Talking Points

Peter Thiel's implausible populists

And there were two.

Blake Masters, the chief operating officer of Thiel Capital, announced on Monday his campaign for the Republican Senate nomination in Arizona. In a video with production values reminiscent of an arthouse movie, Masters mourned the loss of American optimism and affirmed his support for patriotic education, immigration enforcement, and "an economy where you can afford to raise a family on one single income."

Masters is the second protegé of venture capitalist Peter Thiel to enter a Senate race this month. Two weeks ago, J.D. Vance — best known as author of the memoir Hillbilly Elegy — unveiled his candidacy in Ohio. Like Masters, Vance has worked closely with Thiel, who donated $10 million to his campaign, at one of the billionaire's investment firms. He too has adopted populist themes and combative rhetoric.

Masters and Vance have been by already been hailed by America's second most famous conservative populist. Earlier this week, Fox News' Tucker Carlson argued that they're both evidence "the Republican Party is getting better." But neither has yet received the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, which could be decisive in a crowded field. Although he recognizes the former president as "the leader of this movement," Vance struggled to explain his outspoken opposition to Trump's candidacy in 2016.

Vance's comments reflect a challenge shared by both candidates. Self-proclaimed spokesmen for ordinary Americans, both have backgrounds in elite education: Masters at Stanford, where he earned both his undergraduate and law degrees, and Vance at Yale Law. Critics of the finance and technology industries, both worked in Thiel's investment operations. Although they promise to fix broken institutions, both men are just in their mid-30s and have no previous experience in government.

Above all, Masters and Vance face the question of whether it's possible to mobilize the energies Trump unleashed without his unique charisma and extraordinary instinct for publicity. Judging by Vance's light trolling on Twitter, other candidates might be more comfortable with the carnivalesque style that Trump mastered. In his elegant campaign video, Masters presents himself as a dutiful son, loving father, and devoted citizen. It's not clear whether those virtues will be good enough for the MAGA base.

Ideological contradictions are nothing new in politics. And anyone who's not willing to play the outraged common man doesn't really want to win an American election. But can Ivy League venture capitalists with close ties to an eccentric billionaire play the role well enough to advance "Trumpism without Trump"? We'll find out.