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Peter Thiel and Cliven Bundy Demonstrate the Hazards of Overreach

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Leadership & Transparency
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They say that pride goeth before a fall, and the rather interesting election cycle of 2016 brings up two cases in point: Silicon Valley tycoon Peter Thiel and the ersatz Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy. To be clear, Bundy is currently behind bars facing federal felony charges while Thiel is enjoying the limelight as a prominent supporter of Republican nominee Donald Trump. However, there are some intriguing points in common between these two very different businessmen.

Cliven Bundy: the Libertarian connection


Cliven Bundy burst into the national media spotlight in 2014 when he called upon scores of of armed thugs and their supporters to stop federal agents from removing his untended "tresspass" cattle from public property in the environmentally sensitive Gold Butte area of Nevada.

As one can surmise from the Gold Butte episode, Bundy's primary point of intersection with modern Libertarianism is the idea that the federal government has no constitutional authority over lands outside of Washington, D.C.

That idea is also a main focus of lobbying activity by the powerful lobbying organization ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), which welcomed Bundy as its grassroots voice.

Bundy's identificaiton with Libertarian philosophy -- and ALEC -- was further cemented at the beginning of this year when his sons, Ammon and Ryan, took their own crew of thugs into the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, with the ostensible aim of turning public property over to local miners, loggers and ranchers.

This is where things get interesting. If Libertarianism is to be understood as minimizing the role of government in private endeavors, then you're left with a situation in which powerful private individuals are free to run amok over the interests of other individuals.

Critics of contemporary Libertarianism have also linked the movement with fascistic tendencies, including a penchant for racism and a reliance on firepower and force. The Bundys illustrate both characteristics, including the use of armed threats.

In Oregon, the younger Bundys ran roughshod over the local community and ignored guidance from the democratically elected local sheriff. In Nevada, continued fallout from the elder Bundy's call to arms effectively shut down Native American cultural preservation efforts in Gold Butte, opening up the area to repeated acts of vandalism.

Ironically, Malheur was already emerging as a model of cooperation between federal control and local stakeholders. That could explain why the younger Bundys chose to travel out of state to make their point at Malheur, rather than focusing on efforts closer to their own communities.

Peter Thiel: the Libertarian connection


At first glance, Peter Thiel -- the self-identified Libertarian and Ivy League educated Silicon Valley A-lister who co-founded PayPal and is currently a Facebook board member -- has nothing in common with the Bundy family.

However, both share a hearty suspicion of American democracy along with the elevation of individual self-interest. Where the Bundys focused their efforts narrowly on land rights, Thiel has painted his philosophy with a much broader brush.

He outlined his thoughts in a 2009 essay in the journal Cato Unbound, under the headline "The Education of a Libertarian." First comes his analysis of the problem (emphasis added):

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.

Seeing no way for Libertarianism to succeed politically in the U.S., Thiel proposes carving out new spaces for free enterprise. It's a technology-driven variation on the familiar "sovereign citizen" theme:
...the mode for escape must involve some sort of new and hitherto untried process that leads us to some undiscovered country; and for this reason I have focused my efforts on new technologies that may create a new space for freedom...

As Thiel tells it, cyberspace, the open sea, and outer space are three promising territories for the high tech sovereign citizen of the future to possess. He closes his essay with a paean to "seasteading" advocate Patri Friedman:
The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.

The over-reach, Peter Thiel edition...


Despite the incendiary put-down of American democracy, Thiel largely escaped the radar of the general public. In 2012 he briefly made news for providing the largest financial stake in the failed presidential candidacy of Libertarian (and documented racist) Ron Paul, an effort that also failed to gain much traction outside of the political junkie sphere.

However, this year is proving to be quite different, and Thiel's name is edging closer to becoming a household word.

That's not necessarily a good thing for Thiel.

This past May, Thiel was outed as the secret funder behind Hulk Hogan's successful "sex tapes" lawsuit, which resulted in the bankruptcy of Gawker Media.

That same month, Thiel's name popped up on the list of declared delegates for Donald Trump. By July, Thiel had maneuvered himself into a prime speaking role at the Republican National Convention.

Fast-forward to August, and Thiel has become a target of broad criticism for his successful attack on Gawker.

His continued support for Trump also links his name forever with a presidential candidate who has provided political observers with regular opportunities to record statements that reflect outright racism and nativism.

That, in turn, has turned up the volume on Thiel's association with white nationalism. In other words, Thiel has become an embarrassment to his business associates, especially Facebook.

How embarrassing? Well, when Jon Stewart jokes about you on a late-night show, you're dangerously close to crossing into the mainstream public radar. In a recent appearance on Larry Wilmore's last show, Stewart appears to have started a meme that links the Thiel name with vengeful suppression.

Musing on the reasoning behind Wilmore's cancellation, Stewart had this to say:

“Did you piss off Peter Thiel? Does revenge know no bounds?”

The hurt may not stop here. In a twist of coincidence (or not), last week Gawker Media was sold at auction to Univision. As a leading Spanish-language media platform, Univision is hardly sympathetic to the world view of Donald Trump and his supporters.

For that matter, it's a pretty safe bet to go with the not-a-coincidence option. The co-owner and chairman of Univision happens to be a fellow named Haim Saban. If that name doesn't ring a bell, Google up "Hillary Clinton top financial backer" and you'll find out.

Thiel thought the relatively tiny Gawker Media was worth swatting into extinction, but it looks like karma may be paying a house call soon.

...and Bundy edition.


As for the Bundy family, Ammon, Ryan and their main supporters were rounded up and jailed earlier this year, fortunately with just one loss of life. Cliven was later apprehended at an airport, where authorities could be assured that he would be unarmed and harmless.

In advance of a September 7 trial date for the Oregon episode, nine of 26 defendants have already plead guilty to various charges, and it is not a good look for Libertarianism:

Those charges include conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, conspiracy to impede or injure a federal officer, using and carrying a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, assault on a federal officer, threatening a federal law enforcement officer, obstruction of the administration of justice, interference with interstate commerce by extortion, and interstate travel in aid of extortion.

Ouch!

Some of the defendants are also charged in the Nevada episode, so look for more details to spin out in the coming months.

Cliven Bundy initially garnered significant support in conservative circles for the 2014 standoff, but by the time his sons took over Malheur only a few outliers rallied to the cause. Even from jail, the Bundy's have continued to embarrass and alienate their former allies conservative circles.

Despite all the tough talk about states' right from elected leadership, evidently armed insurrection is not an actual thing.

Photo (cropped and altered): via Sportsfile Web Summit on flickr.com, creative commons license.

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Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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