Entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel, a self-described contrarian and Donald Trump’s most high-profile supporter in Silicon Valley, has vehemently defended his recent $1.25 million donation to Trump’s campaign and pro-Trump super PACs. In an extensive speech and interview at the National Press Club, Thiel also discussed his role in a lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker Media, saying the legal system was out of reach of “single-digit millionaires” like plaintiff Hulk Hogan.
Thiel is known for his investments in both mainstream tech startups and unconventional fields like seasteading and radical life extension, but his speech was largely based on developments outside what he described as an elite bubble. “No matter how crazy this election seems, it is less crazy than the condition of our country,” said Thiel, citing dismal figures on Americans’ ability to save money, the prevalence of student debt, and military spending. “Where I work in Silicon Valley, people are doing just great,” he said. “Most Americans haven't been part of that prosperity. It shouldn't be surprising to see people vote for Bernie Sanders or for Donald Trump, who is the only outsider left in that race.”
While Thiel’s donation came shortly after the release of a tape in which Trump brags of sexually assaulting women, something the candidate later denied having done, he said that there was no connection between the events. “I think the tape was extremely poor taste — extremely inappropriate,” he said. “I didn't think as much about the donation as I should have.” Thiel himself recently apologized for comments published in his 1995 book The Diversity Myth, characterizing date rape as “belated regret.”
Trump’s comments about women and minorities have fueled protest of Thiel’s advisory position at startup incubator Y Combinator. But Thiel says that companies he’s involved with haven’t suffered blowback in the business world, at least “not in any meaningful way.” Y Combinator president Sam Altman has defended his role at the company, and so has Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, where Thiel serves on the board of directors.
Beyond his support for Trump, Thiel has courted controversy by secretly funding a lawsuit over Gawker Media’s publication of a leaked sex tape involving wrestler Hulk Hogan. Thiel assured the journalists who hosted him, albeit in a stuttering and slightly convoluted answer, that he was not involved in other lawsuits against the press, saying that Gawker was “a singularly sociopathic bully” in the media world. “If you're middle-class, if you're upper middle-class, if you're a single-digit millionaire like Hulk Hogan, you have no effective access to our legal system. It costs too much,” he said.
Thiel says that he doesn’t support Trump’s stated plans to “open up” libel laws, and he disagrees with other policies, like Trump’s repeated promise to institute a ban on Muslims entering the United States. That’s largely, as he describes it, because Trump probably won’t do what he says. Trump supporters take him “seriously, but not literally,” said Thiel — a phrase, Slate’s Will Oremus points out, apparently pulled from an Atlantic essay by Salena Zito. When Trump discusses the Muslim immigration plan or building a wall between the US and Mexico, “what they hear is we're going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.”
Among other things, Thiel praised Trump’s opposition to both government regulation and free trade deals, saying that “we cannot let free market ideology serve as an excuse for decline.” He called for a return to ambitious mid-20th-century government projects like the Manhattan Project and the Apollo Program — a theme he’s riffed on before, and one that slots neatly into Trump’s broad promise to “make America great again.” Thiel, however, is also widely known for expressing doubt in the fundamental concept of American democracy, and Trump’s policies may matter less than the general system shock he represents.
With slightly over a week to go until the election, Trump trails Clinton in most polls. But Thiel said that the movement behind him would retain strength, for better or worse. “No matter what happens in this election, what Trump represents isn't crazy, and it's not going away,” he said.