning and, above all, money.
Thiel himself underscores the fact that the Metro was inaugurated 40 years ago, making it long overdue for a major update. It’s kind of a stretch to pin the failures of an aging system on a failure to hold individual, low-level workers “accountable.”
Although Thiel seems to believe that everyone has been ignoring the Metro’s problems, in fact the Metro (short for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority) has been planning for an accelerated track overhaul program called SafeTrack.
The program addresses exactly the problems that Thiel describes in his op-ed. The program launched on June 4 to much fanfare, and work will continue through to the end of October.
Perhaps Peter Thiel should get out more often.