Peter Thiel has not done much for his public image over the past several months. Between orchestrating the destruction of a major media site and expressing vocal support for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, culminating in a $1.25 million donation to the campaign in the midst of a misogyny scandal, Thiel has crystallized himself as the ultimate Silicon Valley supervillain.
Thiel is an intelligent man. He is one of only a handful of self-made billionaires. He led one of the most important financial technology companies in history and has worked to pioneer numerous generation-defining technologies including machine learning and big data analytics. He even fought a personal vendetta against the heroic champion of Silicon Valley, his holiness, Elon Musk, and lived to tell the tale. So it seems unlikely that he truly believed Donald Trump, as presented, was a good choice to be president of the United States of America. Surely there is something more subtle at play. This is hardly an exhaustive motivational analysis; perhaps the truth is some combination of these factors. However, I think it is beneficial to examine the plausibility, merits, and drawbacks of each argument individually.
- He genuinely believes Donald Trump was the most responsible option.
- He wanted to raise awareness for the social issues Trump presented.
- He knows something we do not.
Option 1 is the most likely truth in this narrative. Perhaps, Peter Thiel really believed that Donald Trump, as presented, was the best candidate to become president of the united states. Trump likely benefitted from the lack of an objective threshold of integrity or competence in this endeavor. He only needed to be perceived as a better option than Clinton. Given that this is the reality presented to the public at face value, it is also the least worthy of a speculative exploration. So let’s take some poetic liberties with reality and discard this option for the moment; we are now entering “What If?” territory.
Thiel’s endorsement, speeches, and subsequent donation served one purpose only: grabbing your attention. He knew Donald Trump, as presented, is a less than ideal candidate to lead the free world. Thiel only wanted you to listen to him. The fact of the matter is that a Clinton presidency would have been more of the same: more cover-ups, more surveillance, more controversy, more scandals, more conspiracy. It is disturbingly likely that, had someone not pressed Clinton on these issues, the majority of the public would remain blissfully ignorant of the extent at which this occurred. That was Trump’s real gift in this race. He and his advisor’s were excellent at illuminating the uncomfortable truths in current American society and, in many cases, Western society in general: The suffering of the poor and the excessive prosperity of the wealthy minority, the unmanageable illegal immigration, the tragic and unnecessary wars.
People who would not lend their attention to policy debates in any other case have listened to Trump. They’ve done so precisely because he acts like a walking caricature of himself. It makes good TV. So Thiel set out to give Trump an even louder voice. In particular, Thiel forced the Clintonites, the tech community, and most of California to listen closely. These are demographics where the overwhelming majority viewed Trump as a bumbling idiot spouting nonsense. Thiel’s RNC speech lends some credence to this idea. He is advocating the vision that Trump is selling, not Trump as a champion himself. Trump’s bumbling idiocy and perverse self-caricaturing are irrelevant in a debate when he is speaking the truth, and ironically it was those who deemed themselves the most intellectual that most often succumbed to their own self inflicted ad-hominem. Now the leaders of these communities have sobered up to the suffering in the country and are offering to work with Trump to mend them.
It is still unclear as to whether Peter Thiel actually wanted Trump, as presented, to win the election. The same result would have effected even if Trump had lost the election and, with the correct issues in the political limelight, Clinton would arguably have been the more experienced and competent choice to take them on. The Brexit campaign is an ideal example of this situation gone wrong. High profile campaigners championed a high-profile, contentious outcome to raise awareness for a plethora of social issues that would otherwise have drowned in obscurity. Unfortunately, and much to their surprise, the Brexit campaign accidentally won their referendum. How do we know it was an accident? Apart from the political and economic chaos that ensued, the leaders of the campaign were immediately forced to withdraw their campaign promises, resign from their positions, and confess to having no plan for what to do next. The national currency all but collapsed and UK equities fell through the floor. When prominent campaigners were encouraged to take appropriate positions in the new government they promptly refused; a somewhat suspicious response from the leaders of the campaign and upsetting for their own voters who dreamed of national reform. Britain is still reeling in the wake of the referendum. After promising to trigger the exit proceedings immediately after the referendum, it has undergone a governance reshuffling, and can’t even settle on what year it will begin the process.
America has handled the Trump election somewhat better, with most domestic equities actually rising in response to the news of a Trump presidency. There are still a number of peculiarities to be ironed out, however. Trump, for example, should liquidate his holdings in his business for the duration of his term and release his tax information. But these are relatively small issues in comparison to the stability of a nation and I think the United States is to be commended for adapting to this unexpected history so cleanly. Peter Thiel, wherever he is, is either quivering in fear or glowing with delight at the thoughts of what he has done.
Thiel knows something we do not
Perceptive readers will notice I have provisioned most references to Donald Trump’s presidential competence with the clause “as presented.” Herein lies the least likely, but most enthralling, possibility: Trump may be far, far more intelligent than most people are giving him credit for, and Thiel likely knows this. It is plausible that the reality TV character we’ve seen in the campaign is much more character than reality. The evidence we have seen would indicate that this is the case. Trump could be considered a marketing genius, using the medium of reality TV as a mechanism for free advertising. Indeed, many of the fastest growing, and most successful, companies in the world have incredibly visible CEOs with a carefully constructed backstory and public personality at the helm. Elon Musk on stage is nothing like Elon Musk behind closed doors. Steve Jobs was not the Steve Jobs you thought you knew. Elizabeth Holmes built a multi billion dollar business on the back of nothing but lies, charisma, and an inspiring message. An appealing public persona is good for business and, in Trump’s diamond encrusted eyes, any press is good press.
Trump’s already long history of inconsistency may be the result of playing a fictional character in real life.
Side note: An episode of Black Mirror (S02E03) explores the notion of a fictional character running for office, and the human consequences that ensue. It, like all Black Mirror episodes, is presented as a “Dystopian Future” so there is plenty of food for thought.
Further, Trump’s behavior is consistent with one of the core structures of power; that is, the best course of action in obtaining power is at odds with the best course of action when wielding it. For as long as leaders have been elected, candidates have promised the world to their electorate. Promises that, frankly, would be irresponsible and un-presidential if they were enforced in any real environment with finite resources. Reducing taxes while providing subsidized healthcare and education sounds like a dream but would be a tragically irresponsible proposal. The candidate must present the most appealing solution, but the president must rule with the most practical, realistic solution. It is unfortunate that these solutions are always at odds.
The character we’ve witnessed throughout the campaign, and on reality TV in the past, is clearly very appealing to the masses. Trump literally quantified, and perfected, the popularity of his character in advance of the campaign via his TV ratings. He presented himself as the man he needed to be, not the man he is. So it would not be implausible to see him to act presidential throughout his term. To act with dignity, respect, and strategy in foreign relations. To see him put the people of America first. And maybe, just maybe, see him make America great again.
Thiel bet on the right horse but now his reasoning for doing so feels more important than the choice itself. Perhaps Clinton’s experience was her greatest liability because it carried with it the mistrust of the people, who knew she could, and would, pull the wool over their eyes if she so wished. Trump has no such history to be judged by which leaves Thiel, and the rest of us, with only speculation of what is to come.