Peter Thiel has always been something of a Silicon Valley lightening rod, but in the past week he’s become its litmus test.
For the uninitiated, Thiel is a venture capitalist and longtime Republican with libertarian leanings, who earlier this year endorsed Donald Trump for president (after first donating to Carly Fiorina). He spoke at the RNC in Cleveland, and then donated $1.25 million to Trump’s campaign after the infamous Access Hollywood tape (plus many of the subsequent sexual assault accusations). Thiel has not publicly commented on Trump’s sordid past, instead focusing on the candidate’s promise to slash government bureaucracy and inefficiency without being beholden to Republican dogma.
Given that Silicon Valley bleeds blue in a normal election cycle ― and that even some of its GOP outliers (Meg Whitman, Marc Andreessen, etc.) have deemed Trump particularly unfit for office ― Thiel’s actions have caused an uproar, with particular attention being paid to his Facebook board seat and his unpaid role as a part-time advisor to Y Combinator. There have been calls for both Facebook
and YC to dump Thiel (something both have refused to do), and just yesterday we heard venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya (a former FB exec who wanted to help manage a Mike Bloomberg run) say at the Vanity Fair Summit that he’d (hypothetically) kick Thiel off the board of a company he controls.
And I agree with the pitch-forkers. Thiel has to go. Not from his own funds, of course, but from third-party organizations whose continuing embrace of Thiel is a de facto acceptance of his candidate’s racist proposals (banning immigrants based on their religion) and pathological misogyny. Thiel isn’t publicly endorsing those parts of Trump, but picking a president isn’t a trip to the salad bar. You get the whole meal. Thiel’s continuing presence at Facebook and YC is a cocky, counterproductive reminder to female and minority entrepreneurs that they are second-class citizens in the white boys club of Silicon Valley.
Particularly at Facebook, where he plays a very active role (flashback to my Uber/Saudi argument). Had Thiel said many of the things Trump has said, he’d have been fired (as YC’s Sam Altman acknowledges). His escalating support cannot be excused because there is a degree of separation. And if YC once banned certain companies from Demo Day because they supported SOPA, it currently can ban a part-time advisor for this.
This is where it’s important to note that I also agree with those who believe this campaign against Thiel is an anti-American witch hunt. In other words, he’s got to stay.
For starters, there are laws in California against this very thing, which only don’t apply in this particular case because Thiel isn’t technically an employee of either Facebook or YC. But clearly the spirit of the law ― which is in the same vein as not being able to fire tenured professors over political speech ― is in play here.
More importantly, do you really want to codify a culture in which unpopular political opinions cannot be tolerated, in the pursuit of a culture of tolerance? And, remember, Trump is a mainstream political candidate, no matter how inconceivable that may seem to you. If we acknowledge that demographic diversity has intrinsic value to an organization, shouldn’t ideological diversity have the same? This isn’t the same as tolerating an ISIS apologist in your business midst. He was nominated by a major political party, and there is a reasonable argument supporters can make that macro policy (namely SCOTUS) “trumps” temperament.
I know that part of my job is to stake a claim and make my case. And I actually have written much longer versions of the above arguments, in a bizarre rhetorical battle that reminded me a bit of Ash debating Mirror Ash. In the end, all I knew was that this one wasn’t cut-and-dried ― no matter the stridency some others have expressed ― and I couldn’t pretend that it was.
If you believe this is cut-and-dried, then I respect it. I just don’t agree.