An avowed libertarian, Thiel is backing the Republican in the first presidential race in which the Libertarian nominee, Gary Johnson, potentially will play a significant role. A deep thinker, Thiel is throwing in with a candidate who possesses no discernible political philosophy, someone who chose as his running mate a governor who pursued stridently anti-gay policies--Thiel is gay. Thiel believes the internet represents a crucial frontier for true freedom; Trump has said he hopes to "close up" parts of it to foil terrorists.
People familiar with Thiel's thinking cite two factors. First, there's war. Trump, who has campaigned opposing foreign entanglements, offers a better hope of peace than the hawkish Hillary Clinton, in Thiel's view. (Among those who disagree is Trump's ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz, who has spent hundreds of hours at his side, and who thinks there's an "excellent chance" he will start a civilization-ending nuclear war.)
Observers say Thiel also believes Trump has a better feel for how to grow the U.S. economy. Those are the two issues Thiel cares about most, and the ones he'll devote most of his convention speech to. (He'll also use the platform to critique the Republican Party's fondness for culture wars and backwardness on gay rights.)
Even if that's enough to tip the balance for Thiel personally, though, it's hardly sufficient to explain why he chose this election to speak out in such a high-profile way. There has to be more to it. As he showed with his years-long legal stalking of Gawker Media, Thiel is perfectly happy keeping his machinations hidden from view, and acting through proxies. He's someone who prides himself on seeing around corners, thinking several chess moves ahead of everyone else. He's also willing to employ methods that appear at odds with his values to achieve his deeper aims.
With all that in mind, it's hard to believe Thiel is going all in on Trump only--or at least mainly--because he thinks Trump will make a good president. What might his real reason be?
I have a guess. It sounds crazy, but bear in mind we're talking about someone who thinks there's a real possibility he will never die; who pays college kids to drop out; who wants to establish a colony at sea free from the laws of any nation; who thinks capitalism and competition can't coexist. If it doesn't sound crazy to someone, it's probably too quotidian to have issued from the mind of Peter Thiel.
I think Peter Thiel supports Donald Trump because he believes it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to weaken America's attachment to democratic government.
I'm not accusing Thiel of any ambitions he hasn't more or less copped to. In an often-quoted 2009 essay, Thiel declared, "I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible."
He also wrote that his fellow libertarians were on a "fool's errand" trying to achieve their ends through political means: "In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms--from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called 'social democracy.'"
The only thing that matters, he said, is that politics never be allowed to interfere with technological progress, because it's the latter, not the former, that will be humankind's salvation. "The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism."
The sole public explanation Thiel has given of his Trump support is a statement saying, "Many people are uncertain in this election year, but most Americans agree that our country is on the wrong track. I don't think we can fix our problems unless we can talk about them frankly."
Frankly, that statement sounds a lot less frank than what Thiel has said in other venues. (I reached out to Thiel to ask him about my theory but haven't heard back directly.) Are we to believe that Donald Trump, of all people, renewed his faith in the utility of democracy? Or does it seem more probable he sees Trump as the likeliest tool for achieving his long-held vision of peeling back the tentacles of government and freeing up individuals like himself to build new worlds? Everything we know about Thiel suggests the latter.
I don't know how Thiel might think this will play out. But it's easy to imagine a Trump presidency leading to a constitutional crisis or mass protests that would leave the executive branch, and perhaps the entire federal government, significantly weakened. (If Trump is serious about delegating all policy decisions to his vice president, the crisis could come early.)
Members of the legislative branch would have a powerful incentive to dismantle the machinery of executive authority, and the "technocratic agencies" whose proliferation Thiel has decried, just to keep them out of Trump's hands. At a minimum, a Trump administration would shatter public confidence in the efficacy of government. (Or, depending on your worldview, further shatter said confidence.)
Imputing some version of this scenario to Thiel is the only way to reconcile his stated beliefs and aims with the reality of Trump, a man who makes no secret of his desire to deprive immigrants and Muslims of freedoms they now enjoy (and who allies himself with those who want to do the same to gays); who wants to increase government spending on the military; who apparently wants to break up a company like Amazon on antitrust grounds; who brags about how easily he would manipulate the apparatus of government to get his way.
If you're Thiel, you can abide all those things if you think Trump is what he actually may well be: a potential president so terrifying that a generation of Americans will come to fear the very idea of presidents--as well as the way that America elects them.