Peter Thiel is far from the first billionaire who has used his fortune to try to influence the course of American politics. But in an election year when democracy itself is supposed to be on the ballot, he stands out for attacking a long-standing system of government that he described as “disturbed” and in urgent need of “correction. heading”.
The German-born investor and tech entrepreneur, a Silicon Valley ‘disruptor’ who helped found PayPal alongside Elon Musk and made his fortune as one of Facebook’s early investors, has catapulted into the top ranks of the mega-donor class by donating nearly $30 million for this year’s midterm elections.
He doesn’t just favor one party over another, but backs candidates who deny the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election as president and have, in their own way, called for the complete overthrow of establishment stalwarts. American.
Thiel’s priorities for this midterm cycle have partly aligned with those of Donald Trump, with whom he has had a recurring relationship since he sent him a check for $1.25 million during the presidential campaign. of 2016.
Thiel, like Trump, has made it his mission to end the careers of what he calls “the 10 traitors,” the Republican House members who voted to impeach Trump following the 6 January. Four of those members chose not to run again at all, and four others, including Liz Cheney, the vice chair of the House committee investigating Jan. 6, fell out in the primaries.
But there are also signs that Thiel is thinking around and beyond the former president. The lion’s share of his largesse – $28 million and counting – has gone to two business proteges who, with his help, have established themselves as darlings of the horsefly right: JD Vance, the author at successful blue-collar memoir Hillbilly Elegy, who is running for the Senate in Ohio, and Blake Masters, a self-styled “anti-progressive” and anti-globalist who is running for the Senate in Arizona.
Over the past decade, since the Supreme Court significantly relaxed the rules of political campaigning in its Citizens United decision, Thiel has placed considerable bets on candidates who are not just conservatives, but who have sought to challenge question long-standing institutional traditions and break the Republican Party. standards: Senator Ted Cruz in Texas and Senator Josh Hawley in Missouri as well as Trump himself.
Masters, who campaigned on the idea that “psychopaths are running the country right now” and spoke approvingly of the anti-establishment philosophy of the 1990s Unabomber, and Vance, a frequent speaker on the college circuit during his book tour days that now say “universities are the enemy” fit the same mould. They and Thiel all have ties to a branch of the new right known as NatCon, whose adherents believe, broadly, that the establishment must be torn down, just as Thiel and his fellow Silicon Valley disruptors believed he Two decades ago the future lay in destroying long-standing business models and practices.
Thiel himself felt as early as 2009 that he no longer believed democracy was compatible with freedom and expressed “little hope that voting would make things better”. While a member of Trump’s presidential transition team in 2016, he showed his institution-breaking instincts by proposing that a prominent climate change skeptic, William Happer, be appointed White House science adviser. . He also lobbied for a libertarian bitcoin entrepreneur who didn’t believe in drug trials to run the Food and Drug Administration.
Such proposals were too much, even by Trump’s iconoclastic standards. Steve Bannon, Trump’s far-right campaign manager and political strategist, told a biographer of Thiel: “Peter’s idea of disrupting the government is the low.”
Thiel did not respond to an interview request and his representatives did not respond to multiple invitations to comment.
Masters and Vance also did not respond to inquiries.
Democracy under attack: mega-donors
Thiel did not contest the 2020 election but appears to have been re-energized by the Covid-19 pandemic, Trump’s claims of a stolen presidential election and the January 6 insurgency. Addressing a NatCon convention this time last year, he denounced “the incredible disruption of the various forms of thought, of political life, of scientific life and of the machinery of meaning in general in this country. “.
Liberal democracy, in his view, had transformed the government of the United States into a Ministry of Truth crushing dissent, working for a “homogenizing, brain-dead one-world state” – a problem that only the nationalism of right could provide an “all-in-one” solution. major fix”.
“We’re close to a Toto moment, a little dog pulling back the curtain on the holy of holies to find there’s no one there,” he told the crowd. “We still think democracy is a good thing. But… where do we go from the wisdom of crowds to the madness of crowds? When does it become a mob, a racket, a totalitarian lie?
Such opinions might be easy to dismiss as the eccentricities of a rich man, but for the money Thiel has spent to buy influence and support like-minded candidates – thanks in large part to a funding system which, while capping contributions to individual campaigns, allows unlimited funding for nominally outside groups and political action committees.
Campaign finance experts see Thiel as a symptom of a much larger problem: a political environment in which a small group of mega-donors are getting bolder in the size of the checks they write and eroding of any nominal firewall between the candidates’ war chests and the funds controlled by outside groups dedicated to their success.
“It seems to be getting worse,” said Chisun Lee, a campaign finance expert who directs the Elections and Government program at the Brennan Center at New York University. “External spending in this medium-term federal cycle is more than double the last medium-term cycle. Since Citizens United, only 12 mega-donors, including eight billionaires, have paid one in every 13 dollars spent in the federal election. And now we’re seeing a disturbing new trend…that some mega-donors are sponsoring campaigns that attack the foundations of democracy itself.
Thiel’s spending has been dwarfed this year by at least three other mega-donors — Soros ($128 million to Democrats), shipping tycoon Richard Uihlein ($53 million to Republicans) and fund manager speculators Kenneth Griffin ($50 million to Republicans). And Thiel has a long way to go to match the consistent donations, cycle after cycle, of the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate.
Many pundits also believe that the attack on democracy began long before it became as explicit as Thiel said, because the point of pumping large sums of money into the political system is to steering policy away from the will of the majority towards narrow interests. donors and their friends.
This ability to control the political agenda drives spending even more than the desire to see specific candidates win, says Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, whose 2011 book Republic, Lost offers a lastingly devastating analysis of the relationship between money and political influence. And the expenses will probably only increase.
“You’re going to see much, much larger individual contributions and an acceleration of contributions to Super Pacs [like the ones established to support Vance and Masters]”, Lessig said. “Candidates and Super Pacs can’t coordinate on spending, but that doesn’t mean they can’t coordinate on fundraising. Since Super Pacs outstrip candidate spending by orders of magnitude, it’s all a dance to pump money into Super Pacs…They’re basically calling the shots, and politicians can’t get past what they oppose.
With less than a month to go until Election Day, Vance and Masters are trailing their Democratic opponents in the polls (Vance less than Masters). But, says Lessig, it would be wrong to conclude that Thiel — or any of the other mega-donors — is wasting his money.
“If you’re a candidate and you know $10 million is going to come back to you on a particular issue,” he said, “you’re going to bend over backwards to avoid the effect of that money, whether it’s decides the race or not… If you are someone who would otherwise be a strong climate activist, but you know that if you mention a carbon tax, a million dollars will fall from a Super Pac anti-carbon tax , you won’t talk about it.
In other words, Thiel’s attempt to overthrow the system goes far beyond his ability to determine which party will control the Senate next year. The money will reinforce the idea that the country is run by psychopaths, at least among a hard core of Republican voters, analysts warn, and will further harden the ideological battle lines that have split the country in two and made a land increasingly difficult to establish. to find. It also brings NatCon’s extreme views further into the mainstream, making it easier for radical Republican candidates to run and win in future races, they say.
“We’re at a crisis point here, not so much because ideas are hard to defeat, but we don’t have a context in which to defeat them,” Lessig said. “The fact that the same number of people believe the election was stolen as Jan. 6 is a profound indictment of America’s information ecology.”
The Brennan Center believes there are ways to improve the system, at least at the state and local level, and points to efforts in red and blue states to close some gaps and introduce funding models. public to curb the influence of mega-donors. . Lee said she would also like to see federal legislation to build a meaningful firewall between campaign funds and Super Pacs.
“The legislation exists,” she said, “and it would be a constitutional improvement even under [the] United Citizens [ruling]. All we need is the political will to act.