Probably the weirdest media story in the past decade is that the gossipy, muckrakey website Gawker is teetering on the precipice of disaster thanks to a lawsuit filed by none other than Hulk Hogan. In March, a jury awarded Hogan $115 million in his lawsuit against the site, a response to Gawker's publishing a video of Hogan having sex with the wife of his friend Bubba. (This is not made up.)
Out of the blue this week, a new wrinkle: The New York Times reported that Gawker's owner, Nick Denton, suspected that the Hogan lawsuit was being bankrolled not by the celebrity wrestler but, instead, by a deep-pocketed Silicon Valley type, perhaps as a result of Gawker's broadly skeptical coverage of the wealthy beneficiaries of the tech boom. And on Tuesday night, Forbes produced a name: Peter Thiel, venture capitalist, co-founder of PayPal and member of the board of directors of Facebook.
Forbes's report is unconfirmed, and a spokesman for Thiel didn't offer any comment. (Update: Thiel copped to it.) There are broad implications to the idea that Thiel (or any other billionaire) could use the threat of lawsuit to silence critics — a strategy that the magazine Mother Jones recently fended off. But it's worth looking at this allegation through the lens of the use of money to wield influence — something that Thiel has done vigorously in politics.
According to FEC reports, Thiel has donated more than $7 million to federal political campaigns, candidates and political action committees since the year 2000. The National Institute on Money in State Politics offers a figure of $5.8 million in state and federal spending, going back to 2003. Thiel is a self-professed libertarian, but his political giving falls broadly into three categories: conservative politicians, Silicon Valley friends and libertarian issues. The Daily Beast dubbed his politics simply "right-leaning," which seems about right.
Let's start with 2016. Thiel will serve as a delegate for Donald Trump at the Republican convention, should Trump win the most votes in California's 12th congressional district on June 7 (which he probably will). Before he backed Trump, though, Thiel gave $2 million to CARLY for America, the super PAC backing Carly Fiorina's presidential bid. Fiorina falls into the second of the three categories above; not really a libertarian, she is certainly closely identified with the Silicon Valley business community.
Within days of making that contribution to the Fiorina super PAC, he also gave nearly $20,000 to Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and a PAC supporting Lee. Lee is a close ally of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), and is generally considered one of the most conservative members of the Senate.
In the 2014 midterm elections, Thiel's giving was impressively motley. He donated to libertarian Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) — but also to the very-liberal candidacy of Sean Eldridge in upstate New York. Eldridge's husband, it is important to note, is early Facebook executive Chris Hughes. Thiel also gave to the candidacy of Ro Khanna, a Silicon Valley Democrat who was (and again is) running to replace long-serving Rep. Mike Honda in the suburbs of San Jose. He also gave to Mitt Romney's general election campaign and, after Romney lost, to Paul Ryan's PAC and reelection committee.
Earlier in the cycle, though, Thiel gave more than $2.7 million to PACs supporting Ron Paul's long-shot presidential bid. He gave $2.6 million to Endorse Liberty — an "alliance of entrepreneurs, inventors and creators" — and another $135,000 to Revolution PAC (now Constitutional Rights PAC). He gave $1 million to the anti-tax Club for Growth's political arm the same year.
A resident of California, he's given to the California candidacies of Meg Whitman and Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor in 2010 and 2003 respectively, and Gavin Newsom's lieutenant governor bid in that state in 2014. He's given to gay marriage initiatives in Washington and Minnesota, and to a pro-marijuana effort in his home state. He even gave $150,000 to Mayday PAC, the ill-fated 2014 super PAC hoping to elect candidates who would end super PACs. Mayday was a very Valley effort, both in its donor list and in its strategy: Iterate political campaign strategies and see what works. And in a very Valley way, the effort collapsed because of disinterest.
The picture that's painted above isn't really that of a libertarian. It's of a man with deep pockets who writes checks for things that adhere to his unique philosophy and inclinations.
Thiel is not unique in being a wealthy person who sees his wealth as a mechanism for reshaping the world in his vision. He is not unique even among the relatively new crop of wealthy Silicon Valley types. But he is clearly a person who sees his wealth in that light. So when Thiel lashed out against the Gawker site Valleywag in 2009, calling it the "Silicon Valley equivalent of al Qaeda" in response to negative coverage (including outing him as gay), we see a bright line emerge between the rumors about the Hogan lawsuit and Thiel's behavior. This is bolstered by Gawker's Denton noting in 2007 that he'd received "a series of messages relaying the destruction that would rain down on me, and various innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, if a story [on Thiel's sexuality] ever ran." (The next year, Thiel gave $250,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and was quoted in the annual report referring to himself as "a true believer in the critical importance of free speech.")
This is the flip side to the argument that Bernie Sanders makes on the campaign trail. Money doesn't necessarily buy elections (as Sanders himself has inadvertently demonstrated). But it can and does help tilt the scales, both publicly and privately. Sanders's broader argument is that the wealthy use their wealth to protect their wealth. If Thiel has a hand in the Gawker fracas, it's a reminder that money protects personal politics, too.