A few years ago, on a podcast called “This Is Actually Happening,” a penitent white supremacist recalled a formative childhood experience. One night his mother asked him: “You enjoying your burger?” She went on, “Did you know it’s made out of a cow?”
“Something died?” the boy, then 5, replied.
“Everything living dies,” she said. “You’re going to die.”
Plagued thereafter by terror of death, the boy affected a fear-concealing swagger, which eventually became a fascist swagger.
By chance, I’d just heard this episode when I opened “The Contrarian,” Max Chafkin’s sharp and disturbing biography of the Silicon Valley tech billionaire Peter Thiel, another far-right figure, though unrepentant.
An epiphany from Thiel’s childhood sounded familiar. When he was 3, according to Chafkin, Thiel asked his father about a rug, which his father, Klaus Thiel, explained was cowhide. “Death happens to all animals. All people,” Klaus said. “It will happen to me one day. It will happen to you.”
A near identical far-right coming-of-age tale — a Rechtsextremebildungsroman? The coincidence kicked off a wave of despair that crashed over me as I read Chafkin’s book. Where did these far-right Americans, powerful and not, ashamed and proud, come from? Why does a stock lecture about mortality lead some 3-to-5-year-old boys to develop contempt for the frailties in themselves — and in everyone else? Like the anonymous white supremacist, Thiel never recovered from bummer death news, and, according to Chafkin, still returns compulsively to “the brutal finality of the thing.” Thiel also turned to swaggering and, later, an evolving, sometimes contradictory, hodgepodge of libertarian and authoritarian beliefs.
Thiel stalks through Chafkin’s biography “as if braced for a collision,” spoiling for a fight with whomever he designates a “liberal” — meaning anyone he suspects of snubbing him. Unsmiling, solipsistic and at pains to conceal his forever wounded vanity, Thiel in Chafkin’s telling comes across as singularly disagreeable, which is evidently the secret to both his worldly successes and his moral failures.
Young Thiel had the usual dandruff-club hobbies: He played Dungeons & Dragons, read Tolkien and aced the SATs. He was arrogant, and set his worldview against those who mocked him for it. One of Thiel’s classmates at Stanford told Chafkin, “He viewed liberals through a lens as people who were not nice to him.” Looking back on Thiel’s anti-elitist and eventually illiberal politics, Chafkin is succinct: “He’d chosen to reject those who’d rejected him.”
Chafkin serves as a tour guide to the ideological roadhouses where Thiel threw back shots of ultraconservative nostrums on his way to serve Donald Trump in 2016. There was his home life, where — first in Cleveland, then in South Africa and, finally, in suburban California — he ingested his German family’s complicity in apartheid (his father helped build a uranium mine in the Namib desert) and enthusiasm for Reagan; his requisite enlightenment via the novels of Ayn Rand; his excoriations of libs at Stanford, which (Chafkin reminds readers) still shows the influence of its eugenicist founding president, David Starr Jordan; and his depressing stint at a white-shoe corporate law firm, where he was disappointed to find “no liberals to fight.”
These stages of the cross led Thiel to Silicon Valley in the mid-1990s, hot to leave big law and gamble on young Randian Übermenschen. An early bet on a coder named Max Levchin hit it big. The two devised PayPal, the company Thiel is famous for, which supercharged his antipathies with capital. Thiel, who’d published a book called “The Diversity Myth,” “made good on his aversion to multiculturalism,” Chafkin writes. “Besides youth, PayPal’s other defining quality was its white maleness.”
In 2000, PayPal got in business with Elon Musk. “Peter thinks Musk is a fraud and a braggart,” one source tells Chafkin. “Musk thinks Peter is a sociopath.” According to Chafkin, Thiel remained coldblooded during the dot-com crash that year, as PayPal loopholed its way to market dominance. The company rebounded with a growth strategy known as “blitzscaling,” as well as the use of some supremely nasty tactics. “Whereas [Steve] Jobs viewed business as a form of cultural expression, even art,” Chafkin writes, “for Thiel and his peers it was a mode of transgression, even activism.”
When PayPal went public, Thiel took out tens of millions and turned to investing full time. With various funds he scouted for more entrepreneurial twerps, and in the mid-2000s he latched onto Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. He also set up a hedge fund called Clarium, where, according to Chafkin, Thiel’s staffers styled themselves as intellectuals and savored the wit of VDARE, an anti-immigration website that regularly published white nationalists. Hoping to make death less inevitable, at least for himself, Thiel also began to patronize the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, which has been steadily freezing the corpses of moneyed narcissists in liquid nitrogen since 1976.
Thiel passed on investing in Tesla, telling Musk (according to Musk) that he didn’t “fully buy into the climate change thing.” But he gave Zuckerberg a loan for Facebook, which intermittently let him keep a leash on the young founder. After Sept. 11, Chafkin reports, Thiel also panicked about “the threat posed by Islamic terrorism — and Islam itself.” Libertarianism deserted him; he created Palantir, a data-analytics surveillance tech company designed, in essence, to root out terrorists. The C.I.A. used it, the N.Y.P.D. used it and Thiel became a contractor with big government. By 2006 his Clarium had $2 billion under management.
Around this time, the wily Nick Denton, of the gossip empire Gawker, took notice of what Chafkin calls Thiel’s “extremist politics and ethically dubious business practices.” Gawker’s Valleywag site dragged Thiel, whose homosexuality was an open secret, suggesting he was repressed. This enraged Thiel, who by 2008 seemed to have lost it, firing off a floridly religious letter to Clarium investors warning of the imminent apocalypse and urging them to save their immortal souls and “accumulate treasures in heaven, in the eternal City of God.”
The planet avoided the apocalypse, as it tends to do, but that year the financial crash laid the economy to waste. Several big investors pulled out of Thiel’s fund. In Chafkin’s telling, Thiel unaccountably blamed Denton for scaring away ultraconservatives by outing him. He determined to put Denton out of business, and in 2016, by clandestinely bankrolling a nuisance lawsuit designed to bankrupt Gawker, he did.
Chafkin’s chronicle of Thiel’s wild abandon during the Obama years contains some of the most suspenseful passages in the book, as the narrative hurtles toward his acquisition of actual political power. Thiel seemed intoxicated by the rise of Obama, who galvanized the liberals Thiel most loved to hate. Chafkin recounts decadent parties at Thiel’s homes with barely clad men, along with his investments in nutjob projects, like seasteading, which promised life on floating ocean platforms free from government regulation. In a widely read essay, he argued that democracy and capitalism were at odds, because social programs and women’s suffrage curbed the absolute freedom of above-the-law capitalists like himself. He was officially antidemocracy.
Thiel then began to direct money to nativist political candidates and causes, and to collaborate — via Palantir — with Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the strange right-wing figure who would later become a zealous Trumpite embraced by the QAnon cult. He built an army of mini-Thiels, the Thiel fellows, teenage boys (along with a few girls) whom he paid to quit college, forfeit normal social life and try to get rich in the Valley.
Thiel backed Ron Paul for president in 2012, and helped Ted Cruz win a Texas Senate seat. (Gawker noted that Thiel’s support for the anti-gay Cruz was “no crazier than paying kids to drop out of school, cure death or create a floating libertarian ocean utopia.”) He contributed to Tea Party politicians with the aim of building a bigger “neo-reactionary” political movement, and in 2015, he gave his followers their own holy book when he published “Zero to One,” a compendium of antidemocracy, pro-monopoly blitzscaling tips.
Yet one friend described Thiel to Chafkin as “Nazi-curious” (though the friend later said he was just being glib), and during this period Thiel also became, Chafkin writes, closer to Curtis Yarvin, a noxious avatar of the alt-right who had ties to Steve Bannon. He turned to survivalist prepping, kitting out a giant estate in New Zealand, where he took citizenship, making it possible that at a moment’s notice he could slip the knot of what, Chafkin says, had become his ultimate nemesis: the U.S. government itself.
In the mid-2010s, a Palantir rep was also meeting with Cambridge Analytica, the creepy English data-mining firm that was later recorded boasting about using twisted data shenanigans to all but give the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump.
Like just about every powerful figure who eventually went all in for Trump, Thiel was initially skeptical, according to Chafkin. But once Trump won the nomination Thiel decided he was a delightful disrupter and kindred spirit. High from crushing Gawker, Thiel spoke for Trump at the Republican National Convention, and poured money into Rebekah Mercer’s PAC to rescue the campaign as Trump revealed increasing madness on the stump. He also urged voters to take Trump “seriously, but not literally.” Simultaneously, at Thiel’s recommendation, Chafkin suggests, Zuckerberg continued to allow popular content, including potentially misleading far-right articles, to stay at the top of Facebook’s trending stories, where they could attract more clicks and spike more get-out-the-vote cortisol.
Why did Thiel go to such lengths for Trump? Chafkin quotes an anonymous longtime investor in Thiel’s firms: “He wanted to watch Rome burn.” Trump won, which meant that Thiel’s money and his burn-it-down ideology also won.
Chafkin recounts that some of Thiel’s friends found this concretizaton of his cosmology too much to bear, and turned on him. But most did what most Trump opponents did for four years: waited it out, tried to wish away the erosion of American democracy and turned to their affairs.
For his part, Thiel embraced the role of kingmaker, and Palantir benefited handsomely from contracts the Trump administration sent its way. Thiel found another winning sponsee: Josh Hawley, then Missouri’s attorney general, with whom he fought Google, which threatened the stability of many Thiel-backed companies, and which Hawley saw as communist, or something.
Chafkin, a writer and editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, is especially interested in the friction between Zuckerberg and Thiel, who drifted apart for a time as Thiel became more involved in conservative politics. The words spent on discord in this relationship — and on tension between Thiel and other tech titans — distract from the more urgent chronicle of Thiel’s rise as one of the pre-eminent authors of the contemporary far-right movement.
“The Contrarian” is chilling — literally chilling. As I read it, I grew colder and colder, until I found myself curled up under a blanket on a sunny day, icy and anxious. Scared people are scary, and Chafkin’s masterly evocation of his subject’s galactic fear — of liberals, of the U.S. government, of death — turns Thiel himself into a threat. I tried to tell myself that Thiel is just another rapacious solipsist, in it for the money, but I used to tell myself that about another rapacious solipsist, and he became president.
By way of conclusion, Chafkin reports that Thiel rode out much of the pandemic in Maui, losing faith in Trump. Evidently Thiel considers the devastating coronavirus both an economic opportunity for Palantir, which went public in 2020 and has benefited from Covid-related government contracts, and a vindication of his predictions that the world as we know it is finished.
Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power
By Max Chafkin
This piece initially appeared in the New York Times.