On the outside, Donald Trump and Peter Thiel don't seem to have much in common. One is a billionaire business tycoon, and the other is running for president.
And yet, one of the strangest oddities of this strangest of all years is that Peter Thiel supports Donald Trump, and will vote for him. This week, Thiel paid a visit to the National Press Club and gave a speech justifying a choice that so many people find, ah, deplorable.
Like every time Thiel says something new in public, his pro-Trump speech was full of insight, good lines, and hidden messages.
He pointed out that, apart from a few privileged enclaves, middle America has been feeling squeezed, and that America's governing elite has been bouncing from disaster to disaster, whether foreign wars or financial bubbles. He also noted that elites' consensus moral views in favor of globalization just happen to line up with their material self-interest, which is just too pat.
He said that Hillary Clinton's proposal of establishing a no-fly zone over Syria might spark a nuclear confrontation with Russia, a nice bit of jiu-jitsu against those, like me, who worry that instead of 3 a.m. tweets, Trump might let fly 3 a.m. nukes in a fit of pique. It is Hillary Clinton who is both extreme in her views and temperamentally unsuited to the presidency, having forgotten nothing and learned nothing about Iraq or Libya, Thiel charged.
In the end, Thiel made a remarkably familiar pro-Trump argument, one that has been heard in many corners: Everything is so bad, we need an outsider; as flawed as he may be, Trump can't be worse than the current lot; and a bull in the D.C. china shop will wreck more things that should be wrecked than should not.
This is an argument that is both frustrating and almost impossible to evaluate. Frustrating because it feels like a non sequitur. Yes, I agree with Thiel that all sorts of things are bad. But he loses me at the "...and therefore, Donald Trump should be president of the United States."
Now, maybe he and I disagree with the extent of the decline, a word he kept coming back to. When times really are desperate, really desperate measures may be called for. This is the gist of another famous conservative-for-Trump brief, the pseudonymous "Flight 93" essay, ably covered by my colleague Damon Linker.
How bad is American decline? It's pretty bad. But Peter Thiel is clearly more alarmed than I am. Yes, median incomes have been stagnant for too long. But they're not declining. Unemployment is too high, especially if you count those who have left the labor force. But it's not 25 percent, as in the Great Depression, or parts of Europe for that matter. Technological change is too slow. But oil will remain amazingly cheap for the foreseeable future thanks to fracking (despite the dire peak-oil warnings of Peter Thiel throughout the 2000s).
At the end of his speech, Thiel said he hopes that Trump's candidacy will spark a political movement, one that will look beyond the Reagan era and transform the Republican Party and, afterwards, the United States. This is the best form of pro-Trump argument: It tries to defend the movement the candidate stands for, not the man himself.
But there's a problem with this. First, votes are tallied not in favor or against the broader implications of one man's candidacy, but of a particular man's candidacy for a particular office. This particular man is temperamentally unfit for the particular office he seeks. (Just like his opponent is morally unfit for it.)
"Reform conservatives," among which I count myself, agree that lower-middle America has been badly hurt by globalization (and sexual liberalization, we might add). We, too, are trying to figure out what this might mean for the future of the country. If that was all that Trump was about, I still would not support him, but perhaps I would not so vociferously oppose him.
At one point, Thiel averred that the media "always take Trump literally, but never take him seriously," a good line, and a fitting one for a media class that seems hell-bent on misrepresenting nearly everything Trump says, even when he doesn't put his foot in his mouth.
But I, at least, do take him seriously. I take it very seriously that he seems to view, as a key pillar of his candidacy, the need to pander to neo-Nazis and those one step removed from them — a group that is a fringe of his supporters now, but was key to his ascent and is clearly his base. Trump has certainly sparked a movement — one that has managed to make anti-Semitism a part of American political discourse for the first time since the 1950s. One that seems to draw its energy from the mechanism of scapegoating "other groups" for America's problems, whether elites, or financiers, or Hispanics, or Muslims.
This is not about clutching pearls and screaming "Racist!" It is about the dynamic that Trump has bequeathed to his movement, one that will probably outlive him. If anything has made America great, surely it is constitutional, limited government, a concept that neither Trump nor his supporters seem to have any interest in even paying lip service to. His movement's agenda seems to be to "Make America Great Again" through a ritual sacrifice of those whom it thinks are to blame for everything that's gone wrong.
Wake up, Peter Thiel: That way lies madness, not greatness.