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What Does Peter Thiel Want?
Untangling the beliefs of the enigmatic billionaire.
Of the many wealthy donors working to shape the future of the Republican Party, none has inspired greater fascination, confusion, and anxiety than billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel.
The perplexity is understandable. Co-founder of PayPal, early investor in Facebook, bestselling author, and Ron Paul-supporting libertarian-turned-nationalist-conservative Trump donor, the 55-year-old Thiel is an idiosyncratic and enigmatic intellectual fond of speaking at length about the ideas of René Girard and Leo Strauss, naming firms after objects found in the fictional world of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and speculating about fine points of Christian theology.
He also spent tens of millions of dollars on Republican candidates in the 2022 election cycle. The highest profile ones were the Senate runs of Blake Masters in Arizona and JD Vance in Ohio. (Both men have worked for Thiel: Masters as co-author of Thiel’s book Zero to One, chief operating officer of Thiel Capital, and president of the Thiel Foundation; Vance as a principal at the venture capital firm Mithril Capital Management.) Masters lost his race, but Vance won. Thiel’s rate of success in House races was better—9 of the 12 candidates he supported in Republican primaries (several of whom denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election) ended up winning.
Given this track record, it isn’t surprising that journalists and left-leaning critics typically portray Thiel in ominous terms, as a potent threat to the American political system. Often, they try to trace his views back to the time he spent as a child living under apartheid in South Africa or a quote from a 2009 essay for the libertarian Cato Institute in which he proclaimed he no longer believed that “freedom and democracy are compatible.”
The latter comment is troubling, but the reality is that his views have evolved in important ways since then. Thiel’s current outlook may well make him a danger to American democracy. But assessing the precise nature of that threat requires coming to terms with his ultimate aims—which have little to do with politics at all.
Thiel is, first and foremost, a dynamist—someone who cares above all about fostering innovation, exploration, growth, and discovery. This has been a consistent interest and motive from the early days of Thiel’s career. It certainly informed his libertarianism, which inclined in the direction of an Ayn Rand-inspired valorization of entrepreneurial superman-geniuses whose great acts of capitalistic creativity benefit all of mankind. Thiel also tended to follow Rand in viewing the masses as moochers who empower Big Government to crush these superman-geniuses.
But at some point between that 2009 essay expressing pessimism about democracy and Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP in the 2016 primaries, Thiel became something of an opportunistic populist inclined to view liberal elites and institutions as posing the greatest obstacle to building an economy and culture of dynamistic creativity—and eager to mobilize the anger and resentment of “the people” as a wrecking ball to knock them down.
That aspiration led Thiel to support Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. Yet the failure of the Trump administration to break more decisively from the political status quo left Thiel uninterested in playing a big role in the 2020 election cycle. His mood changed again after the election and its violent aftermath. In February of this year, The New York Times reported that Thiel and Trump had met in person at least three times since the latter left office. At a fundraiser at his Miami Beach compound in early 2022, Thiel expressed a desire to help defeat “the traitorous 10,” the House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in connection with his actions leading up to and on January 6, 2021. (Thiel heavily funded Harriet Hageman’s successful primary challenge to Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney.)
This might sound like a continuation of Thiel’s early outright disdain for democracy, but it’s better understood as a deepening of his opportunistic populism. Does Thiel personally believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump? I doubt it. It’s far more likely he supports the disruptive potential of encouraging election-denying candidates to run and helping them to win.
A Call to Christian Prometheanism
While progressive activists might make a point of peppering their public statements with angry denunciations of America’s many moral shortcomings, Thiel is moved to indignation by the fact that since 1958 no commercial aircraft (besides the long-decommissioned Concorde) has been developed that can fly faster than 977 kilometers per hour. Plenty of economists and pundits have written about the supposed scientific-technological stagnation of the present, and disdain for it is widely shared in Silicon Valley, especially among members of the so-called Paypal Mafia—former PayPal executives, including Thiel and Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk, who have remained active in founding and funding tech startups.
The evidence that scientific and technological progress has ground to a halt is mixed. When it comes to communications technology, and especially its application to the sharing and processing of information via personal computers, it’s hard to deny that advances have been impressive over the past several decades. Yet Thiel and others point out that when we lift our gaze from our phones and related consumer products to the wider vistas of human endeavor—breakthroughs in medicine, the development of new energy sources, advances in the speed and ease of transportation, and the exploration of space—progress has indeed slowed to a crawl. As Thiel put it two years ago in a favorable review of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s book about the phenomenon, the present looks and feels pretty much the same as 1969, only “with faster computers and uglier cars.”
If such views are commonplace in Silicon Valley, Thiel’s approach to the problem is distinctive in that he sees the shortfall as evidence of a deeper and more profound moral, aesthetic, and even theological failure. Human beings are capable of great creativity and invention, and we once aspired to achieve it in every realm. But now that aspiration has been smothered by layer upon layer of regulation and risk-aversion. “Legal sclerosis,” Thiel claimed in that same book review, “is likely a bigger obstacle to the adoption of flying cars than any engineering problem.”
Thiel’s diagnosis differs from standard-issue libertarianism in denying that it’s enough merely to roll back constraints on individual initiative, as if ambition and creativity would be instantly unleashed as soon as Big Government stopped riding our backs (to paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address). Progress in science and technology isn’t innate to human beings, Thiel believes. It’s an expression of a specific cultural or civilizational impulse that has its roots in Christianity and reached a high point during the Victorian era of Western imperialism. As Thiel put it last summer in a wide-ranging interview with the British website UnHerd, the Christian world “felt very expansive, both in terms of the literal empire and also in terms of the progress of knowledge, of science, of technology, and somehow that was naturally consonant with a certain Christian eschatology—a Christian vision of history.”
In Thiel’s view, recapturing civilizational greatness through scientific and technological achievement requires fostering a revival of a kind of Christian Prometheanism (a monotheistic variation on the rebellious creativity and innovation pursued by the demigod Prometheus in ancient Greek mythology). This is the subject of a remarkable short essay Thiel published in First Things magazine in 2015. Against those who portray modern scientific and technological progress as a rebellion against medieval Christianity, Thiel insists it is Christianity that encourages a metaphysical optimism about transforming and perfecting the world, with the ultimate goal of turning it into “a place where no accidents can happen” and the achievement of “personal immortality” becomes possible. All that’s required to reach this transhuman end is that we “remain open to an eschatological frame in which God works through us in building the kingdom of heaven today, here on Earth—in which the kingdom of heaven is both a future reality and something partially achievable in the present.”
Disruption in Action
Before any such eschatological revival can take place, obstacles to fostering it must be removed. That’s where Thiel’s political interventions come in. Whether he’s providing seed money to launch new nationalist publications and conference series, funding the Vance and Masters Senate campaigns, or working to take down Liz Cheney and other Republican members of the House who dared to defy Trump in his own rather bold act of disruption after the 2020 election, Thiel aims to undermine the progressive liberalism that dominates the mainstream media, the federal bureaucracy, the Justice Department, and the commanding heights of culture (in universities, think tanks, and other nonprofits).
In a widely discussed Vanity Fair essay from last spring about Thiel’s influence on the New Right, JD Vance is quoted on the subject of what this political disruption might look like during a Trump presidential restoration in 2025. Vance suggests that Trump should “fire every single midlevel bureaucrat, every civil servant in the administrative state, replace them with our people. And when the courts stop [him], stand before the country, and say, ‘the chief justice has made his ruling. Now let him enforce it.’” (Those closing phrases, usually attributed to President Andrew Jackson speaking out in defiance of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, are almost certainly apocryphal. But Vance apparently favors Trump disrupting the American constitutional order, which the senator-elect from Ohio frequently calls “the regime.”)
Another Thiel friend and confidante discussed at length in Vanity Fair, neo-reactionary Curtis Yarvin, takes the idea of disrupting the liberal order even further, suggesting various ways a future right-wing president (Trump or someone else) could shake things up, shredding the smothering blanket of liberal moralism, conformity, rules, and regulations, thereby encouraging the creation of something approaching a scientific-technological wild west, where innovation and experimentation rule the day. Yarvin’s preferred path to tearing down what he calls the liberal “Cathedral,” laid out in detail on a two-hour Claremont Institute podcast from May 2021, involves a Trump-like figure seizing dictatorial power in part by using a specially designed phone app to direct throngs of staunch supporters (Jan. 6-style) to overpower law enforcement at key locations around the nation’s capital.
Beware Faustian Billionaires
I know of no evidence that Thiel himself has personally advocated anything this overtly tyrannical. But this isn’t just an example of guilt-by-association. These are members of Thiel’s inner circle, speaking publicly about ways of achieving shared goals. Thiel funded Vance’s Senate campaign to the tune of at least $15 million. Is it likely the candidate veered into right-wing radicalism with a Vanity Fair reporter in defiance of his campaign’s most crucial donor? As for Yarvin, Thiel continued to back his tech start up (Urbit) after it became widely known he was the pseudonymous author behind the far-right blog “Unqualified Reservations,” and as others have shown, the political thinking of the two men has long overlapped in numerous other ways.
The image of a would-be tyrant directing the masses to help overthrow the liberal-democratic order also precisely mirrors Thiel’s latter-day approach to political influence. He’s deploying his considerable resources to empower as many people and groups as he can, first, to win elections by leveraging popular disgust at corrupt institutions—and second, to use the power they acquire to dismantle or even topple those institutions, hopefully allowing a revived culture of Christian scientific-technological dynamism to arise from out of the ruins.
It might be prudence that keeps Thiel from speaking out as freely as Vance and Yarvin, but it might also be indifference. Far more than most big political donors, Thiel appears to care only about the extra-political goal of his spending. How we get to a world of greater dynamism—whether it will merely require selective acts of troublemaking disruption, or whether, instead, it will ultimately involve smashing the political order of the United States to bits—doesn’t really concern him. Democratic politics itself—the effort of people with competing interests and clashing outlooks to share rule for the sake of stability and common flourishing—almost seems like an irritant and an afterthought to Peter Thiel.
The rest of us, attempting to maintain our bearings through a turbulent era made far more chaotic by the influence of billionaires hellbent on tearing down any and all obstacles to their Faustian ambitions, don’t have that luxury. What we do have is the opportunity to enlighten ourselves about what these would-be Masters of the Universe hope to accomplish—and to organize politically to prevent them from making a complete mess of things in the process.
Damon Linker writes the “Eyes on the Right” newsletter at Substack. He is a senior fellow in the Open Society Project at the Niskanen Center and a regular participant in the weekly “Beg to Differ” podcast at the Bulwark.
This article was cross-posted at Eyes on the Right.
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