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Peter Thiel’s Lonely Culture War

Is the billionaire, libertarian, tech luminary being oppressed?

Drew Angerer/Getty

Peter Thiel has had a pretty good couple of years. He helped elect President Trump, speaking on his behalf at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Trump’s tax bill, passed in November of the following year, will undoubtedly grow his multibillion-dollar fortune. He bankrupted Gawker, the culmination of a decade-long campaign to get revenge on the site after its defunct sister site outed him. He then twisted the knife by placing a bid on the website when it went up for auction. He has funneled his riches into various bizarre experiments, including one in which young people were given thousands of dollars for their blood. His wealth and power has given him a platform to not only shape media—his destruction of Gawker has had a chilling effect on the media as a whole—but to push his own ideas, like that the New Deal is bad and monopolies are good. Via his perch on Facebook’s board of directors—Thiel was an early investor in the company, though he sold his 10 percent stake in 2012—he has helped shape one of the most powerful corporations in the world.

But in Thiel’s telling, things are not going well at all. On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Thiel was breaking up with Silicon Valley. Having spent the past several years criticizing the tech community for what he sees as its ideological conformity and for its suppression of conservative voices, Thiel will now be based a 45-minute plane ride away, in Los Angeles.

It’s a symbolic break, as much as anything—and if Thiel is looking for a libertarian utopia overlooking the Sunset Strip, where he has a $11.5 million home, he’s been misinformed. (His actual plans for a libertarian utopia at sea seems more realistic.) But Thiel’s departure from Silicon Valley nevertheless underscores a core part of the ideology that has guided him over the past decade: He’s convinced that he and other conservatives are being victimized by Big Tech’s liberal culture.

As Vanity Fair’s Maya Kosoff noted yesterday, there “may be an element of tactical retreat” in Thiel’s decision to distance himself from Silicon Valley. Over the past two years, between his support of Trump, his embrace of tech’s monopolistic power, and his proud destruction of a media foe, Thiel has shown himself to be out of step with many of his peers. Thiel’s public stands have been embarrassing and have brought unwanted attention—Thiel has reportedly mulled quitting Facebook’s board. And, while his brand of Ayn Randian libertarianism remains influential in tech circles, companies like Facebook are increasingly wary of regulation and Thiel’s bombastic politics invite unwanted scrutiny.

As these companies have become powerful, in other words, the “Move fast and break things” ideology that guided their earlier years has given way to concerted efforts to preserve the status quo. Thiel has justified his support of Trump by suggesting that he is a fellow disruptor, but it has become clear over the past few years that disruption is the last thing that powerful tech companies actually want—unless it’s strictly happening on their terms.

Nevertheless, Thiel’s recent public statements have remained defiant. He has positioned himself as the victim of an ongoing culture war that has transformed Silicon Valley. He believes tech companies have become increasingly dogmatic—conservative voices are not just underrepresented, but actively silenced. “Silicon Valley is a one-party state,” Thiel said at Stanford University last month. “That’s when you get in trouble politically in our society, when you’re all in one side.”

This is all a bit rich, coming from a man who spent millions to bankrupt a news organization that he didn’t like. But it’s also a sensibility that is increasingly being taken up by conservatives across the country. Last month, a lawsuit brought by James Damore—who was fired by Google over a memo he wrote suggesting, among other things, that women were underrepresented in tech because of inherent psychological differences—argued that Google discriminated against conservatives. That lawsuit was amplified by conservative media, which rolled out the welcome mat for Damore.

The argument made by Thiel and Damore is fairly simple. Tech companies go above and beyond to showcase their tolerance for diversity of all kinds—Damore’s suit references Google “catering to employees with alternative lifestyles, including furries, polygamy, transgenderism, and plurality”—but this is all a smokescreen. In fact, they claim, big tech companies are imposing a rigid ideological system: liberalism. And anyone who doesn’t fit the mold—particularly white, male, conservatives—is cast aside.

The biggest problem with this argument, of course, is that it’s simply not true. White men have been overrepresented in Silicon Valley for as long as the tech industry has existed—far from being oppressed, they are almost incomprehensibly powerful. But moves to make these companies more inclusive—moves that have been made in response to criticism of just how white and male these companies are—are being repositioned by tech’s conservative critics to argue that companies like Google and Facebook are oppressing conservatives.

There is no doubt that Thiel’s views are unorthodox in Silicon Valley—but, then again, Thiel’s brand of libertarianism would be unorthodox anywhere. In 2009, he wrote that he “no longer believes that freedom and democracy are compatible.” He sees monopolies as a natural outgrowth of capitalism and has suggested that they surpass the federal government in many respects. In his vision, writes Noam Cohen in The Know-It-Alls, “tech businesses set policy priorities rather than elected officials.”

Silicon Valley has made Peter Thiel both wealthy and powerful, but he sees the rejection of his views—whether his libertarianism or his support of Trump—as an act of oppression. The fact that his opinions are rejected (and occasionally mocked) by his peers is apparently proof of a liberal cabal out to stifle the free exchange of ideas. But Thiel has had plenty of forums for his ideas. He has written widely and spoken at universities throughout the country. Given his role in the demise of Gawker, it would be more than fair to draw the opposite conclusion: that there is an effort underway to silence both dissent and unpopular speech, and it’s being led by billionaires like Thiel.

But that is not how Thiel and many other conservatives see things. Instead, a cult of victimhood has arisen around the culture wars. They see the rise of a politically correct monoculture, one that’s enforcing ideological conformity across one of the largest sectors of the economy. Thiel’s tactical retreat is likely an admission that he has grown tired, at some level, of the infamy that has surrounded him over the past several years. But there’s also an air of martyrdom in it. Silicon Valley gave him almost unparalleled power, influence, and wealth. Thiel used that power, influence, and wealth to push an ideology that was not only rejected by many, but that subjected him to unwanted personal scrutiny. The healthy reaction when faced with such a situation is to look inward. But Thiel isn’t doing that. Instead, he’s moving to Los Angeles.