When a trimly besuited Peter Thiel strode onto the stage at the Republican National Convention, he might as well have been a Martian.
Thiel — PayPal founder, Facebook investor, Palantir chair — is a coastal elite, whereas Trump is virulently anti-elite (though he grew up rich in New York himself). Thiel is an actual billionaire, whereas Trump is a fake one. Thiel is an openly gay man, though the party platform explicitly defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. He is an immigrant, and thus perhaps a criminal, and one way or another responsible for America’s economic decline, in Trump’s telling. Thiel is a titan in the technology industry, whereas Trump is a painted showman. And he is a libertarian, whereas Trump is a big-government populist.
And Thiel’s impassioned, if quick, talk felt like it was to a crowd on a different planet than the round one we are all sitting on.
“The great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom,” he said, speaking to a party that has lost its mind debating and legislating over which bathroom transgender individuals should use. “This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares!”
“We don’t accept such incompetence in Silicon Valley, and we must not accept it from our government! Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East!” he said, speaking to the party that invaded Iraq for no good reason at all.
“Fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline! And nobody else in this race is being honest about it except for Donald Trump!” he said, speaking to a base that has been explicitly revved up by the idea of white decline, and whose candidate uses the state of the economy as a racist dog whistle.
He talked about increasing funding for basic scientific research to a party that has repeatedly gutted that part of the budget. He cautioned against intervening in Libya, though both Trump and Clinton have pushed to do so. I could go on.
We media watchers came to the speech puzzling over the Thiel enigma. How could such an evidently brilliant man support a bigoted candidate, one who has promised to preserve big government and make policy on the fly?
Maybe it was pure self-interest, argued J.K. Trotter in a smart essay at Gawker. “The through-line that animates all of Thiel’s ideas is a profound distrust in the notion that equality itself is a worthwhile end,” he writes. “It takes just a bit of imagination to game out his anti-death campaign” — Thiel wants to live forever via some future technological assist — “into the ultimate inequity — unequal distribution of access to life itself.”
Perhaps it was a simple quirk. Take the Recode analysis of Kara Swisher, perhaps the best-sourced journalist in the northern half of California. “‘Peter is Peter,’ said another person who knows Peter well, as if the Peter-ness of it is perfectly clear. Peter is Peter is Peter is Peter is Peter,” she wrote. “Whether it is the really intense libertarianism, the Captain Nemo seasteading scheme, the Peter Pan college-bashing, the popping off of controversial sentiments (the women voting thing was misconstrued, but he definitely set himself up, perhaps on purpose), there is no one comparable to Thiel in far-out notions. And the life extension stuff, most of all.”
Or maybe it was a moonshot attempt to undermine democratic government entirely. “It sounds crazy, but bear in mind we’re talking about someone who thinks there’s a real possibility he will never die; who pays college kids to drop out; who wants to establish a colony at sea free from the laws of any nation; who thinks capitalism and competition can’t coexist. If it doesn’t sound crazy to someone, it’s probably too quotidian to have issued from the mind of Peter Thiel,” wrote Jeff Bercovici at Inc. “I think Peter Thiel supports Donald Trump because he believes it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to weaken America’s attachment to democratic government.”
Having actually listened to our Martian, though, I think it was something simpler. Thiel is a troll, a rabble-rouser, someone who delights in lifting a middle finger to the Establishment, and who wants to be contrarian for its own sake. It wouldn’t be the first time. This is the man who wrote that women getting the vote somehow helped to make the phrase “capitalist democracy” an oxymoron.
Somehow, in his brain, the party that cuts basic-science funding will bring back basic-science funding. The man who argued for intervening in Libya would never intervene in Libya. The party that has stoked the culture wars will quiet them.
That he supports Trump does not make a lick of sense. And perhaps that is the point.