“I occasionally get involved but don’t want to make it a full time thing.”
That was how Peter Thiel answered a question about his future in politics today. But, after he spent roughly 15 minutes delivering what amounted to a polite version of Donald Trump’s stump speech to the National Press Club, it’s a little hard to take him at his word.
Thiel would hardly be the first major player in Silicon Valley to try and make the leap into politics. Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina both took a stab at getting into government.
For months now, Thiel has found (or placed) himself in the center of a firestorm around politics, both personal and national. Today’s speech in front of the Press Club, and the follow-up interview with Thomas Burr of the Salt Lake Tribune and president of the National Press Club, was the first time he publicly defended his $1.25 million donation to Trump’s campaign following the release of an Access Hollywood tape. In that now-infamous tape, the Republican presidential candidate brags of being able to sexually assault women because of his fame. That Thiel would brush off those comments as unacceptable then immediately suggest that sexual assault is not a reason to deny Trump your vote is not surprising: This is a man who wrote in 1996 that many instances of date rape are “seductions that are later regretted.” Although he has since apologized for those words.
What was surprising was that Thiel’s speech sounded, at times, less like an endorsement of Trump and more like the first awkward steps of a man preparing to take his show on the road. It was several minutes before he even mentioned Trump by name. Thiel spent the first chunk of his address railing against the cost of healthcare in America, government waste, foreign wars and stagnant household income. While he did eventually get to addressing his support for Trump (“I don’t think voters pull the lever in order to endorse a candidate’s flaws…. We judge the leadership of our country to have failed.”), he spent most of his time talking about his personal political views and what he sees wrong with this country.
Thiel railed against military intervention, free trade and attacked the Democratic Party. He even suggested that Hillary Clinton might lead us to a nuclear confrontation with Russia. He also spent significant time testing out what he hoped would be a signature talking point: “bubbles” and “bubble thinking.” The baby-boomer tendency to embrace bubbles is what led to the collapse of the housing market and our seemingly intractable conflict in Iraq, he says. He even briefly seemed to acknowledge that Trump’s candidacy was unprecedented… to put it politely: “No matter how crazy this election seems, it is less crazy than the condition of our country.”
He also called out Silicon Valley for being disconnected from the rest of the country. He says where he lives people are doing “just great.” But quickly pointed out that most people don’t live in the San Francisco Bay area and “most Americans haven’t been part of that prosperity.” He pointed to this as the reason why voters embraced Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. And he may have inadvertently illustrated just how out of touch Silicon Valley types are when he complained that a poor “single-digit millionaire like Hulk Hogan” has “no effective access to our legal system.”
Now, much of this speech could simply be taken out on the road to support Trump, and there’s a good chance it will. But Thiel is clearly looking to the future, one that likely doesn’t involve a President Trump. “No matter what happens in this election, what Trump represents isn’t crazy and it’s not going away.”
During his interview, Thiel said that the media made a mistake in taking Trump “literally” but not “seriously.” Maybe he’s right on the latter point (the former is a conversation for another day). But I’m having the opposite problem with Thiel after today’s speech. I do take him seriously when he says, “I think my future is going to continue to be in the tech industry, that’s what I’m good at,” but I certainly don’t take him literally.