While stunned Democratic voters in the heavily liberal tech industry try to acclimate themselves to four years of a Trump presidency, at least one person is feeling pretty good: Peter Thiel, the Facebook billionaire who loudly and expensively stood by his candidate despite the opprobrium and scorn of his peers. This afternoon, the Huffington Post is reporting that Thiel is even being considered to lead Trump’s transition team, replacing Chris Christie.
It’s just the latest in a string of ominous successes for Thiel, who earlier this year admitted that he was funding a lawsuit against the blog network Gawker Media — the same lawsuit that would ultimately bankrupt the company and its founder and shut down the flagship site. Last month, at a moment when it seemed unlikely Trump would ever reach the White House, Thiel announced a $1.25 million donation to his chosen candidate. At the time, it seemed to the press like a bafflingly silly decision made by a Silicon Valley crackpot; now, it looks like an inauspicious sign that Peter Thiel’s presence in our political and cultural life isn’t going to go away.
Thiel’s support of Trump had always been an outlier in the overwhelmingly liberal consumer tech industry, and he has rightly faced pressure from activists over his support of Trump, whose campaign implicitly endorsed and emboldened racists and misogynists and xenophobes. There have been repeated calls for companies like Facebook, on whose board he sits, and the startup incubator Y Combinator, where he’s a part-time partner, to distance themselves from Thiel. (One gets the impression that Thiel loves this. His statements have repeatedly conjured up the image of Tina Fey saying “high-fiving a million angels” as a loud crowd boos.)
Thiel’s Facebook board seat, and position at Y Combinator, was safe, however, in part because his Trump donation seemed to be seen more as a curiosity than a real threat. Silicon Valley has been ascendant for the last ten years, supported and touted by a Democratic president whose liberal views on tech-industry issues like immigration were part of a friendly environment that allowed its software to “eat the world.” While Thiel’s support of Trump might be distasteful, it was also difficult for his peers to take seriously. Not only was it hard to believe that Trump could win, but Thiel himself is gay, as he proudly proclaimed at the Republican National Convention earlier this year, and an immigrant. What did he see in the candidate that others couldn’t? Was he currying political favor? Was he sowing the seeds of a future run for office? Was he positioning himself as a primary force among the so-called alt-right?
The answer he eventually gave, in a stilted speech in Washington, D.C., was none of the above. Thiel genuinely liked and supported the candidate. Like most Trump supporters, Thiel responded to broad rhetoric about the country being broken, about the power of outsiders. It was silly (and self-contradictory) enough that we called him a crank.
But, of course, cranks can be billionaires — they can even be president — and with billions of dollars comes the material power that demands, if not respect, then wary attention. We now live in a post-election world in which Trump will be president, and in which Thiel’s donation to Trump was a prescient investment, rather than baffling self-sabotage. “I’ll try to help the president in any way I can,” Thiel told the New York Times. He declined to elaborate further on his vision, though he said he would have no formal role, did not aspire to the Supreme Court, and would continue to reside in California. (At least, until seasteading becomes viable.) But with Thiel’s positions of power in astronomical data-mining operations like Facebook and Palantir (a major government contractor), and his various investments in education, we should pay very close attention to where and how Trump and Thiel overlap.
In some ways, Thiel’s choosing not to engage in Washington directly is a more menacing prospect for liberals. He and Trump are aligned in their belief that the liberal media is vicious and deserves to be curtailed, that outlets like Gawker should be sued out of existence, buried in untenable paperwork and legal costs. A Peter Thiel empowered by Trump’s victory and his successful campaign against Gawker, one who’s suffered no ill effect on his finances or on his relationships with his industry peers, is one we all might be wary of.
But we might be more scared of what comes after Peter Thiel. For the most part, tech’s class of billionaires has been philanthropically inoffensive, if not always effective, focusing money on education, immigration, and, uh, curing all diseases. This philanthropic focus has, in turn, made Silicon Valley largely well-regarded outside the tech world. Thiel would appear to be — and would appear to delight in being — the first overnight billionaire to put his money toward causes deeply opposed by his community. And he’s demonstrated that this model of activism — of a billionaire putting small fractions of his unprecedented net worth behind active political efforts to shut down hostile media outlets and elect xenophobes — works, with no downside. The tech industry is creating new billionaires every year. How many of them are going to be Bill Gates, and how many will be Peter Thiels?