In possibly one of the strangest moments of what has become one of the strangest political years in recent memory, Peter Thiel, proclaimed libertarian and Silicon Valley demigod, endorsed Donald Trump on Thursday in a speech at the Republican National Convention.
Thiel claims to be a libertarian. To say that Trump is the embodiment of anti-libertarianism would be an understatement. In every domain of political life, whether it be military, law enforcement, intelligence, trade, with the possible exception of personal license, Trump stands for unrestrained government force.
So why, oh why, is Thiel throwing his weight behind Trump?
We could chalk it up to Thiel's sheer contrarianism. The philosopher-billionaire has funded projects to cure aging, pay kids to drop out of college, and build new countries at sea. He is famous for asking the question, "What do you believe that no one else believes?" Given his social milieu, "Vote Trump" is probably a good answer. But Thiel himself has said that being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian is useless, what matters is being contrarian and also being right.
That being said, Thiel sees the U.S. as having entered a phase of Great Stagnation, where, aside from our innovations in software and the internet, progress has come to a halt. He quite famously once complained that "we were promised flying cars and instead we got 140 characters." Come to think of it, that does have an underlying tone of, well, let's Make America Great Again.
One reason America has fallen down, Thiel argued during his convention speech, is identity politics. Instead of asking ourselves important civilizational questions, he said, we ask ourselves who should go to which bathroom. "Who cares?" he exclaimed. (For the record, I think the debate matters precisely because it doesn't matter.) This is an old preoccupation for Thiel, who wrote a book against PC culture on college campuses, blaming it for the decline of Western civilization. And of course, Hillary Clinton is the avatar of left-wing identity politics (although, of course, Trump is an avatar of another kind of identity politics).
While I'm a #NeverTrump conservative, a few of my friends have grudgingly come to support Trump. One of them summarized the point by citing Winston Churchill's remark, in the House of Commons, after the United Kingdom allied with Soviet Russia against Nazi Germany: "If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons." In the end, it depends on who you believe is Hitler and who you believe is Stalin. Both were not only enemies but civilizational challenges to everything good about Western civilization. And to beat Hitler, we had to ally with Stalin.
This is an extreme metaphor. But I do feel that if the progressive movement reaches too many of its goals, it could transform American life beyond recognition to a dramatic and potentially irreversible extent.
Maybe it's the venture capitalist in Thiel that's driving his support for Trump. Is he trying to buy into the Republican Party at bargain basement prices? Trump's campaign does have the trajectory of a disruptive Silicon Valley startup, and when you recognize that trajectory, it's often wisest to forget questions and just jump aboard the rocket ship. And at this point, Trump's campaign looks like a deeply out-of-the-money call, a financial instrument that is very risky but has the potential to pay off big.
I watched Thiel's speech. Twice. I may be projecting, but his demeanor gave off a combination of disbelief and relish at being where he was. When he delivered the made-for-applause political line about how "Wall Street bankers inflate bubbles in everything from government bonds to Hillary Clinton's speaking fees" and he was duly interrupted by applause, he gave a grin that seemed to say, "Am I really here? Is this really happening? This is awesome." Thiel has spoken in front of audiences before, but I don't think quite as big as this one. There's a unique rush to speaking to large groups of people, especially one so prone to cheering you. And I can't help but shake the feeling that part of the glee was the implied middle finger to most of his social milieu.
Or maybe he was smiling because his speech also implicitly trolled Trump and his platform. "I'm proud to be gay," Thiel shouted at one point, to cheers. (That this would be cheered at a Republican convention would have had many people spitting out their coffee only a few years ago.) Thiel wore his and his family's immigrant past on his sleeve. Thiel is in many ways a citizen of the internet and trolling is a hallowed part of internet culture.
Call it a reverse double troll: trolling Silicon Valley by speaking at Trump's convention, and trolling Trump by doing it as a gay immigrant. I'd be smiling, too.