Assessment: Does billionaire contrarian Peter Thiel comprise multitudes? A biography weighs in

2021-09-17 18:30:08

On the Shelf

The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Energy

By Max Chafkin
Penguin: 400 pages, $28

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Within the third episode of the HBO sitcom “Silicon Valley,” Peter Gregory, a superb however socially awkward investor, encounters a fast-food hamburger bun for seemingly the primary time. Considering its sesame seeds, he has a flash of indirect perception: A uncommon confluence of cicada broods will quickly decimate sesame crops, driving up its commodity worth. Gregory masses up on sesame futures and reaps a $68-million revenue.

Together with his glitching-robot mannerisms and anti-establishment obsessions, Gregory was an apparent shipup of Peter Thiel, the billionaire enterprise capitalist, Fb board member and erstwhile Trump marketing campaign donor. (The present’s creator, Mike Decide, has denied Gregory was based mostly on Thiel, which was in all probability smart of him given the best way Thiel has gone after others for mocking him.)

In his real-life profession as a macro hedge fund investor betting on international financial traits, Thiel was considerably much less clairvoyant than his supposed fictional doppelganger. In early 2008, then operating a agency known as Clarium Capital, he believed the world monetary system was on the verge of a meltdown. He wrote a letter to his buyers “recommending prayer and repentance in lieu of funding evaluation,” stories Max Chafkin in his entertaining and disturbing new biography “The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Energy.”

Thiel was proper in regards to the meltdown however mistaken in regards to the particulars, mistiming it after which second-guessing himself in a wager on the restoration. It was a pricey blunder; different fund managers who noticed the crash coming made tens of billions of {dollars} on “the large quick” whereas Clarium ended the 12 months down. However irrespective of: Thiel would quickly sufficient be value at the very least $7 billion, thanks in giant measure to a tax avoidance scheme of doubtful legality. And his repute as an unconventional visionary solely compounded — notably after one other long-shot wager, on Trump profitable the presidency, paid off.

Cultivating that repute has been, in Chafkin’s telling, a vital profession technique and consuming ardour for Thiel. He got here onto the nationwide scene in 1995 because the co-author of “The Variety Delusion,” a broadside in opposition to political correctness and multiculturalism. Striving to determine himself as a public mental, his early efforts included “self-publishing books, paying to placed on conferences, basically paying for affect nevertheless and wherever he may,” Chafkin stories. Hilariously — to anybody accustomed to his dour persona — he additionally co-hosted a public entry TV present, printed a NASCAR fan journal and opened a San Francisco nightclub famed for its hookup-friendly co-ed bogs.

Peter Thiel, left, and Elon Musk, at PayPal headquarters, the place they have been CEO and founder, respectively, in Palo Alto in 2000.


Considerably later, having acquired a few dot-com fortunes and a greater grasp of his private model, he created the Thiel Fellowship, a program that supplied $100,000 grants to gifted college students keen to skip faculty to pursue a start-up or different challenge. It was classic Thiel, equal components prescient — scholar mortgage debt wouldn’t prime the nationwide discourse for an additional decade — and trollish. To not point out self-serving: Based on one of many program’s directors, Thiel cooked up the entire thing as a PR stunt to distract consideration from his unflattering portrayal in Aaron Sorkin’s movie “The Social Community.”

But when Thiel desired to be seen as a genius iconoclast with world leaders on velocity dial, he additionally often manifested a want to not be seen in any respect. A devotee of the conservative political thinker Leo Strauss, who believed rulers should conceal their true motives from the general public, Thiel is an obscurantist whose strategic self-disclosure calls to thoughts the Winston Churchill maxim “In wartime, fact is so valuable, she ought to all the time be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” (He as soon as instructed me he was interested in human development hormone however didn’t use it; solely after publishing my story did I come throughout a TV interview wherein he described taking it day by day. I’m among the many journalists whose reporting Chafkin cites in his acknowledgments.)

In 2016, Forbes reported that Thiel had secretly funded a $10-million authorized marketing campaign to place Gawker Media, a writer of stories and gossip blogs, out of enterprise. The hassle succeeded spectacularly after a jury awarded the wrestler Hulk Hogan $140 million in damages over Gawker’s publication of a intercourse tape. In an op-ed, Thiel steered he was motivated by a 2007 weblog publish figuring out him as homosexual. However Thiel’s associates have stated that was solely certainly one of a number of overlapping justifications. In any case, whilst he was secretly funding media-killing lawsuits, Thiel, by way of his basis, was donating tons of of 1000’s of {dollars} to the Committee to Defend Journalists.

“A silly consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” Emerson wrote, and on this respect at the very least, Thiel’s mind lives as much as its billing. Amongst different issues, Thiel is: an immigrant who advocates for a clampdown on immigration; a jingoistic nationalist who has sworn allegiance to the nation of New Zealand; an advocate of better authorities spending on science analysis who denies the scientific consensus on local weather change; a religious Christian who (per Chafkin) hosts drug-fueled orgies and covets God-like immortality; and a privateness champion who based a spyware and adware firm.

Thiel has often known as himself a libertarian however, as Chafkin notes, he has lengthy been extra of a neo-reactionary, aligning with far-right factions calling for better restrictions on international commerce and the rights of marginalized teams. He’s the type of libertarian who allegedly defends South African apartheid and disses the ACLU.

Vice President Mike Pence, President Donald Trump and Peter Thiel sit side by side at a table

Vice President-elect Mike Pence appears to be like on as President-elect Donald Trump shakes the hand of Peter Thiel throughout a gathering in December 2016.

(Drew Angerer / Getty Photos)

Thiel’s biography suggests a number of potential methods to reconcile these contradictions. A tournament-level chess participant in his youth, he could possibly be pondering a number of strikes forward, feinting to disguise his true technique. The previous hedge fund supervisor may assume it prudent to carry contrasting positions, able to revenue off any flip of occasions. The Straussian statesman in him may assume it essential to defend any true convictions from public view; the philosophy scholar understands how every factor incorporates its reverse.

“My aim, within the pages that observe, is to attempt to perceive a person who has made billions of {dollars} partially by being inscrutable,” Chafkin writes in his introduction. Understanding Thiel — who moved to Los Angeles in 2018, saying the Bay Space had turn into illiberal of conservatives, and who declined to be interviewed on the document — feels extra pressing than ever. Together with his late-cycle endorsement of Trump, Thiel was basically a tea-leaf reader, making a reduced wager on White Home entry. However now he’s making an attempt to be a real energy dealer, backing two of his proteges, J.D. Vance and Blake Masters, in U.S. Senate races.

Ultimately, the reply to the riddle of what Thiel actually believes is a disappointing one — not by means of any fault of Chafkin’s, however as a result of his topic is much less fascinating than he would have us consider. For all his mental horsepower, Thiel is a painfully recognizable kind to anybody accustomed to Tucker Carlson, Stephen Miller or Andrew Breitbart — all brainy conservatives who got here of age in California, revolted by, and revolting in opposition to, its prevailing progressive mores. For all of them, hatred of a sure kind of bien-pensant liberal is the one constant through-line in in any other case jumbled politics.

A man in a scarf and overcoat stands beside a river.

Max Chafkin, creator of the brand new Peter Thiel biography “The Contrarian.”

(Caroline Tomkins.)

Describing an election-night social gathering Thiel held in 2016 the place the Champagne flowed as state after state fell for Trump, Chafkin quotes an attendee, presumably a buddy of Thiel’s: “The massive angle was, ‘I’m so joyful everybody in Silicon Valley is sad about this.’” By no means thoughts that Trump was destined to fail in methods foreseeable to anybody with a shred of perception into human nature, and to a level that would depart Thiel declining to again his reelection bid. For a quick second, the libs had been owned and that was all that mattered.

Thiel professes to be for a lot of issues — freedom, privateness, science, progress, human flourishing. In each case, it’s simple to seek out situations of him being in opposition to these issues when it has meant an opportunity to extend his energy or indulge his biases. Chafkin’s title has it precisely proper: Thiel is a contrarian, a person who doesn’t actually stand for something — solely in opposition to. What could possibly be extra boring than that?

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