‘The Contrarian’ Goes Searching for Peter Thiel’s Elusive Core

After studying “The Contrarian,” Max Chafkin’s considered biography of Peter Thiel, the secretive and Trump-supporting tech mogul, I used to be struck by how a lot Thiel stays a thriller — much less of an intriguing enigma than a hole cipher. This isn’t to fault Chafkin, who’s unfailingly diligent in his efforts to relate Thiel’s life and perceive, so far as attainable, what he really believes. But contrarianism tends to be reactive, not constructive; if there’s really a there there, it dangers getting misplaced within the incessant repositioning of oneself in opposition to a fickle discourse.

Chafkin recounts a telling scene in the course of the recession that adopted the 2008 monetary disaster. Thiel’s hedge fund, Clarium Capital, appeared poised to make a killing from the crash that he — in true contrarian type — had lengthy been predicting. But Thiel’s staff at Clarium “went too far,” getting pulled right into a corridor of mirrors and “devising contrarian takes to his original contrarian take.”

I discovered this anecdote very humorous and needed to know who revealed it, however Chafkin promised anonymity to some sources to get any variety of unflattering particulars about Thiel into this e book. (Thiel himself would solely communicate to Chafkin off the document, and refused to answer a listing of fact-checking questions.) After all, Thiel had developed a repute for being each “brilliant” and “vindictive,” Chafkin writes. A co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, he had used his monumental fortune to bankroll Hulk Hogan’s relentless lawsuit in opposition to the web site Gawker, driving the location and its proprietor to chapter in 2016. Chafkin remembers a supply asking him why he needed to jot down a e book about Thiel in any respect: “I mean, aren’t you worried he’ll, like, come after you?”

Chafkin is a expertise reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek, and “The Contrarian” isn’t nearly Thiel; it’s about Silicon Valley’s political coming-of-age, too. “The tech industry, which is still seen by many as a cultural backwater full of socially clumsy but well-meaning nerds, is now an acquisitive and seemingly amoral force,” Chafkin writes. Thiel’s ruthlessly unsentimental libertarianism went from being an eccentric stance to a dominant model in the course of the Trump period.

Thiel sat on President Trump’s government transition workforce; Palantir, Thiel’s knowledge analytics agency, procured plenty of profitable authorities contracts. Behind the scenes, Chafkin says, Thiel was pushing for a “Republican crackdown on tech companies,” and extra particularly on Google, his nemesis. (Google’s dimension and attain offered, in Chafkin’s phrases, “a threat to nearly every company in Thiel’s portfolio.”) You may suppose that this deployment of presidency energy would go in opposition to every little thing the libertarian Thiel believed in, however you start to surprise, whereas studying “The Contrarian,” whether or not the Big Government bullying that conservatives warned in opposition to earlier than Trump turned president was in reality only a projection of the big-footing they might gladly do if given the prospect — Trumpism as a type of want success. In Chafkin’s abstract: “Get on the Trump train, or get a visit from the F.T.C.”

Max Chafkin, whose new e book is “The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power.”Credit…Caroline Tompkins

As it occurs, Thiel was bullied as a baby — a thin, socially awkward, chess-playing boy, he protected himself by turning into resolutely “disdainful.” He was born in Germany and moved to the United States as an toddler, in 1968. His father’s job at an engineering agency additionally meant a sojourn in apartheid South Africa, the place the youthful Thiel attended an elite, all-white prep faculty. He went to Stanford and began the Stanford Review, a conservative newspaper, staying put to go to legislation faculty. An unsatisfying stint as a company lawyer ended when he didn’t get the Supreme Court clerkship he so desperately needed. “I was devastated,” Thiel would later recall, saying it precipitated a “quarter-life crisis.”

“The Contrarian” recounts Thiel’s skilled trajectory in full, depicting him stumbling into the tech business not out of any explicit ardour however as a result of it offered a possibility to get wealthy. Thiel, in contrast to the fantasy of the American entrepreneur who dangers all of it for his dream, was all the time hedging his bets — even, at one level, proposing that PayPal flip over its restricted money reserves to his personal hedge fund in order that he might speculate with the cash.

Chafkin portrays Thiel’s assist for Trump on the 2016 marketing campaign path in comparable phrases. Chances are, any institution Republican would have been superb for Thiel’s enterprise pursuits, and Thiel had already scandalized Silicon Valley along with his criticisms of ladies’s suffrage and immigration. But if Trump received, Thiel was sure to be rewarded by a president who clearly prized demonstrations of loyalty above all else. Not to say that Thiel — by any materials measure a grasp of the universe — relished the considered Trump sticking it to that a part of the elite membership that wouldn’t have him as a member. As one among Thiel’s traders put it, “He wanted to watch Rome burn.”

Thiel likes to make use of the phrase “builder,” Ayn Rand’s most well-liked time period for an entrepreneur. He has referred wistfully to the midcentury days of the house race, and in keeping with Chafkin has succeeded in bringing the military-industrial complicated to Silicon Valley, which has been a boon for his backside line. Still, it’s by no means fairly clear what sort of world Thiel the builder seeks to construct; he has proposed issues like seasteading (floating unbiased city-states) and house journey — largely escapes from the apocalyptic future he foresees.

But then a principled consistency isn’t the contrarian’s sturdy swimsuit; if something, it’s simply one other sucker’s sport. Thiel’s model of libertarianism one way or the other consists of “a politics of closed borders,” Chafkin writes — even when, as detailed within the e book, Thiel lobbied the New Zealand authorities, which was conservative on the time, to grant him citizenship.

Chafkin recounts how Thiel had spent simply 12 days in New Zealand, removed from the requisite minimal of 1,350, and made an elaborate present of investing in a government-backed enterprise capital fund — solely to extricate himself as soon as he bought the passport he needed. It was the form of overtly cynical energy transfer that even Trump, for all his nativist rhetoric, in all probability appreciated. When you’re wealthy, they allow you to do it.