Peter Thiel is a futurist. When he first broke ground on PayPal in 1998, he imagined a reality where the exchange lived as its own centralized currency, free from government control. He’s offered the Seasteading Institute, an organization dedicated to the purely hypothetical idea of building floating cities on international waters, $500,000. He’s pledged $3.5 million to Methuselah Foundation, which is working to “cure” ageing. He’s currently signed up with Alcor Cryogenics, which promise to freeze his dead body in case his other long-term quixotic postulations don’t pay off.
This might be a traditional portfolio for a technocratic venture capitalist, but it certainly isn’t for a Donald Trump supporter. Trumpism preaches isolation, tradition and justice for coal miners and police officers. The white-picket slogan “Make America Great Again” is inherently nostalgic. Thiel’s dreams of a one-world economy under the liberty of cyberspace doesn’t stack up against the World War II doctrinal morality in the current Republican party. He has long identified with Libertarian fundamentals, backing Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012 and subsequently making donations to the campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney. The idea of a center-right interloping candidate earning his vote with a strong social core is pretty reasonable. But nobody expected Peter Thiel to make his Republican National Convention debut by fiercely advocating for Trump alongside Dana White and a Duck Dynasty star. In sum, a man who is very, very smart is having his first major political moment backing someone whose foundational foreign policy proposal is a giant Medieval wall.
Never underestimate a billionaire in the midst of an existential crisis.
Thiel is not the only cosmopolitan capitalist backing Trump. Hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli, best known for hiking up the price on the AIDS medication Daraprim, has thrown his support behind the campaign. But Shkreli’s positions reek of a guy desperate to extend his internet notoriety as much as possible. You don’t get the same feeling from Thiel. For whatever reason, Trump seems to have captured Thiel’s personal zeitgeist more than any other nominee in the past.
It goes without saying that Silicon Valley leans left, but it’s also very pro-government. Journalist Greg Ferenstein, who wrote a book about tech-industrialism called The Age of Optimists, summed up the Valley’s political leanings in an interview with AEI. “Silicon Valley and broadly, urbanized professionals represent an entirely new political category. They are pro-capitalism and pro-government and their belief is that the government should be an investor in citizens to make them more educated, entrepreneurial and civic,” he says. “What we’re seeing is the emergence of an entirely new thing, which I’m tentatively calling optimists, because that’s their basic philosophical output. They’re trying to race into a better future as quickly as possible.”
Sometime over the past four years, Thiel lost his faith in the government. The politicians he backed—Ron Paul, John McCain, and Mitt Romney—have each removed themselves from Trump’s demagoguery, but Thiel’s resolve has only strengthened. That’s because there are two kinds of wealth in America: one where you live comfortably, and one where you start adopting God’s responsibilities as your own.
“It’s not a lack of judgment that leads Americans to vote for Trump. We’re voting for Trump because we judge the leadership of our country to have failed,” Thiel said to the National Press Club on Monday, according to Motherboard. “This judgment has been hard to accept for some of the country’s most fortunate, socially prominent people.”
Thiel’s statements reek of a distant, neoliberal guilt. For years, he’s thrown money into lofty projects, hoping for immortality or something close. But now he’s sick of those futurist ideals, sick of his rich left-wing friends and sick of himself. The futurist who wants to build independent floating city-states is still a patriot.
In that sense, Thiel isn’t that different from Donald Trump. Both men have been absurdly wealthy for the majority of their lives. After years of distracting themselves with patrician ventures like reality shows, gold-plated toilets and cryogenic fantasies, they’ve bought into their hubris, picked up an outsider sympathy for the huddled masses and are trying to sculpt the world in their image. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the Trump candidacy, it’s that you can never underestimate a billionaire in the midst of an existential crisis.