Tonight, Silicon Valley billionaire and free-press nemesis Peter Thiel will give a speech at the Republican National Convention. What will he say? Why will he say it? Will he formally announce the creation of a floating libertarian island outside the federal government’s purview? All three of those are equally important questions that are difficult to answer definitively.
There are a few knowns. Thiel will speak “frankly.” Okay! According to Bloomberg, he will also speak explicitly about being gay — a first for an RNC speaker — and will criticize the party for its outsized focus on identity politics. On the flip side, he’ll say that Trump is good with money.
Tech journalists are particularly concerned with figuring out why Thiel — a Republican, sure, but a member of the Silicon Valley tribe — has decided to so publicly support an ethno-nationalist revanchist who stands against so much of what the tech industry believes itself to be for. At Recode, Kara Swisher argues that Thiel is following his own contrarian instincts, and embracing the destructive potential of a Trump administration to “blow [the economic system] up completely as is Thiel’s bent.” After all, Thiel literally believes that core principles of our system of government are flawed. In a famous piece for the Cato Institute in 2009, the investor wrote, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”
Jeff Bercovici makes the point even more explicitly 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.” In other words: The ultimate disruption is to disrupt American democracy itself. It’s a magnificent act of sabotage that only someone worth billions could comfortably ride out. “It’s easy to imagine,” Bercovici writes, “a Trump presidency leading to a constitutional crisis or mass protests that would leave the executive branch, and perhaps the entire federal government, significantly weakened.”
Last month on Select All, we argued, similarly, that Thiel may actually support Trump because he believes in Trump as a candidate — that Thiel’s peculiar brand of “alt-right”-adjacent post-politics is in harmony with Trump’s Establishment-hating strongman program, such as it exists.
Thiel’s eagerness for destructive change, and his affection for disruptive politics, could explain his fealty to Trump. But maybe we’re all overthinking it a little bit. Maybe Thiel just likes being rich and wants to get even richer. Trump’s policies, disastrous as they would be for many, could likely benefit Thiel’s current investments, most notably, the secretive data-analysis firm Palantir. From the aforementioned Bloomberg piece:
Perhaps the biggest Thiel-backed beneficiary of a Trump administration would be Palantir. The company, recently valued at $20 billion, still isn’t profitable and has struggled to retain employees over the past year. Today about half of Palantir’s sales—it booked deals totaling $1.7 billion in 2015—comes from companies such as BP; the other half comes from the National Security Agency, the FBI, branches of the U.S. Department of Defense, and other government entities. The U.S. Army isn’t a customer—yet—but it’s currently bidding out a software contract that could be worth up to $25 billion. Palantir, which had hoped to win some of the business, is suing the Army on the grounds that the process is biased toward longtime contractors.
Thiel’s shown a flair for investing in companies that rely in part on government largesse, or at least on close relationships with government programs. NASA’s already awarded important contracts to SpaceX, another company Thiel’s invested in; AltSchool, a Thiel-backed education start-up, would love to sell its proprietary software to the public-school system. And the odds on Thiel’s bet on widely criticized health-insurance company Oscar, which exists to capitalize on Obamacare’s insurance mandate (and subsidies), are only likely to improve in a Trump White House — Oscar’s founder Josh Kushner is Ivanka’s brother-in-law, after all. The tech industry as a whole might suffer under a Trump administration. But the guy looking for government contracts after offering full-throated support at a convention will probably make it through okay.
Of course, making an array of government-aided investments is hardly unique among the ultrawealthy, and pledging support to candidates in the hopes of favorable treatment later is as old as democratic politics itself. But that’s just another reason to fall back on Occam’s razor to explain Thiel’s Trump support: First and foremost, Peter Thiel wants to make money. After all, being insanely wealthy is a pretty good way to escape the grasp of government’s clammy hands. And if, at the same time, he can blow up democracy by installing a monarchical tyrant at the top of the executive branch, well, that’s just a bonus.