On December 14, 2016, the executives of the largest tech companies in the United States were seated around a conference table on the twenty-fifth floor of Trump Tower. After opposing Donald Trump during the election, they’d assembled to kiss the ring and find a path forward that would serve their mutual interests.
While it was generally framed as an uncomfortable meeting of political rivals, there was one executive in the room who did not have that rivalry projected onto him. Seated beside Trump was Peter Thiel, the PayPal and Palantir Technologies cofounder who broke from his peers to endorse Trump at the Republican National Convention. During the meeting, Trump grasped Thiel’s hand and praised him as “a really special guy” who saw “something very early — maybe even before we saw it.”
Given that Silicon Valley is often portrayed as a liberal mecca, it seemed like Thiel was bucking the trend by aligning with Trump. But a new biography of the billionaire venture capitalist, Max Chafkin’s The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power, suggests that Thiel actually represents the spirit of Silicon Valley far more faithfully than many of his peers.
Thiel tends to receive less scrutiny than Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg. He will at times appear publicly to make controversial statements about politics or the future of technology, but then will disappear again as the media cycle moves on to other topics.
Chafkin’s book pulls back the curtain on this powerful but underexamined tech figure. He tracks Thiel’s trajectory from right-wing student provocateur at Stanford who defended South African apartheid, to libertarian early tech investor who claimed PayPal would tear down the financial establishment, to his present-day incarnation as an orbiter of the Intellectual Dark Web who seemingly believes that technology can achieve what democracy can’t.
While Thiel is often portrayed as the odd one out in Silicon Valley, Chafkin’s focus on the people who surround Thiel, including some of his fellow tech executives, calls that into question, particularly on economic issues. Thiel may be unusually provocative, but the most powerful people in the tech industry have plenty in common with him, even if they themselves might not publicly or even privately admit it.
Take the meeting at Trump Tower. Chafkin writes that, once the cameras were shooed out, “the tone changed.” While they had postured as semireluctant for the press, in private the CEOs were more than happy to entertain parts of Trump’s agenda, from his campaign against China to his hard line on immigration. Apple CEO Tim Cook suggested that Trump “separate the border security from the talented people,” which prompted Thiel and far-right Trump advisor Stephen Miller to suggest adopting a points-based immigration system. Google chairman Eric Schmidt even proposed a name for Trump’s immigration plan: “the US Jobs Act.”
Thiel had been the only attendee to endorse Trump for president, but the others were perfectly amenable to his agenda behind closed doors, to the extent that it aligned with their own material interests. This is the reality of Silicon Valley: Below the progressive facade is the capitalist engine that drives its companies and most powerful executives. “Do no evil” is a nice slogan, but the idealism doesn’t hold up when shareholders expect profit to be maximized at all costs.
In that sense, Peter Thiel is not the outsider, but the true embodiment of what the tech industry is and where it’s going.
Silicon Valley’s Conservative Origins
For decades, the consensus has been that computers and the internet are liberatory developments that inevitably increase personal economic opportunity, enhance the freedom and autonomy of the individual, and connect people in an unprecedented fashion. But these ideas and the liberal values often associated with them are not inherent to the technologies, as their history makes abundantly clear.
The industry we know as “Silicon Valley” was born before the personal computer or the internet. It was the product of significant public funding funneled into the San Francisco Bay Area during World War II and the Cold War to keep up with the Nazis and later the Soviet Union. As Chafkin writes, “Silicon Valley, in its purest form, was the military-industrial complex,” and a particularly conservative culture came with it.
Silicon Valley’s name comes from silicon transistors. William Shockley was the pioneer in the field, starting Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in Palo Alto, California, in 1956. The following year Robert Noyce and seven other key scientists who were fed up with Shockley’s management style left to start Fairchild Semiconductor. As for the politics of these key figures, Shockley was a eugenicist who later argued that “U.S. policy makers should pay Black Americans to get themselves sterilized,” writes Chafkin, while Noyce “saw the Left as a countervailing force against technological progress.”
That Left largely consisted of hippies and peaceniks, whose two primary issues were the Vietnam War and rejecting conformist cultural norms. Silicon Valley, for its part, was profiting off the war and had no interest in the counterculture. It was a squarely conservative industry.
In the coming decades, however, the political lines would blur as refugees from the dying counterculture began to wash up on Silicon Valley shores, drawn to the idea of technology as the next medium of individual expression and empowerment.
Rebranding the Tech Industry
In 1980, Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, who had recently done stints backpacking in India and picking apples (the company’s namesake) on a communal farm in Oregon, argued that “the personal computer offers its power to the individual.”
By then, the counterculture in general was turning inward toward exploration and enhancement of personal consciousness instead of engaging in political struggle. In 1965, Ken Kesey of the Merry Pranksters told protesters at an anti–Vietnam War rally in Berkeley, “There’s only one thing’s gonna do any good at all . . . and that’s everybody just look at it, look at the war, and turn your backs and say . . . fuck it.” That ideology was prevalent throughout the late sixties and the seventies, but by 1980 it had won out.
The idea of people like Kesey wasn’t to organize to topple oppressive structures, but to secede into communes built around countercultural values. But as historian Fred Turner writes, the communes nevertheless recreated “the conservative gender, class, and race relations of Cold War America,” and when they failed, the “young, white, highly mobile hippies” needed somewhere to go.
It was then that an ideology emerged combining countercultural ideas about individual free expression with faith in small-scale personal technologies. Its primary exponents may have believed that they were embarking on a project to change the system from the inside, but really, they were just taking the reins from the industry leaders before them. And like their corporate forebears, their activities ultimately revolved around profit.
At the same time, Ronald Reagan’s neoliberal project was taking off. Neoliberalism took advantage of countercultural skepticism of government to reframe the tech industry around the free market and entrepreneurialism instead of the military-industrial complex — obscuring its history even as a new wave of public funds was being deployed to counter the Japanese challenge to US technological supremacy in the 1980s.
This continued with the growth of the internet, which, despite being the product of military research, was seized on by cyberlibertarians as a new realm of personal expression free from the influence of the state. In 1996, Electronic Frontier Foundation founder John Perry Barlow, purporting to address the governments of the world, declared “the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.” Meanwhile, Wired embraced Republicans who wanted to limit government oversight of the internet, even placing social conservatives like Newt Gingrich and George Gilder on its cover in the mid-1990s. These early cyberlibertarians were vehemently opposed to state authority but didn’t express a similar concern over the corrupting influence of corporate power.
The “Atari Democrats” also embraced the libertarian promise of a deregulated tech sector and privatized the internet in 1995. Al Gore, who was pushing the project as vice president, promoted the internet as a means of enhancing personal freedom, echoing cyberlibertarian rhetoric and themes. However, this wasn’t the pose he always struck. In 1989, he argued before the Senate that the internet would be an experiment in nation-building, saying, “The nation which most completely assimilates high-performance computing into its economy will very likely emerge as the dominant intellectual, economic, and technological force in the next century.”
Gore’s early comments reveal that even as the internet was being framed as a libertarian paradise, its global expansion served US state power and its economic interests. But that was buried by marketing departments and a friendly press that was happy to build the brand-friendly narrative of personal empowerment and disruption for the public good.
Decades later, in the face of an unprecedented digital surveillance apparatus, tech companies fighting for contracts with ICE and the US military, and the growing mountain of scandals in the industry, those framings are increasingly being exposed for the lies they always were. The anti-establishment mask has been pulled back to reveal the capitalist reality. And that brings us back to Peter Thiel.
Throwing Off the Libertarian Disguise
Unlike Steve Jobs, who embraced the counterculture and sought to infuse the tech industry with some of its values, Thiel has long been hostile to the Left and all its cultural offshoots. Like Noyce before him, he believes that the Left’s influence slows technological progress and sets humanity back.
Thiel has been described as a libertarian because he funded initiatives like the Seasteading Institute for a time and has advocated for deregulation and slashing government spending on welfare and social programs. But he doesn’t just want a smaller state. He wants a particular kind of state, one reminiscent of the early days of Silicon Valley, when the tech industry and pro-capitalist governments collaborated to exercise global hegemony.
Chafkin writes that, especially after 9/11, Thiel was “no longer much of a libertarian, if he’d ever been one in the first place.” He’d originally positioned PayPal as an anti-establishment innovation that would give everyone their own Swiss bank account and “unilaterally strip governments of the power to control their own money supplies.” But he later complied with financial regulations and worked with the FBI to find money launderers — the same people whom he had described as personal Swiss bank account–holders. He benefited handsomely from the collaboration.
As he became a more prominent right-wing political figure by backing Trump, appearing at the 2019 National Conservatism conference, and funding so-called right-wing populist candidates like Josh Hawley and J.D. Vance, his companies also became more closely entwined with the US government. Thiel had invested in SpaceX and cofounded Palantir, two companies that rely heavily on lucrative public contracts, and even went so far as to sue the US government to gain access to them. Palantir, in particular, is a data-mining company that works with both major corporations and the US military and intelligence community.
In 2019, Thiel took to the pages of the New York Times to argue for tech companies to work more closely with the US military. He criticized decades of US policy toward China and called out Google for opening an AI lab in China as it canceled an AI contract with the Pentagon — effectively accusing it of helping the enemy. In seeking to stoke a Cold War nationalism centered around opposition to China, Chafkin explains, Thiel wants “to bring the military-industrial complex back to Silicon Valley, with his own companies at its very center.”
And he’s not the only tech executive who feels this way — just the first to come out and say it, paving the way for the others. In February 2020 Eric Schmidt, whom Thiel once called “Google’s minister of propaganda,” wrote his own Times op-ed calling for the United States to take China’s technological threat more seriously. “For the American model to win,” he wrote, “the American government must lead.” A few months later, Zuckerberg positioned Facebook in opposition to China in front of US lawmakers, while other companies, including Amazon and Microsoft, have continued to fight for major contracts with the US military.
Regardless of whether they identify as liberal or conservative, the tech industry’s leaders are embracing the military-industrial complex. Thiel is not an outlier; he’s just a few paces ahead.
Peter Thiel Shows Tech’s True Face
Silicon Valley has always thrived on having an enemy. In the 1940s, it was Nazi Germany; in the 1950s and ’60s, the Soviet Union and its allies; in the 1980s, the Japanese; and we might even say, for a time, at least rhetorically, the US government was positioned as the enemy so the industry could sell itself as anti-establishment in the 1990s.
Regardless of the particulars, counterposing themselves against an opponent has always served the business interests of the leading companies and executives of the Valley. Whether it was early computing enhancing the United States’ capacity to defeat foreign military and economic adversaries, the personal computer empowering the individual, the internet challenging state power, PayPal taking down the financial establishment, or similar assertions being deployed about cryptocurrencies today, these “disruption” narratives are ultimately marketing pitches that enable companies to profit — in many cases by avoiding and shaping regulations to their benefit.
The Contrarian provides an insightful look at a powerful figure in tech who does break the mold —not so much due to his right-wing politics, but because he doesn’t hide the real motivations driving the industry. Thiel is an important figure because he cuts through the false libertarianism and even liberalism of the industry’s executives to show the cold, capitalist calculation that’s always taking place underneath.
In August 2020, Thiel told Die Weltwoche that COVID-19 had created an opening. “Changes that should have taken place long ago did not come because there was resistance. Now the future is set free.” But the future desired by Thiel is one that involves less democracy, more restrictive immigration measures, and a tech industry even more aligned with the interests of the US government. Tech’s libertarian age is waning, but its future could be even worse.