Review: “The Contrarian,” Max Chafkin’s new Peter Thiel bio

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The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power

By Max Chafkin
Penguin: 400 internet pages, $28

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In the third episode of the HBO sitcom “Silicon Valley,” Peter Gregory, a excellent but socially uncomfortable investor, encounters a rapid-food items hamburger bun for seemingly the first time. Contemplating its sesame seeds, he has a flash of indirect perception: A uncommon confluence of cicada broods will before long decimate sesame crops, driving up its commodity cost. Gregory masses up on sesame futures and reaps a $68-million profit.

With his glitching-robot mannerisms and anti-establishment obsessions, Gregory was an apparent sendup of Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist, Fb board member and erstwhile Trump marketing campaign donor. (The show’s creator, Mike Choose, has denied Gregory was centered on Thiel, which was most likely smart of him supplied the way Thiel has gone after many others for mocking him.)

In his real-lifestyle job as a macro hedge fund investor betting on global financial developments, Thiel was somewhat less clairvoyant than his meant fictional doppelganger. In early 2008, then functioning a agency termed Clarium Capital, he considered the earth economical process was on the verge of a meltdown. He wrote a letter to his buyers “recommending prayer and repentance in lieu of investment decision analysis,” reports Max Chafkin in his entertaining and disturbing new biography “The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Energy.”

Thiel was proper about the meltdown but incorrect about the particulars, mistiming it and then second-guessing himself in a guess on the restoration. It was a expensive blunder other fund supervisors who observed the crash coming made tens of billions of bucks on “the significant short” while Clarium finished the yr down. But no make any difference: Thiel would before long ample be really worth at the very least $7 billion, many thanks in huge measure to a tax avoidance scheme of dubious legality. And his track record as an unconventional visionary only compounded — especially right after a further long-shot bet, on Trump winning the presidency, paid out off.

Cultivating that name has been, in Chafkin’s telling, a important career system and consuming enthusiasm for Thiel. He arrived onto the countrywide scene in 1995 as the co-writer of “The Diversity Fantasy,” a broadside against political correctness and multiculturalism. Striving to build himself as a public mental, his early initiatives incorporated “self-publishing publications, paying to place on conferences, effectively having to pay for impact even so and anywhere he could,” Chafkin reports. Hilariously — to anyone acquainted with his dour persona — he also co-hosted a general public obtain Television set clearly show, published a NASCAR enthusiast journal and opened a San Francisco nightclub famed for its hookup-pleasant co-ed bathrooms.

Peter Thiel, still left, and Elon Musk, at PayPal headquarters, the place they have been CEO and founder, respectively, in Palo Alto in 2000.

(PAUL SAKUMA / Involved Press)

Rather later, possessing acquired a pair of dot-com fortunes and a greater grasp of his own brand, he designed the Thiel Fellowship, a program that offered $100,000 grants to talented students inclined to skip college or university to pursue a start off-up or other challenge. It was classic Thiel, equivalent pieces prescient — pupil bank loan debt wouldn’t best the nationwide discourse for one more 10 years — and trollish. Not to point out self-serving: In accordance to 1 of the program’s administrators, Thiel cooked up the full factor as a PR stunt to distract interest from his unflattering portrayal in Aaron Sorkin’s movie “The Social Network.”

But if Thiel sought after to be witnessed as a genius iconoclast with earth leaders on pace dial, he also often manifested a desire not to be found at all. A devotee of the conservative political philosopher Leo Strauss, who considered rulers have to conceal their legitimate motives from the public, Thiel is an obscurantist whose strategic self-disclosure calls to head the Winston Churchill maxim “In wartime, real truth is so important, she need to usually be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” (He as soon as told me he was curious about human growth hormone but didn’t use it only soon after publishing my tale did I appear across a Tv job interview in which he described using it day by day. I’m between the journalists whose reporting Chafkin cites in his acknowledgments.)

In 2016, Forbes documented that Thiel had secretly funded a $10-million legal marketing campaign to put Gawker Media, a publisher of information and gossip weblogs, out of organization. The work succeeded spectacularly following a jury awarded the wrestler Hulk Hogan $140 million in damages around Gawker’s publication of a intercourse tape. In an op-ed, Thiel advised he was enthusiastic by a 2007 site write-up identifying him as gay. But Thiel’s associates have said that was only just one of a number of overlapping justifications. In any scenario, even as he was secretly funding media-killing lawsuits, Thiel, by using his basis, was donating hundreds of hundreds of bucks to the Committee to Guard Journalists.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds,” Emerson wrote, and in this regard at minimum, Thiel’s intellect lives up to its billing. Amid other factors, Thiel is: an immigrant who advocates for a clampdown on immigration a jingoistic nationalist who has sworn allegiance to the country of New Zealand an advocate of greater govt spending on science investigate who denies the scientific consensus on weather adjust a devout Christian who (per Chafkin) hosts drug-fueled orgies and covets God-like immortality and a privateness winner who started a spy ware enterprise.

Thiel has frequently referred to as himself a libertarian but, as Chafkin notes, he has extended been more of a neo-reactionary, aligning with significantly-right factions calling for larger restrictions on world wide trade and the rights of marginalized groups. He’s the type of libertarian who allegedly defends South African apartheid and disses the ACLU.

Vice President Mike Pence, President Donald Trump and Peter Thiel sit side by side at a table

Vice President-elect Mike Pence appears to be like on as President-elect Donald Trump shakes the hand of Peter Thiel during a assembly in December 2016.

(Drew Angerer / Getty Photographs)

Thiel’s biography implies several probable strategies to reconcile these contradictions. A tournament-degree chess participant in his youth, he could be thinking numerous moves ahead, feinting to disguise his genuine technique. The previous hedge fund manager may possibly consider it prudent to hold contrasting positions, ready to financial gain off any turn of functions. The Straussian statesman in him could imagine it needed to defend any correct convictions from public check out the philosophy scholar understands how just about every point includes its opposite.

“My purpose, in the pages that follow, is to try out to realize a male who has built billions of bucks in element by getting inscrutable,” Chafkin writes in his introduction. Comprehension Thiel — who moved to Los Angeles in 2018, expressing the Bay Location had develop into intolerant of conservatives, and who declined to be interviewed on the history — feels extra urgent than ever. With his late-cycle endorsement of Trump, Thiel was essentially a tea-leaf reader, earning a discounted bet on White Home entry. But now he’s trying to be a real power broker, backing two of his proteges, J.D. Vance and Blake Masters, in U.S. Senate races.

In the conclusion, the respond to to the riddle of what Thiel really thinks is a disappointing one — not through any fault of Chafkin’s, but for the reason that his subject is a lot less fascinating than he would have us believe. For all his intellectual horsepower, Thiel is a painfully recognizable variety to any person acquainted with Tucker Carlson, Stephen Miller or Andrew Breitbart — all brainy conservatives who arrived of age in California, revolted by, and revolting from, its prevailing progressive mores. For all of them, hatred of a specified kind of bien-pensant liberal is the only constant by means of-line in usually jumbled politics.

A man in a scarf and overcoat stands beside a river.

Max Chafkin, author of the new Peter Thiel biography “The Contrarian.”

(Caroline Tomkins.)

Describing an election-night celebration Thiel held in 2016 the place the Champagne flowed as state immediately after state fell for Trump, Chafkin estimates an attendee, presumably a mate of Thiel’s: “The big perspective was, ‘I’m so delighted everybody in Silicon Valley is unsatisfied about this.’” Never ever brain that Trump was destined to fall short in ways foreseeable to anyone with a shred of perception into human mother nature, and to a diploma that would depart Thiel declining to back his reelection bid. For a transient second, the libs had been owned and that was all that mattered.

Thiel professes to be for several issues — liberty, privacy, science, progress, human flourishing. In each and every scenario, it’s simple to find scenarios of him currently being versus people points when it has intended a likelihood to improve his electric power or indulge his biases. Chafkin’s title has it exactly ideal: Thiel is a contrarian, a male who does not really stand for anything — only in opposition to. What could be far more unexciting than that?

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