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


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

By Max Chafkin
Penguin: 400 web pages, $28

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In the third episode of the HBO sitcom “Silicon Valley,” Peter Gregory, a brilliant but socially uncomfortable investor, encounters a rapid-foods hamburger bun for seemingly the initial time. Considering its sesame seeds, he has a flash of indirect perception: A scarce confluence of cicada broods will before long decimate sesame crops, driving up its commodity rate. Gregory loads up on sesame futures and reaps a $68-million profit.

With his glitching-robot mannerisms and anti-institution obsessions, Gregory was an obvious sendup of Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist, Facebook board member and erstwhile Trump campaign donor. (The show’s creator, Mike Decide, has denied Gregory was centered on Thiel, which was almost certainly intelligent of him supplied the way Thiel has absent following many others for mocking him.)

In his real-lifestyle occupation as a macro hedge fund trader betting on international economic trends, Thiel was relatively significantly less clairvoyant than his intended fictional doppelganger. In early 2008, then managing a firm called Clarium Funds, he considered the environment economic process was on the verge of a meltdown. He wrote a letter to his investors “recommending prayer and repentance in lieu of investment decision examination,” reviews Max Chafkin in his entertaining and disturbing new biography “The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Electricity.”

Thiel was ideal about the meltdown but mistaken about the particulars, mistiming it and then 2nd-guessing himself in a wager on the recovery. It was a pricey blunder other fund managers who saw the crash coming produced tens of billions of dollars on “the huge short” even though Clarium finished the 12 months down. But no subject: Thiel would shortly ample be truly worth at the very least $7 billion, many thanks in huge evaluate to a tax avoidance plan of doubtful legality. And his reputation as an unconventional visionary only compounded — significantly just after one more extended-shot wager, on Trump winning the presidency, paid off.

Cultivating that popularity has been, in Chafkin’s telling, a crucial vocation tactic and consuming passion for Thiel. He came onto the national scene in 1995 as the co-creator of “The Variety Myth,” a broadside from political correctness and multiculturalism. Striving to establish himself as a public mental, his early attempts involved “self-publishing guides, paying out to place on conferences, basically paying for affect nonetheless and where ever he could,” Chafkin studies. Hilariously — to anybody familiar with his dour persona — he also co-hosted a community access Television set clearly show, published a NASCAR lover magazine and opened a San Francisco nightclub famed for its hookup-welcoming co-ed bathrooms.

A man in a striped shirt and a man in a button-down shit both lean onto a computer monitor.

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

(PAUL SAKUMA / Associated Push)

Somewhat later on, owning acquired a few of dot-com fortunes and a improved grasp of his own manufacturer, he produced the Thiel Fellowship, a software that made available $100,000 grants to talented college students prepared to skip college or university to pursue a get started-up or other task. It was vintage Thiel, equivalent elements prescient — student financial loan personal debt would not major the countrywide discourse for one more 10 years — and trollish. Not to mention self-serving: In accordance to one particular of the program’s directors, Thiel cooked up the full point as a PR stunt to distract focus from his unflattering portrayal in Aaron Sorkin’s film “The Social Community.”

But if Thiel ideal to be seen as a genius iconoclast with globe leaders on velocity dial, he also regularly manifested a want not to be noticed at all. A devotee of the conservative political thinker Leo Strauss, who thought rulers will have to conceal their accurate motives from the public, Thiel is an obscurantist whose strategic self-disclosure calls to brain the Winston Churchill maxim “In wartime, truth of the matter is so treasured, she must usually be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” (He as soon as instructed me he was curious about human expansion hormone but did not use it only soon after publishing my story did I appear throughout a Tv set interview in which he explained taking it every day. I’m between the journalists whose reporting Chafkin cites in his acknowledgments.)

In 2016, Forbes claimed that Thiel had secretly funded a $10-million authorized campaign to put Gawker Media, a publisher of information and gossip blogs, out of organization. The exertion succeeded spectacularly right after a jury awarded the wrestler Hulk Hogan $140 million in damages more than Gawker’s publication of a intercourse tape. In an op-ed, Thiel advised he was inspired by a 2007 website article pinpointing him as homosexual. But Thiel’s associates have mentioned that was only one particular of a number of overlapping justifications. In any scenario, even as he was secretly funding media-killing lawsuits, Thiel, by means of his basis, was donating hundreds of 1000’s of dollars to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of very little minds,” Emerson wrote, and in this regard at the very least, Thiel’s intellect life up to its billing. Among the other issues, Thiel is: an immigrant who advocates for a clampdown on immigration a jingoistic nationalist who has sworn allegiance to the nation of New Zealand an advocate of increased federal government paying out on science analysis who denies the scientific consensus on local climate modify a devout Christian who (for each Chafkin) hosts drug-fueled orgies and covets God-like immortality and a privateness champion who launched a adware corporation.

Thiel has commonly termed himself a libertarian but, as Chafkin notes, he has long been far more of a neo-reactionary, aligning with considerably-suitable factions contacting for larger limits on international trade and the rights of marginalized teams. He’s the sort 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 seems on as President-elect Donald Trump shakes the hand of Peter Thiel through a conference in December 2016.

(Drew Angerer / Getty Photographs)

Thiel’s biography indicates numerous possible approaches to reconcile these contradictions. A tournament-amount chess player in his youth, he could be considering several moves in advance, feinting to disguise his legitimate method. The former hedge fund manager could possibly assume it prudent to hold contrasting positions, ready to gain off any transform of situations. The Straussian statesman in him might believe it required to protect any real convictions from general public look at the philosophy college student understands how each and every point incorporates its opposite.

“My goal, in the web pages that adhere to, is to check out to comprehend a person who has designed billions of dollars in element by remaining inscrutable,” Chafkin writes in his introduction. Knowing Thiel — who moved to Los Angeles in 2018, expressing the Bay Area experienced turn out to be intolerant of conservatives, and who declined to be interviewed on the file — feels much more urgent than at any time. With his late-cycle endorsement of Trump, Thiel was fundamentally a tea-leaf reader, producing a discounted guess on White Dwelling obtain. 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 end, the remedy to the riddle of what Thiel certainly believes is a disappointing a single — not as a result of any fault of Chafkin’s, but since his matter is less intriguing than he would have us think. For all his intellectual horsepower, Thiel is a painfully recognizable variety to any individual familiar with Tucker Carlson, Stephen Miller or Andrew Breitbart — all brainy conservatives who arrived of age in California, revolted by, and revolting versus, its prevailing progressive mores. For all of them, hatred of a specified type of bien-pensant liberal is the only dependable via-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 occasion Thiel held in 2016 in which the Champagne flowed as state just after condition fell for Trump, Chafkin prices an attendee, presumably a mate of Thiel’s: “The massive attitude was, ‘I’m so joyful everyone in Silicon Valley is unhappy about this.’” By no means thoughts that Trump was destined to fall short in methods foreseeable to any person with a shred of insight into human character, and to a diploma that would go away Thiel declining to again his reelection bid. For a transient minute, the libs experienced been owned and that was all that mattered.

Thiel professes to be for many things — independence, privateness, science, progress, human flourishing. In each and every scenario, it is effortless to uncover situations of him getting towards people items when it has intended a likelihood to increase his electrical power or indulge his biases. Chafkin’s title has it precisely ideal: Thiel is a contrarian, a gentleman who doesn’t truly stand for something — only versus. What could be a lot more monotonous than that?


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