The Republican Party’s speaker slate for its upcoming convention is largely, well, conventional. There’s Donald Trump, of course, the nominee; plus members of his family, former opponents in the primary, elected officials, retired luminaries, Tim Tebow.
But one name in particular sticks out: Peter Thiel, the billionaire PayPal founder and Facebook board member who has spent $10 million funding litigation against Gawker Media.
On issues from immigration to government surveillance to civil rights, Trump’s stated beliefs, such as they can combine into a coherent worldview, tend to stand in direct opposition to Silicon Valley’s pervasive, if not uniform, liberalism. It’s not shocking, necessarily, to see Thiel’s name on the list — he’s a delegate for Trump in California, and is one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent (and only) conservatives, though he tends to describe himself as a libertarian.
What is surprising is Thiel’s willingness to take such a public stand in support of his beliefs and candidate, and not just because it quite publicly marks him apart from the vast majority of his peers. This is the man, after all, who conducted a decadelong campaign against a news outlet entirely in secret, and only reluctantly admitted to funding lawsuits against Gawker this spring after his involvement had been reported by Forbes. While Thiel has never been secretive, exactly, about his political slant, he’s tended to confine his political opinions to infrequent interviews and essays. An appearance on the biggest possible stage is out of character for the quiet billionaire. And potentially fascinating.
What Thiel will talk about is unspecified. In a statement to Wired, he said, “Many people are uncertain in this election year, but most Americans agree that our country is on the wrong track. I don’t think we can fix our problems unless we can talk about them frankly.” All aboard the Straight Talk Express 2, which is now a privately funded space shuttle whose engine fails in low orbit.
So maybe Thiel will talk honestly and openly about his own somewhat peculiar political ideas. Thiel’s lack of faith in prevailing economic and governmental institutions and his search for post-democratic political systems may, in the end, put him closer to Trump than to most mainstream Republicans, and Thiel, more than any other speaker at the convention, could articulate a theory of Trumpism that goes beyond pure ethno-nationalist resentment. (Unless Tim Tebow’s been reading Mencius Moldbug.)
Probably not, though. Most likely he’ll appear as a representative from the United States’ fastest-growing industry, and talk in vague terms about entrepreneurialism and business. (And there’ll be the added benefit of demonstrating on a national stage Facebook’s conservative bona fides after the “Trending Topics” bias controversy from earlier this year.) One thing is clear: The media campaigns of shame and opprobrium levied against Thiel since the news broke that he was a Trump supporter, and funding lawsuits against Gawker, have had — at best — no effect on Thiel’s willingness to assert his beliefs (weird how sustained public criticism didn’t have any effect on a man who thinks funding a floating island colony in international waters is a worthwhile idea!). And if his speech at the convention is well-received we may be seeing a lot more of Peter Thiel and his post-politics. At the very least, if you enjoy watching tech journalists having a manic episode on Twitter, the speech should be a real trip.