A confluence of reading selections recently brought the name of Peter Thiel to my attention. First, I read an article that Thiel wrote for National Review in 2011 that Patrick Ophuls cites in his book Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail. In that article, Thiel argues that science and technological progress are stalling and need government support, among other things. Although I read the article twice, I didn’t find it compelling.
Thiel's name had also been in the news of late because he revealed that he had financed the prosecution of the case against Gawker for an invasion of privacy claim by the former professional wrestler “Hulk Hogan” over a sex tape of Hogan that Gawker had published. The jury awarded a significant, debilitating judgment against Gawker. Some speculate that Thiel financed the case out of revenge because Gawker publicly revealed that Thiel was gay, although Thiel had already come out to friends and acquaintances. None of this is especially noteworthy, given that I have little interest in scandal rags or the sex lives of strangers (or friends or relatives, for that matter). I'm very little sympathy for Gawker, and I haven’t given much thought to the implications of the suit that some claim about it. But the confluence of references made me look into Peter Thiel. It turns out the Peter Thiel was a student of René Girard at Stanford, and he has declared himself very much of a student of Girard's mimetic theory of desire (which I’ll explain more about later in this essay).
I also wondered about Thiel's politics because he published in The National Review, the flagship journal of American conservatism founded by William F. Buckley. I learned that Thiel is a libertarian. He’s been actively funding anti-government Republicans over a number of elections in generous amounts. I also discovered that Peter Thiel is a delegate to the Republican national convention on behalf of Donald Trump.
The final piece of the puzzle that intrigues me about Peter Thiel is the fact that he is, at least by some measures, very intelligent. At an early age, he was a ranked chess master. He did his undergraduate work at Stanford (where he took a class from Rene Girard), and then he went on to Stanford Law school. He worked at a prestigious law firm, and he held a judicial clerkship, with an opportunity to have gone on to a Supreme Court clerkship. Detouring from a legal career, he got into the entrepreneurship business and helped found PayPal, invested very early in Facebook, and he became a billionaire.
So how can a person who—by common standards—is very smart, very successful, very libertarian, and a student of René Girard's mimetic theory, become a Donald Trump supporter?
Now my supposition—I'm not alone in this—is that Donald Trump is a prototypical demagogue. * (N. B. I do not consider him a fascist because I don’t believe he meets all of the criteria for fascism, and quibbling here can be important in trying to understand what he represents.) Trump is a proponent of nativism, racism, and xenophobia, mixed with a policy potpourri that makes any classification based on a traditional right-left continuum impossible. Also, Trump is the most ill-suited—by temperament, character, and experience—person to be president of almost anyone imaginable. Given this (and you can leave the essay here if you disagree—no sense wasting your time), then how do we understand Peter Thiel and those like him? (Sanders supporters who would shift to Trump, perhaps as high as 20% by some estimates, are another whole crazy group to ponder.)
My questions arising from all of this:
What does it mean to be smart? Can a person be described as “smart” if he designs algorithms, plays at a world-class level of chess, reads complex texts, and supports a blatant demagogue? And in Thiel’s case, even when you are presumably sophisticated concerning political philosophy and the legal system? (I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt based on his educational credentials.) Thiel's case seems a compelling piece of evidence for Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. Thiel’s case suggests that smarts are domain specific.
In a profile by George Packer published by The NewYorker in November 2011 about Thiel, one gets a sense that Thiel, despite—or because of—his high IQ, is ill at ease with the world outside of Silicon Valley geniuses. Thiel has been immensely successful in many of his ventures. But at the time of the article, he was talking about walking away from politics because it was too complicated and difficult to work with. To someone who'd made billions of dollars in the tech industry working with other techies and hanging out with them, I can understand how politics would be far too messy and frustrating. But some people are very smart (in the abstract thinking sort of way), who also have a grasp of the political process and the complex needs and thoughts of a variety of different groups of people. These individuals can become successful politicians because they easily relate to others and understand intuitively that humans are inherently “groupish” (as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt terms it). They appreciate that the requirements of human life make morality and politics necessary for human flourishing, and this requires recognition of the needs and perspectives of a wide variety of groups. In tangent with our political system, we have economic and business systems, but these too depend on human cooperation (even if coerced or bribed). But in democratic politics, individuals start from legal equality, while in the economic realm, we recognize and legitimate inequality (masters and servants). Perhaps the distinction between these two realms frustrates Thiel and his cohort.
How does Thiel’s level of intelligence affect his judgment? Packer notes that Thiel and his friends at a dinner party seem alienated from the rest of society and locked in almost childish concerns and enthusiasms. Many persons suffer real problems in navigating the to-and-fro of political maneuvering and negotiations. We must distinguish abstract intelligence from the emotional and social skills that mark maturity of judgment. Someone may be a genius in math, science, or tech but not at all well-suited for intense involvement in human social and political life. Mr. Thiel may be one of those persons. (I’m reminded of LBJ’s comment about the group of whiz-kids that JFK brought into his administration: “I wish that just one of them had run for sheriff sometime.”)
Do Peter Thiel and other Republicans believe that if Donald Trump is elected president, they can control and shape his agenda towards their hyper-free-market, minimalist government, low tax agenda? This agenda is not what drew voters to Trump in the Republican primaries. If anything, Republican primary results showed that the Republican orthodoxy preached by all of those other candidates fell flat with most voters. Tax cuts for the rich, cuts in government services, cuts in transfer payments, and other such staples of the current Republican diet were rejected in favor of aggressive limitations on immigration, trade war, xenophobia and racism, tough talk (even beyond the Republican norm), and a grab bag of economic ideas presented with no defining coherence.
One has to be quite circumspect in the use of historical analogies, remembering they are analogies, not analogs or repetitions. But German conservatives in 1933 thought that they could install Hitler in office and then control him. They couldn't. They didn't. You know what happened next. Now I am not equating Donald Trump with Hitler; the trope is misapplied and unpersuasive. However, people who think that politician will govern drastically differently from what the candidate says during a campaign to gain power—at least in American political history—is usually going to be surprised. Politicians do things, for the most part, to please the people who helped them gain power. Any individual or group that believes that they can control Donald Trump seems almost certainly wrong. Ego and vanity alone mitigate against this ever happening. And given that Trump seems to have little sense of how to build political coalitions or how to build a party, not to mention his lack of any coherent policy agenda, the ability to control him will be much more daunting than it would be a typical politician.
Regarding Thiel and Rene Girard, Girard’s theory of mimetic desire holds that humans come to desire the same things. Girard is a native of France, but he came to the U.S. for graduate school and remained here the rest of his life. Girard first developed his theory of mimetic desire through reading 19th-century novels, but he expanded the scope of his search and wrote about Shakespeare, classical Greek and other myths, and the Bible. Indeed, Girard came to the conclusion that Christianity broke with the long human practice of using scapegoating to reduce the social conflict created by mimetic desire. In other words, when individuals desire the same objects, conflicts ensue. Over time, social tensions grow. At that point, society looks for a scapegoat and uses the scapegoat to discharge the built-up tension of the conflicts. Girard writes that with the sacrifice of Christ, who is an innocent who chose the scapegoat role for himself in order to negate the validity of the scapegoating dynamic. Girard receives serious consideration from many thinkers, including Garry Wills, Princeton philosopher Mark Johnston, and British philosopher Roger Scruton, among others. Girard’s project digs very deeply into the human condition, and his project is intriguing and provocative. But what I want to emphasize here is his theory of scapegoating. Donald Trump, as with almost any demagogue, uses scapegoating, or blaming The Other, as a major focus of his appeal. The Mexicans, the immigrants, the Chinese, the Moslems—his grab bag seems to be almost endless—all are blamed by Trump for perceived ills. So the question arises, what would René Girard think about Trump? Girard died in 2015, so we can’t ask him directly, but I wonder if student Peter Thiel has wrestled with the Donald Trump phenomena in light of his Girard’s work. I have only an elementary knowledge of Girard’s works, but I can't help but believe that Girard would see through the Trump phenomenon to the scapegoating upon which it relies.
I don't know Mr. Thiel. He may be a swell guy. Some of the things I’ve read about him recently lead me to think highly of him, but some other of his attributes—his support of Trump perhaps foremost—make me wonder how his mind functions, or doesn’t, as the case may be. It wouldn't matter so much except that he is a major player in Silicon Valley, a billionaire, and someone who is willing to work very hard to promote—and perhaps even impose—his vision upon society. He has every right to do that. But because he has so much money, he holds immense power, and he therefore merits scrutiny. He seems to lack the check of judgment, made all the more dangerous by his obvious (and perhaps overweening) intelligence.
Finally, related to judgment, is the question of character. The test of character this election cycle applies to everyone on the political right, Republicans, and Libertarians. Will they support Donald Trump despite all that we know about him and his manifest unfitness for office and the threat he presents to our Republic? This issue will separate the sheep from the goats.
A part of any rounded intelligence is sound judgment in human affairs. I mean solid, working judgment about people that is essential to moral and political life. We are political animals, and to the extent that we fail to use—or lack through no fault of our own—sound, reasonable judgment, we suffer the consequences, and those consequences won’t be good.
*On this topic, among conservatives who hold a similar view, check out George Will, Brett Stephens (Wall Street Journal), David Brooks (New York Times), Ross Douthat (New York Times), Robert Kagan, Max Boot—I’ll stop here. I could go on at some length.