Why might a Donald Trump presidency appeal to a gay Christian libertarian billionaire? Bloomberg Businessweek‘s Max Chafkin and Lizette Chapman try to answer that question in a profile of Peter Thiel, who spoke at last week’s Republican National Convention.
In interviews, four of Thiel’s friends and colleagues—all of whom would speak only on the condition of anonymity—characterized his decision to back Trump as in keeping with his entrepreneurial instincts. He loves disruption, in the Silicon Valley sense of “creative destruction,” as opposed to the usual connotation of “making things worse,” and has weighed the candidate’s demagoguery against a hope that a Trump administration would clear the way for further disruption. It is, these friends and colleagues say, a perfectly sensible chess move—the political equivalent of the king’s pawn.
“I don’t think it’s completely out of character,” says Garrett Johnson, co-founder of SendHub, a Bay Area messaging startup, and Lincoln Initiative, a right-leaning nonprofit. Johnson, who supports the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson (no relation), notes that many of Thiel’s portfolio companies might benefit from a Trump presidency. “Donald Trump is saying the system is rigged,” he says, adding that SpaceX, which counts NASA as its biggest customer and which Founders Fund has been backing since 2008, “is being blocked by Boeing and the aerospace cartels.” Many of Thiel’s smaller investments, such as the health-care startup Oscar and the education company AltSchool, also do business in highly regulated industries.
Perhaps the biggest Thiel-backed beneficiary of a Trump administration would be Palantir. The company, recently valued at $20 billion, still isn’t profitable and has struggled to retain employees over the past year. Today about half of Palantir’s sales—it booked deals totaling $1.7 billion in 2015—comes from companies such as BP; the other half comes from the National Security Agency, the FBI, branches of the U.S. Department of Defense, and other government entities. The U.S. Army isn’t a customer—yet—but it’s currently bidding out a software contract that could be worth up to $25 billion. Palantir, which had hoped to win some of the business, is suing the Army on the grounds that the process is biased toward longtime contractors.
In this light, it’s easy to see why Thiel’s ambitions extend beyond those of your average public intellectual. He doesn’t just want to be respected by readers of the Daily Caller and the National Review; he wants, or at least seems to want, actual power, which a Trump presidency would undoubtedly deliver. It’s not clear what Thiel gives Trump in this trade, beyond a sheen of Silicon Valley respectability. (According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Thiel hasn’t donated any money this election cycle to Trump. Last year he gave $2 million to a PAC that supported Carly Fiorina and more than $8,000 to the campaign of Mike Lee, a Utah senator who’s part of the #NeverTrump movement.)