Peter Thiel appeared at a Zoom event one evening this past April in a familiar pose: his face sat tense and almost twitchy, and yet his voice radiated authority and calm. Even by Thiel’s rarefied standards, his main interviewer that evening, in a conversation hosted by the Nixon Foundation, was impressive: Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former Secretary of State and a potential Presidential contender, who was treating the billionaire with deference while asking him the broadest of questions about the future of the U.S. and China. "You spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the technology fight between the West and the ideas that the Chinese Communist Party puts forward—whether that’s disinformation or the capacity to move digits around the world," Pompeo said to Thiel, before asking the investor how the two powers compared, technologically. For anyone interested in who will hold power in the Republican Party in the near future, the event made for a stark tableau of clout. Pompeo’s eyes narrowed attentively as he listened to Thiel; the Trump national-security adviser, Robert O’Brien, who had also been invited to ask questions, was nodding appreciatively beneath a formidable white coif.
Most of us, these days, operate downstream from one billionaire or another, and the most interesting and destabilizing parts of the Republican Party are operating downstream from Thiel, whose net worth Bloomberg recently estimated at more than six billion dollars. Eric Weinstein, who coined the term "intellectual dark Web," is the managing director at Thiel Capital. ("Man of many hats," Thiel said not long ago, when asked to describe Weinstein’s role within his empire.) In 2015 and 2016, Thiel made a critical three-hundred-thousand-dollar donation to the campaign of Josh Hawley, who was then running for Missouri attorney general; once in office, Hawley had to answer questions about whether his announcement of an antitrust investigation into Google had anything to do with Thiel, an avowed opponent of the search giant. This year, Thiel has given ten million dollars to an outside group funding the Ohio Senate campaign of J. D. Vance, the venture capitalist who became famous as the author of the 2016 memoir "Hillbilly Elegy," and a voice on behalf of the parts of America that globalization had left behind. (He is now a regular on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show.) Thiel donated ten million dollars to the Arizona U.S. Senate campaign of his own aide, Blake Masters, who co-authored one of his books and has mostly worked for Thiel since he graduated from Stanford Law, a decade ago; he gave roughly two million dollars to the failed 2020 Senate campaign of the hard-right anti-immigrationist Senate candidate Kris Kobach. There is no obvious party line among the Thielists, but they tend to share a couple of characteristics. They are interested in championing outré ideas and causes, and they are members of an American élite who nevertheless emphasize, in their politics, how awful élites have been for ordinary Americans.
The American right just now is in a state of nervous incoherence. Even the most basic questions (for democracy or against?) seem to trigger panicked, multidimensional calculations, with eyes always cast uncertainly at Mar-a-Lago. The temptation is to say that some of this uncertainty is ideological in nature—that, a decade ago, the organizing principle of conservatism was libertarianism (embodied by much of the Tea Party). Trump elevated a long-dormant nationalism that briefly energized the Party, and, after his loss, politicians are left trying to sort out which model still works. Thiel himself came out of the libertarian movement: he backed Ron Paul for President twice, and he donated lavishly to Paul’s campaigns. But, like Hawley, Vance, and Kobach, Thiel developed a much more prominent role in service of Trump’s nationalism, perhaps most of all in the address he gave in 2016 to the Republican National Convention, in which he seemed bewildered by the fact that the astonishing prosperity he saw every day in Silicon Valley was not evident in Sacramento. "Wait, wasn’t Peter Thiel a libertarian?" Reason magazine, the movement’s Bible, wondered in 2020. Thiel and the Thielists are a through line, from the Party’s recent past to its likely future; their persistence suggests that Trump’s nationalism didn’t represent as extreme a departure from the Party’s prior libertarianism as it appeared to.
Before Peter Thiel was a billionaire, he had the biographical points of a pretty conventional Gen-X young Republican. He was born in 1967, in Frankfurt, to a German family that followed his chemical-engineer father to jobs around the globe before settling in Northern California. As a teen-ager, Thiel was a mathematics prodigy who says he was comfortable taking contrarian positions early, supporting Ronald Reagan and opposing drug legalization in middle school. As an undergraduate, he founded the combative, conservative Stanford Review, and, after law school and a stint as an appellate clerk for a Reagan appointee, Thiel co-authored "The Diversity Myth," in 1995, a book decrying mounting political correctness on campus. His career had scarcely begun—after a stint at a New York law firm, he’d founded a small tech-investment company—but Thiel already had a fully formed political identity—his résumé wasn’t far from what you get from many Republican congressional candidates.
Silicon Valley was booming during the late nineties, and it did not take Thiel very long to have a huge hit, when he founded PayPal with a half-dozen friends and acquaintances. Thiel’s friends, George Packer wrote, in 2011, "are, for the most part, like him and one another: male, conservative, and super-smart in the fields of math and logical reasoning." Thiel reportedly came out as gay to his friends in 2003 (he would be outed publicly by Gawker some years later, and went on to sponsor a lawsuit against the company). Thiel co-founded the defense-and-intelligence firm Palantir Technologies, in 2004; that same year, he became Facebook’s first outside investor. Thiel donated to John McCain’s 2008 Presidential campaign after supporting Ron Paul in the primary, but his Republicanism received less attention than the fanciful, long-arc libertarian projects in which he invested: the Seasteading Institute (which aimed to build politically autonomous cities on platforms in international waters), the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (which wanted to insure that artificial intelligence was friendly to humans), and the Thiel Fellowship (which supported exceptionally talented young people in creating startup companies, if they skipped, dropped out of, or took time off from college).
In 2012, Blake Masters, then a Stanford Law student, took a course on startups that Thiel taught, and published the notes on his Tumblr page, where they became a phenomenon. By 2014, Thiel and Masters had published the notes as a book, "Zero to One," offering theories on startups and advice for founders. Reviewing it, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic thought it "might be the best business book I’ve read." Thiel and Masters emphasize the breadth of forces arrayed against any founder: "In a world of gigantic administrative bureaucracies both public and private, searching for a new path might seem like hoping for a miracle. Actually, if American business is going to succeed, we are going to need hundreds, or even thousands of miracles. This would be depressing but for one crucial fact: humans are distinguished from other species by our ability to work miracles. We call these miracles technology."
In between the slightly batty charts (one distinguishes between the "definite optimism" of societies like the U.S. in the fifties and sixties and the "indefinite pessimism" of others, like present-day Europe), Thiel and Masters offer a vision of the founder that is patterned after Ayn Rand’s "Atlas Shrugged," in which imaginative individuals are forced to fight through a society that is bureaucratized and stultifying in all its institutional forms. They wonder why the educational system compels people to strive for mediocre competence in many things, instead of trying to be uniquely great at one thing, and bemoan the way large organizations stifle ideas. In Washington, libertarianism tends to take the form of a stark anti-government position, usually putting Republicans on the side of large businesses, which want to reduce their tax burden. But Thiel’s more elemental libertarianism casts big business as an opponent of progress. (The seeming paradox of Josh Hawley and other members of an ideologically pro-business party routinely calling for the breakup of Google, Amazon, and Facebook on antitrust grounds may not be a paradox at all—it may simply be Thielist.) The deepest quality of Thiel and Masters’s book is its outsized vision of what a heroic individual—a founder—can do. In a late chapter, they argue that successful founders tend to have the opposite qualities of those seen in the general population—that they are, in some basic ways, different—and compare them to kings and figures of ancient mythology. In a section on Steve Jobs, Thiel and Masters write:
Apple’s value crucially depended on the singular vision of a particular person. This hints at the strange way in which the companies that create new technology often resemble feudal monarchies rather than organizations that are supposedly more "modern." A unique founder can make authoritative decisions, inspire strong personal loyalty, and plan ahead for decades. Paradoxically, impersonal bureaucracies staffed by trained professionals can last longer than any lifetime, but they usually act with short time horizons. The lesson for business is that we need founders. If anything, we should be more tolerant of founders who seem strange or extreme; we need unusual individuals to lead companies beyond mere incrementalism.