Peter Thiel has spent his career reveling in contrarianism. As an investing strategy, it made him rich. As a critique of capitalism and entrepreneurship, it made him famous.
But the billionaire is finding to his unhappy surprise that the instinct isn’t celebrated so widely in his world when it comes to politics. Thiel has sent shockwaves through the liberal enclave of Silicon Valley and beyond this year with his support for Donald Trump’s presidential bid. That blowback intensified earlier this month when he cut the candidate a check for $1.25 million, just after the leak of a 2005 recording that featured Trump bragging about sexual assault.
So Thiel was mostly on the defensive Monday in an appearance in Washington to discuss why he’s backing a figure many of his peers regard at best as an odious hate-monger and at worst as a threat to our democracy. Speaking at the National Press Club, Thiel wrote off Trump’s most incendiary comments as either unfortunate quirks of his personality (the comments on the 2005 tape) or hyperbolic expressions of reasonable policy goals (building a wall on the Mexican border). And he said on the most pressing challenges facing the country—namely restoring widespread prosperity at home and peace abroad—Trump is right where the bipartisan political consensus is wrong.
“No matter how crazy this election seems, it is less crazy than the condition of our country,” Thiel said in some brief opening remarks, pointing to the financial stress on retirees facing steep medical bills and young people struggling under student debt. The governing elite, he said, have failed the country by embracing free trade that spawned a major trade deficit and more foreign wars. “For a long time our elites have been in the habit of denying difficult realities. That’s how bubbles form,” he said. “Whenever there is a hard problem but people want to believe in an easy solution, they will be tempted to deny reality and inflate a bubble.”
Trump, by contrast, may not be a humble man, but “the big things he’s right about amount to a much-needed dose of humility in our politics.” Thiel said no matter the election outcome, Trump is already pointing to a new politics that should remake not just a Republican Party still fixated on Reagan-era dogmas but the broader debate, toward one that “rejects bubble thinking and reckons with reality.”
Thiel denied that his advocacy for Trump—before cutting the check, he spoke onstage at the Republican National Convention in July—has cost him relationships in Silicon Valley. “It certainly has generated a tremendous amount of discussion, I’ve gotten a lot of pushback from people to say the least,” he said during a question-and-answer session after his remarks. “But I think my friendships, close working business relationships, all those are very well intact.” But the uproar over Thiel’s involvement prompted Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to write his employees earlier this month defending keeping the longtime investor on the company’s board. And Y Combinator, the incubator where Thiel serves as a part-time partner, has faced similar pressure to cut ties, with Project Include, a group that aims to promote diversity in the tech industry, severing its relationship.
Thiel did acknowledge being taken aback by the reaction, noting he’s long supported fringe causes, including research into life-extension technology and sea-stedding. He considered his support for Trump conventional by comparison, since tens of millions of Americans share his position. But he still can’t resist a contrarian argument.
While Hillary Clinton’s campaign has promoted the message that Donald Trump is too unstable to handle the nation’s nuclear arsenal—just today, it unveiled an updated version of Lyndon Johnson’s iconic 1964 “Daisy” ad—Thiel said it’s Clinton who poses the greater risk of starting a nuclear conflict, given her confrontational approach to Russia. And even as Thiel pressed his case that those dismissing Trump are out of touch with working Americans, he demonstrated he’s no man of the people himself.
Later in the conversation, Thiel defended his sponsorship of wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, which forced the gossip site out of business, by arguing that “if you’re a single-digit millionaire like Hulk Hogan, you have no effective access to our legal system.” The ability of famous millionaires to sue gossip sites hardly ranks as a top concern for most Americans, even those motivated by justice reform.