The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power
Author: Max Chafkin
Price: Rs 699
After reading The Contrarian, Max Chafkin’s judicious biography, I was struck by how much Peter Thiel remains a mystery — less of an intriguing enigma than a hollow cipher. This isn’t to fault Mr Chafkin, who is unfailingly diligent in his efforts to narrate Mr Thiel’s life and understand, as far as possible, what he actually believes. But contrarianism tends to be reactive, not constructive; it risks getting lost in the incessant repositioning of oneself against a fickle discourse.
Mr Chafkin recounts a telling scene during the recession that followed the 2008 financial crisis. Mr Thiel’s hedge fund, Clarium Capital, seemed poised to make a killing from the crash that he — in true contrarian form — had long been predicting. But Mr Thiel’s employees at Clarium “went too far,” getting pulled into a hall of mirrors and “devising contrarian takes to his original contrarian take.”
I found this anecdote very funny and wanted to know who revealed it, but Mr Chafkin promised anonymity to some sources to get any number of unflattering details about Mr Thiel into this book. (Mr Thiel himself would only speak off the record, and refused to respond to a list of fact-checking questions.) After all, Mr Thiel had developed a reputation for being both “brilliant” and “vindictive,” Mr Chafkin writes. A co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, he had used his enormous fortune to bankroll Hulk Hogan’s relentless lawsuit against the website Gawker, driving the site and its owner to bankruptcy in 2016. Mr Chafkin recalls a source asking him why he wanted to write a book about Mr Thiel at all: “I mean, aren’t you worried he’ll, like, come after you?”
The Contrarian isn’t just about Peter 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,” Mr Chafkin writes. Mr Thiel’s ruthlessly unsentimental libertarianism went from being an eccentric stance to a dominant brand during the Trump era.
Mr Thiel sat on President Trump’s executive transition team; Palantir, Thiel’s data analytics firm, procured a number of lucrative government contracts. Behind the scenes, Mr Chafkin says, Mr Thiel was pushing for a “Republican crackdown on tech companies,” and more specifically on Google, his nemesis. (Google’s size and reach presented “a threat to nearly every company in Thiel’s portfolio.”)
As it happens, Mr Thiel was bullied as a child — a skinny, socially awkward, chess-playing boy, he protected himself by becoming resolutely “disdainful.” He was born in Germany and moved to the United States as an infant, in 1968. His father’s job at an engineering firm also meant a sojourn in apartheid South Africa, where the younger Thiel attended an elite, all-white prep school. He went to Stanford and started the Stanford Review, a conservative newspaper, staying put to go to law school. An unsatisfying stint as a corporate lawyer ended when he failed to get the Supreme Court clerkship he so desperately wanted. “I was devastated,” Mr Thiel would later recall, saying it precipitated a “quarter-life crisis.”
The Contrarian recounts Mr Thiel’s professional trajectory in full, depicting him stumbling into the tech industry not out of any particular passion but because it presented an opportunity to get rich. Unlike the fantasy of the American entrepreneur who risks it all for his dream, he was always hedging his bets — even, at one point, proposing that PayPal turn over its limited cash reserves to his own hedge fund so that he could speculate with the money.
Mr Chafkin portrays Mr Thiel’s support for Donald Trump on the 2016 campaign trail in similar terms. Chances are, any establishment Republican would have been fine for Mr Thiel’s business interests, and he had already scandalised Silicon Valley with his criticisms of women’s suffrage and immigration. But if Mr Trump won, Mr Thiel was bound to be rewarded by a president who clearly prized demonstrations of loyalty above all else. Not to mention that Mr Thiel relished the thought of Mr Trump sticking it to that part of the elite club that wouldn’t have him as a member. As one of Mr Thiel’s investors put it, “He wanted to watch Rome burn.”
But then a principled consistency isn’t the contrarian’s strong suit; if anything, it’s just another sucker’s game. Mr Thiel’s brand of libertarianism somehow includes “a politics of closed borders,” — even if, as detailed in the book, Mr Thiel lobbied the New Zealand government, which was conservative at the time, to grant him citizenship.
Mr Chafkin recounts how Thiel had spent 12 days in New Zealand, far from the requisite minimum of 1,350, and made an elaborate show of investing in a government-backed venture capital fund — only to extricate himself once he got the passport he wanted. It was the kind of brazenly cynical power move that even Mr Trump, for all his nativist rhetoric, probably appreciated. When you’re rich, they let you do it.