Peter Thiel Defends His Most Contrarian Move Yet: Supporting Trump

SAN FRANCISCO — Peter Thiel likes to take the path not taken. He has paid students to drop out of college, thinks Silicon Valley is overrated, backed a plan to build cities on the high seas and helped propel an electronic form of money into general use. His contrarian approach to investing and to life has made him rich and celebrated.

It took something truly conventional — donating money to a presidential candidate — to incite demands for his banishment.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Thiel revealed that he was donating $1.25 million to support the election of Donald J. Trump. As these things go, it was a small gift. Dustin Moskovitz, a founder of Facebook, is giving tens of millions to support Hillary Clinton. But the news made Mr. Thiel a pariah in much of the tech community.

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He was accused of promoting racism and intolerance. There were demands that Facebook drop him from its board of directors and that Silicon Valley’s leading start-up incubator, Y Combinator, sever ties with him. Emotions and accusations raged on Twitter.

“I was surprised by the intensity,” Mr. Thiel said. “This is one of the few times I was involved in something that was not a fringe effort but was mainstream. Millions of people are backing Trump. I did not appreciate quite how polarizing the election would be in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.”

On Monday, Mr. Thiel plans to defend his position in a speech and then a question-and-answer session with reporters at the National Press Club in Washington. For the entrepreneur, who secretly funded the lawsuit that brought down the gossip website Gawker, it is a particularly surprising venue.

In an interview on Friday, he outlined his thinking. “Ideally, this will have the give-and-take of debate,” he said. “Obviously, I’ll get some very tough questions about Trump. But I thought the best way to advance the discussion was not to have some completely contrived format. The future of this country depends on us engaging with the tough questions.”

One of the things he will try to do is underline his support for Trump the candidate while distancing himself from the behavior of Trump the man. He believes it is possible to separate the two.

“The millions of people who vote for Trump are not doing it because of the worst things he said or did,” Mr. Thiel said. “That’s ridiculous. The Americans who are voting for Trump are doing it because they judge the situation of the country to be urgent. We’re at such a crucial point that you have to overlook personal characteristics.”

Mr. Thiel has been an important player in Silicon Valley since the first dot-com boom, but he has recently taken on a much more public role. He was born in Germany and came to the United States as an infant when his father, a chemical engineer, found work here. He was raised in Silicon Valley and went to Stanford, where he developed the views in his first book, “The Diversity Myth,” about the multiculturalism debate on campuses, written with the entrepreneur David O. Sacks.

In 1998, Mr. Thiel helped found the online payments company PayPal, an immediate success. He was the first outside investor in Facebook. Forbes estimates his net worth at $2.7 billion. Last year, he became a part-time partner at Y Combinator, a loosely defined advisory position.

A handful of others in Silicon Valley have similar investing track records. Where Mr. Thiel really separates himself from his peers is his skepticism that Silicon Valley is building a better world for all. His investment firm, Founders Fund, used to begin its online manifesto with the complaint, “We wanted flying cars; instead we got 140 characters,” a reference to Twitter. Now it says simply, “What happened to the future?”

San Francisco, Manhattan and Washington, D.C., are doing well, but the presidential campaign has laid bare the angst of many other places. Feelings of decline are rampant. “Most of the millennials have lower expectations than their baby boomer parents,” Mr. Thiel said. “Where I differ from others in Silicon Valley is in thinking that you can’t fence yourself off. If it continues, it will ultimately be bad for everybody.”

The polls have been saying Hillary Clinton is likely to win. If that happens, “there will be a very big need to push back on the sort of happy but misleading consensus about things,” Mr. Thiel said. “There will be an important role for me and others to somehow play in speaking truth to power.”

To an extent, that is. “It would be a mistake and inappropriate to instantly demonize Hillary and to try and sabotage her presidency,” he said. That would be repeating what happened in 2008, when the Republican Party did exactly that to President Obama.

That is the larger discussion Mr. Thiel intends to be involved in. Another, more local discussion is already underway about his role in Silicon Valley.

“By lending his image, his voice, his influence and substantial capital to Trump, Thiel isn’t simply exercising his legal right to vote: He is fueling and enabling racism, sexism, sexual assault, violence and tyranny,” Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital, a Los Angeles venture firm, wrote in a blog post.

She said she turned down an investment of $500,000 — a huge sum for a small firm like Backstage — because of the investor’s ties to Mr. Thiel. Ms. Hamilton did not identify the investor or respond to an email.

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, defended the company’s association with Mr. Thiel, emphasizing that it did not endorse his views — and much less Mr. Trump’s — but was striving to be inclusive toward those whose values differed from its own. Critics noted that if diversity was such a cherished value in Silicon Valley, why wasn’t there more of it?

Mr. Thiel said he agreed that there was a point where views became unacceptable, but argued that he was on the right side of the line.

“The line cannot or should not be at a point where you’re excommunicating half the country,” he said. “Some fringe views I hope we can tolerate. Some fringe views are beyond the pale.” He said no one at Facebook or Y Combinator had asked him to censor himself, and he did not consider stepping down from either post.

The donation to the Trump campaign proved much more contentious in Silicon Valley than the revelation in May that Mr. Thiel had secretly funded a lawsuit to kill Gawker, which revealed in 2007 that he was gay. Many in Silicon Valley were sympathetic to Mr. Thiel’s actions.

When was shut down in August, Mr. Thiel said he had one final thought: “Good riddance.”

Source: CNBC