Silicon Valley observers and political junkies alike have been puzzling over Peter Thiel ever since last May, when the Facebook board member’s name appeared on the rolls as a California delegate for Donald Trump.
Thiel is virtually the only member of the tech set to publicly support the Trump candidacy. He never provided a public explanation for his support, aside from a brief speech at the Republican National Convention in July, a single op-ed, and a recent contribution of $1.25 million to the Trump campaign out of his own pocket.
Thiel finally provided the press with an opportunity to challenge him on Monday evening. He gave a high-profile speech at the National Press Club, complete with a question-and-answer session afterward.
As it turns out, though, the event was far more interesting for what Thiel left unsaid.
Peter Thiel still has some ‘splaining to do
TriplePundit has been following Thiel’s political venture on two accounts.
First, Thiel secretly bankrolled the Hulk Hogan “sex tapes” lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker Media earlier this year. After documented personal disputes, he purposefully targeted the media organization for extinction — using his wealth as a weapon. Hogan had already settled for a nominal amount when Thiel’s largess enabled him to revive the case.
The demise of Gawker hit a raw nerve in the media field, including here at TriplePundit.
When Thiel’s role in the case came to light, he attempted to position himself as a champion of the little guy, defending personal privacy rights against “media bullies.”
To buttress his argument, he attempted to claim ownership of proposed federal legislation aimed at punishing “revenge porn,” officially titled the Intimate Privacy Protection Act. That attempt was roundly smacked down by none other than the bill’s own sponsor, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier.
Somewhat ironically, the Gawker bankruptcy ended with the already wealthy Hogan — who Thiel called a “single-digit millionaire” in his Press Club speech — gaining even more wealth. Meanwhile, the livelihood of relatively low-earning staffers and freelancers at Gawker was put at risk.
In a similar vein of irony, Thiel penned an op-ed in support of Donald Trump earlier this fall, in which his basic argument appeared to be that the “little guy” — specifically, an allegedly incompetent transit worker for the D.C. Metro — should lose his job because high-level policymakers failed to do theirs.
Until Thiel irons out these inconsistencies, his support for “the little guy”is rather weak.
What seems a more likely cause for Peter Thiel’s instrumental role in the Gawker bankruptcy is the organization’s persistent criticism of him. Though Thiel chooses to highlight a brief but notorious 2009 article that outed him as a gay man (the article was intended to celebrate diversity, not attack Thiel), Gawker’s Valleywag site regularly took his business practices to task, particularly regarding the failure of Clarium Capital.
In that regard, there are a couple of interesting connections between Trump and Thiel.
Like Thiel, Trump has been vulnerable to Gawker’s barbs. In one particularly notorious example, last February Gawker tricked the candidate into retweeting a quote from the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
In addition, Trump and Thiel deployed the same lawyer, Charles Harder, to bring their cases against media outlets.
The Harder connection suggests that Thiel bankrolled the lawsuit against Gawker not necessarily on his own account, but for the purpose of supporting Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination during the primary season.
However, Thiel did not bring up that aspect of his support for Trump during the speech.
The Q&A session consisted of pre-selected questions submitted online, so the audience did not have an opportunity to ask for an explanation.
Redefining diversity to include white nationalism
The second reason TriplePundit has followed Thiel’s political activity is because his public support for Trump is unusual (to say the least) in the tech sector, which is characterized by youth, technological savvy and an appreciation for global diversity.
That’s a sharp contrast with Trump’s core constituency, which has been veering steadily into territory marked by fascistic rhetoric and a strong association with the so-called white nationalist alt-right movement.
TriplePundit is among many questioning Thiel’s continued position on the board of Facebook. In response, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg advanced an argument that seems to be standard currency among Thiel’s apologists.
The argument goes something like this: Diversity is a good thing, so ostracizing people who “think differently” is a bad thing.
Another iteration of the argument goes like this: You can’t truly champion diversity unless you include people whose ideas offend some other people — or even all other people — in your group.
In other words, calling out people for their racism is a form of racism.
Venture capitalist Ellen Pao, for one, has pushed back against the notion that promoting tolerance necessarily involves including people who express intolerance.
Apparently, Thiel has taken a cue from the former and not the latter. He launched his speech by positioning Trump as just such an unwelcome outsider.
He also adopted the Trump mantle of championing the people versus the entrenched “elite” — an odd position, give the high flying social and economic status of both men.
Thiel did not address the issue of Trump’s affinity for white nationalism in his speech, which consisted partly of a litany of complaints about the state of the nation, rather than any insights into how a Donald Trump presidency would improve things.
In that regard, the speech was simply a rehash of thoughts Thiel expressed in May when accepting an honorary degree from Ezra Pound’s alma mater, Hamilton College (yes, that Ezra Pound), and in July when introducing Trump at the Republican National Convention.
In fact, the most illuminating comment Thiel made occurred during the Q&A, as reported by TechCrunch:
… Thiel was asked about Trump’s oft-repeated statements about banning Muslims from traveling to the United States.
Somewhat amazingly, Thiel — who said he doesn’t support a “religious test” — said the “media is always taking him literally. I think a lot of the voters take him seriously but not literally, so when they hear the Muslim comment or the wall comment, it’s not, ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ but, ‘We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy’ and ‘How do we strike the right balance between costs and benefits?’”
There is ample evidence that Trump really does believe what he says — including new information about his relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
However, Peter Thiel has no worries.
And apparently, neither should we.