Why has the über-elitist Silicon Valley investor joined forces with the über-plebeian Donald Trump? The answer may be scarier than you think.
San Francisco magazine
November 29, 2017
"This is really a classic Berkeley event today—this is so cool,” said Peter Thiel from the stage at UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium on Wednesday, December 10, 2014, after a heckler stood up and shouted “Fuck you!” at him.
The billionaire venture capitalist, PayPal founder, and author of the New York Times bestseller Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future had been invited by a nonpartisan Cal student group to speak at the largest lecture hall on campus. Thiel’s appearance didn’t inspire a Milo Yiannopoulos–scale riot—such conflagrations were still two and a half years and a world-shaking presidential election away—but it was far from a harmonious evening. While a mob of protesters outside the hall pounded on the doors, others who had gained entrance, many of them veterans of the Occupy movement, grew angrier and louder. Toward the end of the evening, the doors burst open and a group of masked protesters, carrying a red banner and chanting, “Whose university? Our university!,” stormed down the aisles to the stage.
Like two mirrors facing each other, the audience pointed their phones at the protesters while the protesters pointed their phones at the audience. “No NSA! No police state!” the protesters chanted at Thiel. “Go home!” the audience chanted back. “Go home!”
But as the audience members and the protesters continued to yell at each other, the object of all the disruption was nowhere to be found. At some point in the confusion, Thiel had quietly slipped out a side door.
If the protesters were angry at and worried about Peter Thiel back in 2014, how should they feel about him at the tail end of 2017, now that he’s become indispensable to the Trump administration? In a word: terrified. For as effective as Thiel has been over the years at provoking outrage and then vanishing, only to rise again, ready to wage stealth war on another enemy, he has never known more power or been closer to creating global change than at this moment. If press reports are correct, President Trump is considering appointing Thiel to be chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board—a position previously held by such establishment sages as Brent Scowcroft and Chuck Hagel. This would make the 50-year-old entrepreneur one of the top executive branch advisers on America’s intelligence agencies. And it would be one of the most peculiar high-level appointments in American political history.
For two decades, Thiel has been one of the most blood pressure–raising figures in Silicon Valley, provoking fury from his liberal opponents and caveat-dripping defenses from even his most loyal allies. Yet there’s something oddly elusive about him, something that goes beyond his identities as a semi-closeted gay man, a heterodox Christian, and an exceedingly flexible libertarian—something reflected in the mishmash of seemingly irreconcilable beliefs to which he subscribes. Trying to discern what drives Peter Thiel can be an exercise in extreme futility, especially when he declines interview requests, as he did for this story. Yet everywhere Thiel goes, he leaves behind clues.
Some of Thiel’s obsessions are well-known, such as his quest for immortality (he takes human growth hormone to hold aging at bay); his onetime support for the Seasteading Institute, which planned to build floating cities outside the control of existing governments; his concern for privacy (after Gawker outed him, he funded a lawsuit by Hulk Hogan that bankrupted it); and his skepticism about the value of a college education (his Thiel Fellowships pay select young entrepreneurs to not go to college). But Thiel’s most significant obsession, at least as it bears on his potential role as a top intelligence adviser to the president, is his skepticism about democracy and his fascination with authoritarian and apocalyptic thinkers. Some of this is widely understood: In a 2009 essay that has often been quoted in the press, he wrote, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” And his friendship with reactionary authoritarians like Eliezer Yudkowsky and Curtis Yarvin, who sums up the world’s problems as “chronic kinglessness,” is also a standard trope of Thielology.
The fullest expression of Thiel’s dark worldview, however, is far less known. It appeared in an obscure essay he contributed to a collection of academic pieces published in 2007 titled Politics and Apocalypse. It provides a rare look at Thiel thinking out loud when he believes the rest of us aren’t listening. And what he says—given his unique position as a core adviser to the most unpredictable and volatile leader this nation has ever known—is more than a little disturbing.
For Thiel, 2004 was an auspicious time. Not only was it the year he made his fateful $500,000 investment in an infant social network called Facebook; it was also when he founded Palantir. The privately held company, which has raised $2.6 billion and is currently valued at more than $20 billion, sells its data analytics to clients that include the CIA, the Department of Defense, the NSA, the FBI, and police departments nationwide. It also does nonprofit work fighting human trafficking and human rights abuses and assisting in disaster relief, and it has increasingly moved into the corporate sector. Over the course of founding the secretive company, Thiel got to know national security players like neocon éminence grise Richard Perle and former National Counter terrorism Center head Michael Leiter. These were his first, but not last, steps down the corridors of insider Washington power.
In July of that year, the then-36-year-old treated himself to a kind of intellectual summer vacation, personally underwriting a weeklong conference at Stanford to discuss contemporary politics with Robert Hamerton-Kelly, the former dean of the Stanford Memorial Chapel, and a half dozen professors of philosophy, theology, and political theory, including one of Thiel’s old Stanford professors, René Girard. Girard’s explain-everything theory of “mimetic desire,” his unorthodox Christianity, and his obsession with the apocalypse had had a profound effect on Thiel.
In a highly unusual move, Thiel not only funded this conference but also contributed his own paper. His essay, “The Straussian Moment,” which would go on to be published in Politics and Apocalypse, begins by arguing that the 9/11 attacks “called into question” the political and military framework of the past two centuries, as well as of the modern age. Indeed, some cherished aspects of modern life, like an absolute commitment to civil rights, simply became useless: “Overnight, the fundamentalist civil rights mania of the ACLU, which spoke in the language of inviolable civil rights, was rendered an unviable anachronism,” Thiel writes. He goes on to say that the West is unable to respond properly to the threat posed by Islam (throughout the piece, Thiel treats “Islam” and the 9/11 attackers as if they were interchangeable) because it no longer possesses a religious worldview: The West has become reductively secular and rational, the enervated land of Homo economicus. Since the middle of the 17th century, Thiel says, the West has dismissed “questions about the nature of humanity” or “what is a well-lived life” as pointless, even absurd. Thiel contrasts this disapprovingly with an “older Western tradition [that] recognized that humans are potentially evil or at least dangerous beings.” The loss of this grand vision of human nature was accompanied by the collapse of other ideals, such as patriotism. Noting that Thomas Hobbes, whom he calls “the first truly modern philosopher,” boasted of how he had run away from fighting in a religious war, Thiel writes, “a cowardly life had become preferable to a heroic but meaningless death.”
Capitalism, which reached its pinnacle in the United States, replaced the earlier search for meaning. But the West’s valueless, materialistic paradise was shattered on 9/11. For Thiel, Osama bin Laden is a kind of return of the religious repressed, an evil eruption from an archaic world we thought had vanished. “Today mere self-preservation forces all of us to look at the world anew, to think strange new thoughts, and thereby to awaken from that very long and profitable period of intellectual slumber and amnesia that is so misleadingly called the Enlightenment,” he writes.
To explore these “strange new thoughts,” Thiel turns to German legal scholar Carl Schmitt—a brilliant thinker who was also a Nazi and the Third Reich’s preeminent legal theorist. For Thiel, Schmitt is an inspiring throwback to a pre-Enlightenment age who exalts struggle and insists that the discovery of enemies is the foundation of politics. Thiel writes that Schmitt would respond to bin Laden by calling for “a new crusade as a way to discover the meaning and purpose of our lives.” But the West is too weak and confused to embrace this heroic clash of civilizations. “An outright declaration of war with Islam would be unthinkable,” Thiel writes, criticizing George W. Bush for refusing to frame the war that way. “We much prefer to think of these measures as police actions against a few unusual criminal sociopaths who happen to blow up buildings.” Like the cowardly Hobbes, we are likely to “run away from fighting and confrontation,” with the result that we are “ultimately going to lose.”
But much as Thiel admires Schmitt’s courageous commitment to a war to the death, he says that embracing his “incredibly drastic solutions” would lead to “a Pyrrhic victory,” for it would “do away with everything that fundamentally distinguishes the modern West from Islam.” That is to say, “a new crusade” against Islam would be too brutal. “We are at an impasse,” he writes, caught between the failed Enlightenment and a “return to the older tradition,” which is “fraught with far too much violence.” The solution, Thiel says, is partly found in the works of political theorist Leo Strauss, a German Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1937, eventually landing at the University of Chicago, where he trained generations of students to revere ancient texts. One of Strauss’s central ideas is that there are truths, known only to philosophers, that are concealed in esoteric writing and should not be communicated to the masses, whom he viewed with Platonic disdain. One of those “taboo” truths, Strauss writes, is that “America owes her greatness not only to her habitual adherence to the principles of freedom and justice, but also to her occasional deviation from them.”
In other words, playing dirty has been essential to the nation’s success. Thiel argues that this subversive insight provides the middle ground between ineffectual modern liberalism and the state of permanent war. At first glance, he argues, it would seem impossible for America to embrace the taboo of outright deception, because “a direct path forward is prevented by America’s constitutional machinery.” However, he goes on, “there are more possibilities for action than first appear,” including what the Italian writer Roberto Calasso calls “the secret services…murders, traps, betrayals, assassinations, cover-ups, and weapons shipments.” And these secret forces should be transnational: Alongside the liberal democratic state, Thiel argues, we need an “exceptional framework” to “supplement the American regime,” one not accountable—or even visible—to ordinary political channels. “Instead of the United Nations, filled with interminable and inconclusive parliamentary debates that resemble Shakespearean tales told by idiots, we should consider Echelon, the secret coordination of the world’s intelligence services, as the decisive path to a truly global pax Americana.”
The cat is out of the bag. Thiel’s hard-to- parse discussion of Strauss boils down to a high-minded justification for the Deep State–enabling company he’d just founded, Palantir. And would, a dozen years later, perhaps justify his support of Donald J. Trump.
Of the many perplexing things about Peter Thiel, the most perplexing might be his alliance with Trump. The two men are a consummately unlikely duo. They’re both wealthy businessmen and share an aversion to political correctness (and an antipathy to Islam), but after that, they’re about as similar as Ayn Rand and Beyoncé. In his former life as a real estate developer, Trump practiced what Thiel in Zero to One dismisses as non-visionary “1 to n” thinking—i.e., merely copying existing practices, as opposed to making truly innovative leaps like founding PayPal. And as a nationalist demagogue, Trump is the apotheosis of the flag-waving mob that one would think the globalist Thiel would hold in disdain. Yet Thiel donated $1.25 million to Trump’s campaign, gave a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention, and was one of the president’s most important early advisers. At Trump’s famous early meeting with Silicon Valley pooh-bahs, he seized Thiel’s hand in both of his and gushed, “You’re a very special guy.”
After calling for a secrecy-filled, Palantir-guarded nation and world in his essay, Thiel acknowledges that there “appears to be something subversive and immoral about a political framework that operates outside the checks and balances of representative democracy as described in high school textbooks.” But we can forget those worries about authoritarianism, immorality, and violations of democratic norms, Thiel assures us—a higher imperative trumps such high-schoolish concerns. Imitating Strauss, Thiel does not spell out what that mighty goal is, instead deferring to another one of his German intellectual heroes, Oswald Spengler. “For the Straussian, there can be no fundamental disagreement with Oswald Spengler’s call for action at the dramatic finale of Der Untergang des Abendlandes,” Thiel portentously writes before quoting the 96-word ending of The Decline of the West in German, a passage that concludes in Latin: “The Fates lead the willing and drag the unwilling.” Thiel does not unpack Spengler’s conclusion, but for our purposes it is sufficient to sum it up as the heroic struggle by Straussian wise men to restore nobility to a declining modern world.
But what does any of this have to do with Thiel’s alliance with Donald Trump? The answer may lie in a Straussian doctrine that Thiel, perhaps intentionally, does not mention. According to Strauss, there are three types of men: the wise, the gentlemen, and the vulgar. The wise are the intellectual elite, who alone are able to stare unflinchingly at the truth. The gentlemen are lovers of glory, fame, and power—the people who actually rule the world. The vulgar are the pleasure-driven rabble. As Shadia Drury, a professor at the University of Regina who is a leading scholar of Strauss, points out, Strauss believed that it is essential that the wise rule the world, but that it is impossible for them to do so openly, because of their harsh anti-modern doctrines and contempt for the vulgar masses. Strauss, Drury writes, believed that “only perpetual war can overturn the modern project, with its emphasis on self-preservation and ‘creature comforts.’” This is obviously not a winning political platform. Therefore, the wise men have to rule covertly, using the gentlemen as their cat’s paws. This doctrine of “the covert rule of the wise” provides a highly plausible explanation for why the elitist Thiel joined up with the pleasure-seeking, plebeian Donald Trump. As the ultimate combo pack of the gentleman and the vulgarian, Trump represents the perfect useful idiot for Thiel to hide behind.
Even though Thiel omits this puppet master doctrine from his paper, the Straussian vision he articulates is pretty alarming. But Thiel now reassures us—sort of—that there is a yet higher truth than Strauss’s, which will make everything better (that is, unless the world is destroyed). That higher truth was revealed by Thiel’s Stanford professor Girard. Drawing on literary theory, anthropology, and his own borderline-heretical theology, Girard created the theory of mimetic desire, which argues that all our desires are imitations of other people’s desires. Since everyone wants the same things, violence haunts humanity. In archaic times, this violence was channeled toward the scapegoat, a single figure— sometimes a king, sometimes an outsider—upon whom society’s rivalrous hatred could be projected and through whose ritual murder society could be cleansed.
In the modern, rational world, we no longer believe in the scapegoat, but neither have we renounced our mimetic desires. We thus have no mechanism to escape the cycle of violence—except, Girard argues, by imitating Christ. A heterodox Catholic and pacifist, Girard believed that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross could redeem mankind not for orthodox theological reasons, but because it revealed how mimesis and scapegoating works and, by so doing, opened the possibility for us to renounce the cycle. Although at the end of his life Girard became increasingly pessimistic that this would happen, he believed that only through embracing nonviolence and rejecting conflict could the modern world find “the peace of the kingdom of God.”
Thiel is a major Girardian. Over the last seven years, he has donated millions to scholars of Girard, and even credits his old professor with inspiring his investment in Mark Zuckerberg’s company. “Facebook first spread by word of mouth, and it’s about word of mouth, so it’s doubly mimetic,” Thiel told the New York Times. “Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures.” More important, Thiel shares not only Girard’s theory of mimetic rivalry, but also his Christian solution to it. But this leaves him with a problem. How can he reconcile his embrace of Straussian deception and purifying war with Girard’s call for peace? It’s an even bigger problem because Thiel, the cofounder of a highly profitable defense contractor, is obviously not a pacifist.
In the long run, Thiel writes, Girard’s pacifist Christian vision will triumph. Judgment Day will come: “One must never forget that one day all will be revealed, that all injustices will be exposed, and that those who perpetrated them will be held to account.” But in the short run, in the age of 9/11, we still need secrets, wars, and dirty tricks: “There can be no real accommodation with the Enlightenment since so many of its easy bromides have become deadly falsehoods in our time.” So what do we do while waiting for the end of time? Thiel offers a weird, chemistry-set solution. “And so, in determining the correct mixture of violence and peace, the Christian statesman or stateswoman would be wise, in every close case, to side with peace.” Voilà! You add a little violence here, a little peace there, until you have it just right. But you’d better nail the mixture, because if you don’t, the world will end in “the limitless violence of runaway mimesis,” just as Girard warns in his final book, Battling to the End.
As these final lines of his paper indicate, Thiel is obsessed with the apocalypse. After the election, he told the New York Times’s Maureen Dowd that one of the reasons he had been drawn to Trump was the mogul’s manner of speaking in a way that was “apocalyptic and funny at the same time.” It’s not that Thiel wants the world to end to bring on the Second Coming: He’s not that kind of Christian. As an immortality-obsessed survivalist, Thiel is presumably terrified at the prospect of a nuclear war. But his fascination with dark, anti-modern thinkers like Schmitt and Strauss, with their apocalypse-tempting beliefs in vast social and political changes just around the corner, legitimizes a kind of politics that skids right past liberal safeguards. A person after a target that large can forgive himself a whole lot of overreach along the way. Even if you believe that as a presidential adviser Thiel would try to rein in America’s intelligence agencies—or, more crucially, rein in Donald Trump—it’s a disturbingly messianic credo, and one that Thiel only hints at in public, for obvious reasons.
So what are we to take away from this peculiar essay? In one sense, maybe not that much. There’s a pretentious, grad-student quality to his soliloquizing that makes it easy to dismiss. But there’s more to it than that. Thiel’s contempt for the modern world, his fascination with authoritarian thinkers, his casual dismissal of international norms and representative democracy, his obsession with secrecy, and his elitism ooze from every page, and they do not seem like ideal beliefs for a potential overseer of U.S. intelligence.
Ironically, Thiel named his data-gathering company after a palantir, one of the all-seeing magical spherical stones in one of his favorite books, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. He presumably sees himself as Gandalf, the wise, beneficent wizard. But there’s another wizard in that book, Saruman, whose arrogance led him to throw in his lot with an evil power who threatens to destroy the world. And we don’t yet know which one Thiel will turn out to be.