If there is a Trumpism after Trump, it might look a bit like Thielism or somewhere between the two. Its unclear where one ends and the other begins, though, because, as Max Chafkin says, its unclear whether there actually is a coherent Thielism. Chafkin is a Bloomberg reporter and the author of a recent book on Thiel, The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valleys Pursuit of Power. While there are certainly strains of authoritarianism and libertarianism that run throughout Thiels writing and political activities, Chafkin says, Thielism is riddled with so many contradictions that it remains, at its core, largely a mystery.
I called Chafkin to talk about his book and where Thielism goes from hereif it even exists in the first place.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Katie Fossett: How would you describe Peter Thiels ideology?
Max Chafkin: I think there are real questions about whether or not there even is a coherent ideology. It could just be a collection of random contrarian impulses.
Theres always been a lot of libertarianism in Silicon Valley, but there are aspects of Thiels politics that aren't libertarian at all; theyre closer to authoritarianism. Its super-nationalistic, its a longing for a sort of more powerful chief executive, or, you know, a dictator, in other words.
I will say the speech that Zuckerberg gave at Georgetown in 2019 [where he defended Facebooks decision to publish political ads that contain lies and emphasized the importance of freedom of speech] he articulated a libertarian vision for how Facebook should relate to content; it should allow politicians to lie. And there are obviously counterarguments. Zuckerberg sees Facebook as a platform, but of course, you dont have to see it that way. You can see Facebook as helping to distribute those lies. So I think that speech owes a lot to Thiel and Thiels libertarian instincts.
Fossett: Thiel has poured a lot of money into the campaigns of candidates who have come out swinging hard against Big Tech and Facebook specifically. Im thinking about Josh Hawley, the Missouri senator, Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance and Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters. How long can Thiel keep playing both sides like this?
Chafkin: Thats a theme throughout Thiels life ... At once being a loyal board member to Mark Zuckerberg, and in some ways a really important conservative ally, but also subtly and increasingly not so subtly needling Facebook and putting pressure on the company through these actors, including people like Vance and Hawley and Masters ... and [Texas] Senator Ted Cruz. (Ed. note: Thiel has donated to Cruz in the past.)
From the outside, it feels like Thiels almost daring Zuckerberg to fire him. And Zuckerberg is not. There was a moment I report in the book where they did come to a head. Zuckerberg didnt quite ask Thiel to step aside, but he sort of floated the idea, and Thiel very firmly said, No, youre going to have to fire me. Thiel had leaked correspondence with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to the New York Times through Chuck Johnson, and Zuckerberg suspected Thiel was behind the leaks. Zuckerberg almost fired Thiel but didnt want to for whatever reason.
And I think you could ask, Well, why isnt Zuckerberg firing him? And I think the answer is that Facebook still really needs Thiel. I mean, Thiel in some ways is a liability to the company. Hes very closely associated with this pretty extreme faction of the Republican Party that I think probably makes Zuckerberg uncomfortable, on a personal level.
On the other hand, he gives Facebook a really great talking point when they're attacked for, quote unquote, suppressing conservative views. Because Zuckerberg can say, Hey, I have this board member, and hes the longest-serving board member, he's my good friend and mentor, Peter Thiel. And its not just that Thiel is a Republican or a conservative. He is a hardcore Trumpist.
I think maybe Thiels future on the board depends to some extent on politics, and on what happens in 2022 and beyond that.
Why is Thiel kind of needling Facebook? I think part of it is that despite being the first investor and all of that, he may have some ethical and moral qualms about Facebook, similar to the feelings that a lot of people have, about it being too powerful, for instance.
But I also think that the work that Vance and Hawley have done is theyve pushed Zuckerberg from the conservative point of view and kept him in line. And so I think you could regard this kind of subtle activism, or this disloyalty, from Thiel as partly an effort to push Zuckerberg to the right. And I think its worked, for now anyway.
Fossett: How much is Thiel shaping his Senate candidates? Is he meeting them where they are already, or are they influenced by him?
Chafkin: Well, I think if you asked any of them, they would say they aren't being influenced. Vance in particular has been asked this a bunch of times and in a bunch of different ways. And he says, Peter and I are friends, but Im not in his pocket, essentially. That said, I think its a combination of things.
I think Thiel has an eye for spotting young talentand this goes beyond politicsboth in young, talented techies like Zuckerberg, but also these kinds of talented political troublemakers like Hawley. And Thiel has kind of a type.
But I also think its pretty clear at this point that Thiel has a lot of money and is interested in donating money to candidates. So I almost think he doesnt even have to tell people to adopt certain views, right? There's going to be a tendency to move towards his politics for any candidate who wants his money. And that's actually happened at various points. [Former presidential candidate] Ron Paul, when he was running for president the second time, embraced this tech-friendly agenda that seemed like an effort to cater to Thiel after he had donated money to the campaign.
This is not true for Hawley, but in the case of Vance and Masters, they both kind of worked for him. Masters literally still works for him; hes the COO of Thiel Capital, and Vance doesnt work for Thiel, but Thiel was a major investor in his venture capital fund. (Ed. note: Vance previously briefly worked at Mithril Capital, a venture capital fund co-founded by Thiel.) His involvement with Vances venture capital fund was very important to that funds viability. And they've invested together in companies, most recently in Rumble, which is a conservative answer to YouTube.
So its not like Thiel is telling them to think things, but I think in some sense they are ideologically just extensions of him. And when you look at their platforms, they're just very, very similar to the Thiel agenda. Vance put out a big statement on crypto. There isnt an obvious reason why an Ohio populist should be embracing crypto, or why that would matter to the average Ohio voter in the Republican primary. But I think it certainly is an issue that people in the tech/libertarian and right-wing tech community care a lot about.
Fossett: Thiel was all in for Trump in 2016he spoke at the Republican National Convention, and he donated more than a million dollars to the Trump campaign that year. But he sat out 2020. What was behind that? Was there any kind of falling-out or did Trump just not look like a good bet anymore?
Max Chafkin: I think there was a falling-out, but it happened earlier. Thiel, obviously, was very close to the White House in 2017, and the early months of the Trump administration. He was on the executive committee of the transition team.
But then he suggested all these people for jobs in the administration [such as Princeton physicist William Happer and Yale computer scientist David Gelernter for science adviser, and Stanford computer science lecturer Balaji Srinivasan for FDA commissioner] and Trump took very few of the suggestions seriously. Thiel was also close to [Trumps former chief strategist] Steve Bannon, and Steve Bannon got pushed out. Thiel had other connections to Trump, but Bannon was a very important one.
But I think he also, to some extent, absented himself, as the Trump administration started to go sideways. And I think the strategy in 2020 was to kind of hedgenot to criticize Trump, but also not to be too closely associated with him. I think from Thiels point of view, Trumpismthe sort of ideology behind Trumpis very good, and it's what Thiel believes in. And I think Thiel wants to find a way forward for that ideology, with or without Donald Trump. And I think his play right now is to be a major backer and a player in that world. Somebody who is going to shape the direction of that part of the electorate.
Fossett: How has Biden being in office changed the way Thiel does business? I'm mostly thinking of Palantir, the software company that does a lot of business with the Defense Department and the CIA, and Anduril, a defense tech startup backed by Thiel.
Chafkin: Palantir is a pretty big company by this point. And it's not like they don't have Democratic lobbyists. They can continue to advocate within the government, under any administration.
We're only nine months into the Biden presidency, so it remains to be seen what the long-term trajectory for these companies will be. But besides whatever influence Thiel was able to wield in the government during the Trump administration, there has been a broader trend towards these kinds of companies, and Palantir has been riding that wave. So I think its totally possible that Palantir will adapt and is adapting to that future. But in the long run, obviously, I think it's better for Thiel's interests if he has political allies in power. And I think thats part of why hes spending way more money in this Senate race than he ever has. I think that's a big reason.
Fossett: Was there anything that you really, really wanted to know about Thiel when you set out to write the book but werent able to answer?
Chafkin: Well, there are a couple of things. One is religion. Thiel has said that he is Christian. His parents were evangelical, and he has at times talked about his Christian faith, but he hasn't really ever explained the nature of his Christian faith.
The other thing is Ive talked to him a handful of times, but I only talked to him off the record for this book. But an on-the-record interview where he is pressed on his actual beliefs would be very interesting. I think it is unfortunate that he hasn't been willing to sit down with a with a journalist who can do that. I think most of the time, most of the access he's given has been to people who are pretty friendly. Most of the times he appears on stage, it's with ideologically aligned people. But he's written some very outrageous things. Hes written that womens suffrage was unfortunate. And hes gotten pretty close to some people who are promoting basically visions of authoritarianism for America. And I think it would be interesting to hear what he actually thinks about that stuff. Because at times, hes sort of walked things back, but not quite. Theres a bit of a sorry-not-sorry quality to these clarifications. With the Cato essay, for instance, he issued a clarification that wasnt quite an apology. It was sort of like, Oh, people are making too big a fuss of this. (Ed. Note: Thiel wrote: It would be absurd to suggest that womens votes will be taken away or that this would solve the political problems that vex us.)
But of course, you know, democracy is really important to me. And I think its really important to a lot of people. And the idea of being skeptical of such a core part of America, I think, is worth scrutinizing, especially when he has proximity to these companies that have probably have more power over lives than any private entities in the history of humanity.
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