Peter Gregory, the character from the series, Silicon Valley, who most resembled Peter Thiel, was written out during season 1 because he died of a heart attack. Peter Thiel’s departure from Silicon Valley was – fortunately – for different reasons. Having taken a great deal of grief from the tech community for his support of Donald Trump, he decided that the climate of the place had become too one dimensional, too much of a bubble.
Perhaps LA offers a wider choice of bubbles. He has maintained a $11,500,000 house in LA, just above the Sunset Strip – not exactly a bastion of conservatism – since 2012. He has also stated that he has other projects to work on that make LA a more logical choice for him. Peace of mind currently depends very much on occupying the right bubble. Partisan politics, conducted via social media and played out across cable television, is exhausting. Avoidance leaves a stinging sense of guilt at failing to participate, to resist, if one is anti-Trump. For someone like Thiel, the position he has taken is considered by many in Silicon Valley to be a betrayal of all the tech community stands for – or should stand for.
Thiel’s background is non-standard: he was born in Frankfurt and arrived here, age one, in 1967. The family moved around a lot for Thiel’s father’s work in the mining sector and spent time in Cleveland, South Africa and Namibia before settling in California.
Thiel attended Stanford both as an undergraduate (philosophy) and as a graduate student (law). He acquired New Zealand citizenship in 2007, notwithstanding he represented he had no intention of residing there very much. He was granted an exception to the typical requirements and the authorities were criticised for ‘selling’ him a passport in exchange for his various investments in the local economy.
His $2.5bn fortune began with his launching and eventually selling PayPal and has grown through the global macro hedge fund, Clarium Capital, through the technology and big data analysis company, Palantir and through his stake in Facebook where, despite much criticism from the Silicon Valley community, he is still on the board.
He is no stranger to notoriety. His Thiel Fellowship offers $100,000 to budding entrepreneurs, provided they are prepared to drop out of college for two years. His bias is that colleges graduate too many students who are heavy on debt and light on the creative skills the economy needs to help drive growth.
He has been repeatedly interviewed about his support for Trump. Thiel is a libertarian, but also believes in the importance of the role of government. His overriding concern is that growth in the US has been wrapped in a constraining web of political correctness and regulation and needs to be shaken up. He considers Trump to be the disruptor in chief – a necessary if uncomfortable change agent.
Thiel’s style is to deflect and reflect the usual questions about Trump’s unfitness and the potential for catastrophic outcomes. He suggests those questions are rhetorical and reveal the bias of those asking them. He advocates intellectual honesty in his approach to the matter and wonders whether the widespread personal animus to Trump obscures an objective assessment of what is happening.
Clearly, it is better for the US and North Korea to be in a constructive dialogue about denuclearisation than exchanging Armageddon-flavored tweets. It is probably a much better thing for Kim Jong-un to be engaged with Russia, China and the US and to feel part of an international narrative than to be isolated. Thiel would presumably ignore the nonsense about the timeshare-like video Trump showed Kim on an iPad and would point out that a concession on war games with South Korea that Trump could withdraw at any time may be nothing more than an attempt to give Kim something he could take back to his people as a victory to further entice his participation in the ongoing negotiations.
Thiel is something of an iconoclast and is not burdened by a need to conform to stereotypes. He funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media, in part as revenge for Gawker having outed his homosexuality the previous year. The judgement forced Gawker into bankruptcy. He was criticised for this on First Amendment grounds but insisted that First Amendment rights come with responsibilities that Gawker was flaunting. He was able to use his wealth to get a measure of what he considered justice for Hulk Hogan.
Perhaps – but motives can be mixed. If Thiel’s goal in Gawker was truly a spirited defence of the First Amendment, properly understood, he might consider financial support for the victims in another story – that of the lawsuit being pursued against Infowars by the parents of victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting. Infowars front-man, Alex Jones argues, with the full force of the Infowars fake-news media platform, that the whole event is fictitious and that, as one of the so-called Infowars reporters claimed at a board of education meeting after that tragedy, unless the bodies of the children are exhumed, we were all part of a hoax.
Thiel may not care to burnish his credentials by offering support to these families in their lawsuit. He may not care that the president he supports offered support to Jones during the presidential campaign. Certainly, he is not obliged to get involved. It is not his fight and, consistent with his libertarian beliefs, he is free to choose.
One of the many challenges for public figures is constant scrutiny for inconsistencies in beliefs and actions. If Thiel does not support the families of Sandy Hook, he exposes himself to criticism in juxtaposition with the Gawker Media lawsuit. Donald Trump’s odious G7 behavior is contrasted with his gentle bonhomie with Kim Jong-un. The recent Jerusalem Post article entitled ‘Is Trump Good for the Jews?‘ is a fascinating exposition of the proposition that bad (or at least occasionally bad) people can do good things and that the beneficiaries of those actions may support them for their own self-interested reasons.
The author cites King David as the classic example of a flawed human being, chosen by God to accomplish some very important things. The overriding caveat, however, is that such agents, to be worthy of their role, must be engaged in a constant struggle to do the right thing, to overcome their flaws and evolve.
The jury is still out on Trump and, hopefully, also on Thiel.
Neil is the CEO of Sevara Capital Advisors. He is passionate about solving tax, accounting and regulatory problems for institutions that have invested billions of dollars of capital in multiple jurisdictions. His company provides solutions for banks, insurance companies and hedge funds to tackle their problems related to tax returns, financial statements, accounting and internal finance matters. Neil holds a master’s degree in Law from the University of Cambridge.