Okay, I will just say what pretty much everyone in tech thinks, even if they never seem to be able to say it out loud: Peter Thiel is a very odd character, even by Silicon Valley standards.
And let me be clear that Silicon Valley is full of the eccentric, the quirky, the kooky, the peculiar, the freakishly geeky and geekishly freaky.
And that’s just the senior staff at Google.
But Thiel is a cut above even that, carving out a persona over the last two decades that has marched to a very different drummer from pretty much everyone else and one not in tune with anyone in power here now.
So, tonight when he speaks at the Republican convention — where he has a prominent speaking slot — the idea that Thiel is speaking for Silicon Valley as its ultimate insider, who represents the community’s think-outside-the-box, long-live-Ayn-Rand, be-anything-do-anything, pivot-pivot-pivot mentality, is all wrong.
According to BuzzFeed: “The speech will cover why Donald Trump is better for America over Hillary Clinton because of Trump’s anti-war stance and Trump’s economic credentials. Thiel is also expected to say that he’s proud to be gay.”
The last part is something socially tolerant Silicon Valley will surely cheer. But even the most diehard Republicans in tech — Meg Whitman, Mary Meeker and the always contrarian bear-hugger-of-capitalism Marc Andreessen — think Trump is insane and that any administration run by him will spell doom for the sector.
And while everyone imagines that is because tech people are so liberal, they’re really not deep down — the economic system works very well (thank you very much for the billions!) for Silicon Valley. Its denizens would rather tweak it to their advantage rather than blow it up completely as is Thiel’s bent.
He’s been vocal about that at many political gatherings here over the years, including one where those present said he even freaked Tea Party favorite Rep. Paul Ryan out with his thoughts on the need to tear down government as much as possible. It’s not just regulation that Thiel hates, it’s the whole stinking mess, and he has not been shy about saying so.
Thus, most people who know him usually give you an oh-that-guy look, shrug their shoulders and move on to easier topics. And many of those who like him personally and call him a “dear friend” are even perplexed, going as far as not talking to him of late because of his Trump support.
“I’ve tried,” sighed one such friend, who described a number of colleagues trying to pull him off the Trump train, including PayPal Mafia family member Reid Hoffman.
“Peter is Peter,” said another person who knows Peter well, as if the Peter-ness of it is perfectly clear. Peter is Peter is Peter is Peter is Peter.
Whether it is the really intense libertarianism, the Captain Nemo seasteading scheme, the Peter Pan college-bashing, the popping off of controversial sentiments (the women voting thing was misconstrued, but he definitely set himself up, perhaps on purpose), there is no one comparable to Thiel in far-out notions.
And the life extension stuff, most of all. In one interview with the Washington Post, Thiel said: “I’ve always had this really strong sense that death was a terrible, terrible thing. I think that’s somewhat unusual. Most people end up compartmentalizing, and they are in some weird mode of denial and acceptance about death, but they both have the result of making you very passive. I prefer to fight it.”
Fight it? Most people in tech only want to score with a great photo app. Mortality hacking is, shall we say, unusual, although it is one topic where Thiel has been a pioneer that others are now glomming onto of late.
But what is most striking about Thiel is how it’s only recently that he has pushed himself out there, having avoided the self-aggrandizement requirement of most citizens of tech. Now he’s everywhere from crowing about suing Gawker Media out of existence for outing him (he has said it was not for revenge, but no one here believes that trope) to tonight’s loud appearance.
That’s unusual, because aside from a proclivity to talk on big-think panels, he’s not one for swanning around tech. While willing to talk to the press, unlike most in Silicon Valley, Thiel’s also not one to court media either.
I met him way back in the PayPal days in the late 1990s. But I cannot recall one conversation of note with him from then, even though I developed longtime dialogues with everyone else in that group (Hoffman, Keith Rabois, Max Levchin, Elon Musk). Thiel was more the quiet one, not really seeking out the same kind of look-at-me attention, even though it was always clear he was there lurking in the powerful shadows.
Around the time that Facebook emerged as a hot startup, because he was their first big investor, I was surprised when he agreed to an interview. We met at his office in 2007 in the Presidio and had a long and fascinating discussion about Web 2.0, tech hype and more, part of which I preserved in this Flip video here.
Toward the end, not recorded, we had one of the wackier and unusual debates I have had with a tech player, about the need for gay rights legislation, with him knowing I was gay, me knowing he was, but him never saying he was. I doubt he remembers it, but as I recall, I was for it and he was not, largely due to his libertarian beliefs to keep government out of everything. Having kids, I wanted equal rights under the law to be enforced strictly. We parted in full disagreement — the hoary cliche of a gay man and a lesbian at cross purposes, once more.
I was invited to a holiday party at his fancy house in the Marina area of San Francisco soon after and ended up arguing about the corrosive effects of big valuations with a young Mark Zuckerberg, who had just gotten a $15 billion one for his social networking company. (I wish I had recorded that!) As I recall, Thiel stuck to the edges of the room, not playing the grand salon master as much as a shy guest.
Of course, he has been anything but shy on a real level. An immigrant who came to the United States from Germany as a baby, Thiel grabbed an undergraduate degree and law degree from Stanford University, where he founded its first conservative newspaper.
And then it was quickly off to the races with the founding of PayPal, which paid off big for him when it sold to eBay, money he used to grab that big Facebook stake before anyone else. That one golden trade cemented his reputation, made him enormously wealthy and, really, allowed him to finally end up on that biggest of stages in Cleveland tonight.
What happens next will be riveting to watch. Will Thiel’s unusual brand of politics perplex or inspire the crowd? Will he look like a complete idiot or will we finally understand his genius? It is indeed the kind of big swing that everyone in Silicon Valley always enjoys watching.
It’s a different kind of Peter Principle, the well-known business bromide which posits that “works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails.” In normal parlance, as is well known, that means everyone rises to the level of their incompetence. Except in Thiel’s case, at least tonight, it’s anyone’s guess if he’s finally reached that level or if this is just a way to climb further upward.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.