Tech investor and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel told delegates at the Republican National Convention on Thursday night that the U.S. economy is “broken” and that our “once high-tech” government has fallen behind in the research and development that made it a leader in innovation.
Thiel lamented fighter jets that can’t fly in the rain and nuclear bases that still save information to floppy disks as signs that the government has failed to invest sufficiently in defense and information technologies. He contrasted that with a government that, when Thiel moved to the United States from Germany in the late 1960s, was putting a man on the moon and laying the foundation for the Internet.
“That is a staggering decline for the country that completed the Manhattan Project,” Thiel said, referring to the creation of the atomic bomb. “We don’t accept such incompetence in Silicon Valley, and we must not accept it from our government.”
The six-minute speech saw Thiel comment on everything from rising college tuition to war in Libya to the transgender bathroom debate. But innovation played a prominent role in the address, and the 48-year-old Thiel repeatedly referenced his childhood in Cleveland and current home in Silicon Valley.
“I’m not a politician, but neither is Donald Trump. He is a builder, and it is time to rebuild America,” Thiel said at the opening of his speech.
Thiel’s remarks came on the fourth and final day of a Republican National Convention that was at times controversial and contentious. An openly gay billionaire who hails from the liberal enclave of San Francisco, Thiel seemed an unlikely speaker in a lineup of conservatives who included Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. and Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
But the self-described libertarian said during his speech that social issues, including LGBT rights, are insignificant compared with the economic challenges facing the country, especially in regions that don’t enjoy the financial prosperity and high employment of his hometown.
“When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union, and we won. Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?” Thiel said.
“Fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline,” he added. “No one in this race is being honest about it except Donald Trump.”
And Thiel has been consistent in his GOP support. He told the San Jose Mercury News in a 2014 interview that he wanted to see the party embrace a more limited form of government that encourages innovation by scaling back regulations on the technology and biotechnology industries, particularly those that he believes hinder start-ups from reaching the market.
“Our political system does not work all that well to support the areas of science and technology,” Thiel told the Mercury News. “Theoretically, there is a role for the government, but if it’s hard to get the website for the Affordable Care Act to work, how are you going to win the war on cancer?”
Still, Thiel’s endorsement of Trump makes him somewhat of an anomaly in Silicon Valley, where most tech executives and investors have voiced support for and funneled donations toward Hillary Clinton’s Democratic campaign. A contingent of nearly 150 technophiles signed an open letter last week that asserted a Trump presidency would be a “disaster for innovation” and prove harmful to the nation’s digital economy.
Chief among the authors’ complaints against Trump is his hard-line stance on immigration, a top issue for an industry that relies heavily on foreign-born individuals for technical talent and to establish start-up companies. The letter also criticized Trump for his lack of policy proposals and divisive remarks about minorities and women.
“His vision stands against the open exchange of ideas, free movement of people, and productive engagement with the outside world that is critical to our economy — and that provide the foundation for innovation and growth,” the letter said.