Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is (you may have heard) not doing so well — in the polls, in the race for the presidency, possibly even in his own mind. He’s hemorrhaging support from high-profile Republicans and swing-state voters. It seems clear at this point that Trump has lost the race.
Clear, that is, to everyone but billionaire Facebook investor and Charles Foster Kane cosplayer Peter Thiel. According to the New York Times, Thiel is donating 1.25 million to the Republican effort “through a combination of super PAC donations and funds given directly to the campaign.”
The question, obviously, is why? Thiel’s support for Trump was never a secret, but since his prime-time speaking spot at the Republican National Convention, the investor has kept silent. Reappearing at the last minute to donate a large sum of money to a campaign that is, by most accounts, already over — in the process reminding his mostly liberal business partners and associates of his devotion to a candidate they hate — is a curious thing to do, especially for someone who has such an outsize reputation as a savvy investor. As such, it’s been the subject of a great deal of gleeful speculation and wanton theorizing. Why would Peter Thiel donate $1.25 million to a loser?
It’s a first-round investment in Trump TV: Thiel’s willingness to show some seven-figure support for Trump at this late stage might signal that Thiel wants to stay in Trump’s circle even after the polls close and the votes are tallied. Widespread speculation holds that Trump (possibly with the help of his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Roger Ailes) is looking into launching a cable channel following the election. Maybe Thiel is demonstrating interest in getting in on the ground floor of that? It’s an appealing theory, but there’s little concrete evidence that Trump is actually interested in parlaying his campaign into a media business. Plus, cable channels — especially those targeted at, and run by, elderly reactionaries — aren’t necessarily sure-thing investments, and Thiel has recently shown more interest in destroying media empires than creating them.
He’s “paying” for his speaking spot at the RNC: Thiel made history over the summer when he stood onstage at the Republican National Convention and told the crowd that he was proud to be gay. He also said some vague stuff about … I think space? At the very least, the appearance introduced Thiel to a group of people that generally believe that Silicon Valley elite are uniformly against conservative values. On Twitter, Recode’s Peter Kafka wonders if the donation is “the bare minimum Thiel previously agreed to donate in return for his RNC speaking spot.” Maybe flushing $1.25 million down the toilet is his way of saying thanks.
It’s an investment in the alt-right: Even if a Trump presidency never happens, his campaign has legitimized and bolstered the alt-right, the post-libertarian, anti-immigrant, “race-realist” movement with which Thiel would seem to share a great deal of common ideological ground. Thiel likes to think in historical terms, and is fond of long-game bets. Maybe this is his way of demonstrating a commitment to the alt-right wing of Trump’s supporter base — even a reward for Trump’s increasingly unhinged behavior over the last few weeks. Or, maybe more prosaically, support for a Republican now opens the door to more direct involvement in the future. Now-denied reports indicated that Thiel was in the running for a Trump Supreme Court nomination. But why stop at the bench? Trump’s shown that someone with money and a willingness to indulge Republican voters’ worst impulses can build a compelling campaign.
He thinks Trump might actually win: I mean, why not? Crazier things have happened, and being one of the few people loudly and publicly supporting the candidate this late in the campaign surely translates to leverage and influence (if not an appointed position) in a Trump White House. Venture capitalists — Thiel in particular — tend to love long-shot bets with big payoffs, and it’s hard to think of a bet with a longer shot or a bigger payoff than this.
He’s a contrarian troll with money to burn: $1.25 million is, to pretty much everyone who is not Peter Thiel, a lot of money. To Thiel, who is worth $2.7 billion, his donation amounts to 0.046 percent of his assets. It is, as Ralph Kramden once put it, a mere bag of shells. He spent eight times that amount to put Gawker out of business via Hulk Hogan. Thiel, who is reportedly interested in harvesting the blood of the young in order to stave off the creep of death, has no problem spending his vast reserves of cash on petty and foolish causes.