The 2016 presidential campaign cycle has been splattered with one bizarre episode after another. Most emanate from the camp of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. In the latest development, Facebook board member and Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel has been revealed to be a designated Trump delegate, a status that provides him with an instrumental role in Trump’s path to the presidency.
This rather unexpected alliance brings to mind a billionaire version of “The Odd Couple,” with Thiel’s ultra-sophisticated public image and cutting-edge investment profile playing off Trump’s bombastic personality and glitzy immersion in time-tested business sectors including real estate, hospitality, gaming, merchandising and golf.
So, why would a high-flying Silicon Valley venture capitalist like Peter Thiel support a presidential candidate with a large and growing reputation for racism, sexism and nativism?
Trump, Thiel and Hairgate
Under the category of bizarre, consider that one recently revealed point of media intersection between the two men is Donald Trump’s hair.
Earlier this month, the online publication Gawker reported that it received a letter demanding a retraction of — and an apology for — an investigative piece about Donald Trump’s hair titled “Is Donald Trump’s Hair a $60,000 Weave? A Gawker Investigation.”
The letter came from Charles J. Harder, an attorney on Thiel’s payroll.
But wait, there’s more…
Trump and the media
Though both Trump and Thiel depend on the media to craft their public images and advance their ambitions, they also demonstrate a tightly wound desire to control how they are portrayed. It’s thoroughly understandable, though not particularly admirable.
As a flamboyant businessman with family roots in the high-stakes New York City real estate sector, Trump was born and raised in one of the most active media capitals of the world. He had a full adulthood in which to craft a pre-Internet public profile that consistently generated headlines for both his professional and personal image. And his transition to new media has been seamless and effective.
The media spotlight supported Trump’s numerous marketing and licensing ventures, including real estate properties that bear his personal stamp in large, brassy letters as well. They also gave nod to his successful reality show, “The Apprentice,” and various Trump-branded merchandising ventures. The lineup now includes fashion and accessories, fragrances, home goods, and books.
For all his success, though, Trump also carried the weight of four corporate bankruptcies, one notable case being the federal bailout of his Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City in the 1990s.
That and at least a dozen other Trump failures were duly recorded the media over time. However, with the help of his TV career, Trump was successful in diverting the public’s attention away from his misadventures.
Trump vs. the media
As the primary campaign season began, Trump did not wait around for the media to begin picking over his past and bringing renewed attention to his business failures. Instead, he engaged in a series of pre-emptive strikes aimed at undermining the media’s credibility.
USA Today chronicled examples of Trump attacking the media in campaign appearances during the early months of the primary season, including this gem from October 2015 (emphasis in the original):
“They’re scum. They’re horrible people. They are so illegitimate. … Some of the people in the press are honorable. But you’ve got 50 percent who are terrible people.’’
USA Today also noted that Trump began barring media from his candidate events as early as July 2015, when he denied press credentials to the Des Moines Register after the publication called for him to drop out of the primary.
Trump further cemented his position on the First Amendment at a rally in February, during which he promised to “open up” libel laws as president — enabling public figures to sue and collect damages without having to prove malice. Politico cites this Trump comment from the rally:
” … I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money … So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected … “
By June, Trump hit full stride. Shortly after collecting enough delegates to be dubbed the presumptive Republican nominee, he revoked press credentials for The Washington Post, adding the publication to a growing list that already includes BuzzFeed, Politico, The Daily Beast, Univision and The Huffington Post in addition to the Des Moines Register.
Peter Thiel and Donald Trump
This is where one point of intersection between Thiel and Trump begins to emerge in a concrete way.
In his attacks, Trump generally positions himself as a victim of slander, libel and other forms of bullying by the media.
First Amendment lawyer Marc Randazza, who authored the CNN op-ed, pointed out that Trump has a previous history of acting in accordance with his view of himself as a victim of bad behavior:
“Trump has a history of filing SLAPP suits,” Randazza wrote. “SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. This describes a lawsuit filed against someone for exercising his or her First Amendment rights — filed with little chance of success, but with the knowledge that the lawsuit itself is the punishment. After all, if people have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend themselves because they criticized Donald Trump, they might think better of doing so again in the future.”
If that deterrence strategy sounds familiar, you are probably thinking about Thiel’s defense for his involvement in the Hulk Hogan “sex tapes” lawsuit against Gawker Media.
Last month, Thiel admitted to funding Hogan’s lawsuit in secret with a $10 million assist from his own pocket.
It it turned out to be a wise investment, because the lawsuit ended with a stunning $140 million judgement in Hogan’s favor. As it turns out, the Hogan case was just one among several Gawker lawsuits funded directly or indirectly by Thiel, and the combined legal battles proved too much for Gawker to support. The company declared bankruptcy earlier this month.
In an echo of Trump’s SLAPP activity, Thiel defended his vendetta against Gawker as a deterrence strategy. Thiel further embellished the argument with a veneer of corporate social responsibility, as cited in a recent interview with The New York Times:
“It’s less about revenge and more about specific deterrence,” Thiel told the Paper. “… I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest.”
Mr. Thiel added: “I can defend myself. Most of the people they attack are not people in my category. They usually attack less prominent, far less wealthy people that simply can’t defend themselves … “
That’s a rather interesting defense, considering Thiel’s possible connection to the threatening letter that Gawker received from Charles J. Harder. Perhaps Thiel considers Donald Trump to be among the “far less wealthy” people who are not in his “category” when it comes to defending themselves against media bullies.
Thiel and the media
Thiel has insisted that his enmity with Gawker is a personal matter that dates back to a 2009 article on the publisher’s Valleywag site, which featured references to his sexuality. However, the legal vendetta can also be traced to Valleywag’s focus on some less than successful aspects of Thiel’s career.
Beyond his years-long battle against Gawker Media, Thiel has also provided evidence that he shares Trump’s view of the media as an illegitimate intrusion.
In 2009, Gawker accused Thiel of trying to turn tech blogs like Valleywag into a “rah-rah chorus” by slapping the “terrorist” label on “anyone who questions the publicist-approved message.”
In support, Gawker cited the following Thiel quotes from a Q&A session on the private-equity industry website PE Hub:
“I think they should be described as terrorists, not as writers or reporters,” Thiel told the site. “I don’t understand the psychology of people who would kill themselves and blow up buildings, and I don’t understand people who would spend their lives being angry.”
“It’s like terrorism in that you’re trying to be gratuitously meaner and more sensational than the next person, like a terrorist who is trying to stand out and shock people.”
And you thought Trump’s media criticism was over the top!
Thiel and the Bilderberg Group
Thiel has also invoked state-sanctioned terrorism in defense of his involvement with the intensely secretive Bilderberg Group.
If you’ve never heard of this organization before, join the club. The Bilderberg Group is a private U.S.-E.U. group that connects high-level decision-makers in business and government.
Thiel’s position on the Bilderberg steering committee dovetails with his libertarian political activity. Before throwing his weight behind Trump, he was an active force behind Ron Pau’s 2021 presidential campaign.
Reporting on the Bilderberg Group is practically nonexistent. But outside of this year’s annual conference on June 11, one journalist managed to buttonhole Thiel and tease a statement out of him. It appears to compare media attention to the activities of the Ministry of State Security, aka Stasi, the secret police organization that terrorized the citizens of East Germany during the Cold War:
“ … We need to find ways to talk to people where not everything is completely transparent,” Thiel told the Bloomberg reporter. “Libertarianism is not synonymous with radical transparency. That’s often an argument the Stasi would make, in East Germany, where everything had to be monitored by society. And I think often you have the best conversations in smaller groups, where not everything is being monitored; that’s how you get very honest conversations and how you can think better about the future.”
In a nutshell, Thiel may find in Trump a kindred spirit in terms of perceiving the media as an existential threat to his professional ambitions and public image.
Image credit: Peter Thiel on March 3, 2015 by JD Lasica via flickr.com, creative commons license.