Whatever else Peter Thiel was doing last night, he was disappointing journalists. Since it was announced last week that the PayPal founder and early Facebook investor would speak at the Republican National Convention, a sense of anticipatory excitement had descended on the technology writers who’d been covering his secret, recently revealed decade-long crusade against Gawker Media. The prospect of a tech investor who’d seemingly embraced his status as a Hearstian billionaire super-villain, speaking just two slots before a presidential candidate with whom he shares — if nothing else — a flair for the dramatic pronouncement, was too good not to milk.
Columnists speculated on Thiel’s motivations for supporting Trump, and wondered if he’d use the stage to advance tenets of his bizarro-libertarian politics. This was the man, after all, who had a tendency for advancing genuinely shocking political arguments like “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible” and “the extension of the franchise to women […] rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.” Given a national stage like the RNC, what would he say then? Would he disparage multiculturalism? Advocate seasteading? Dismiss the idea of a free press? Would he, from the stage in Cleveland, between the G.E. Smith band and Ivanka Trump, command the wholesale and fiery destruction of liberal democracy?
As it turns out … No. Anyone hoping for the rise of a theatrical new public figure or looking for an alt-right manifesto — or even just a nod toward some of Thiel’s more outré beliefs — was treated instead to a straightforward business-leader endorsement, filled with lamentations about misplaced priorities (“Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East”) and corny jokes (“Wall Street bankers inflate bubbles in everything from government bonds to Hillary Clinton’s speaking fees”). The most interesting moment of the speech was Thiel’s announcement (to cheers!) “I am proud to be gay” — which he moved on from by dismissing his party’s institutional hostility to that pride as “fake culture wars” that “distract us from our economic decline.” The Bond-villain super-genius version of Thiel that animated columns and op-eds — the one who sued Gawker into bankruptcy and tried to build a libertarian nation at sea — was replaced by a goofy, nervously enthusiastic businessman talking about how America was better when we went to the moon. The “dangerous and fascinating” Peter Thiel gave a boring speech.
In fact, this was the greatest effect of the speech, and almost certainly one of its intentions: to diffuse the mad-libertarian image that had attached itself to Thiel, and recast him as a boring, more-or-less acceptable Republican — someone other tech investors might disagree with, but a man well within the boundaries of normal. Thiel was able to support his preferred candidate (for whatever reason you prefer to believe he does) without alienating his friends and business partners in Silicon Valley, and his earnest, vague case for Trump — and the acknowledgment that his sexuality puts him at odds with his party — made his public persona human, and even reasonable, in a way that it hasn’t in months.
That might be disappointing to people who like their industrialists to inveigh publicly as they do privately, but it’s heartening to at least one person: Mark Zuckerberg. After a brief scandal earlier this year over the unlikely possibility that Facebook had institutionally censored or suppressed conservative news on the site, Thiel’s presence as the sole conservative on Facebook’s board is important to the company — so long as Thiel can maintain his status as an acceptable conservative, rather than a power-mad oligarch. This speech, in which he praised government technology programs of the 20th century, more than sufficed. Thiel emerged not as the neo-reaction’s first true public figure but as a boyish space enthusiast who just wants to get his country back on the right track.
So those of us hoping for a little more anti-democratic fire and quasi-fascist brimstone will just have to deal with our disappointment. But maybe not for long: Thiel is speaking next month at the conference of the Property and Freedom Society in Turkey — a gathering that attracts, in the words of Towleroad, “white supremacists and their fellow travelers,” including “libertarian extremists whose ideology creeps right up to crypto-Nazism.” Maybe he’ll be a little more forthcoming then.