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Opinion Why a secretive tech billionaire is bankrolling J.D. Vance

Peter Thiel. (Eva Marie Uzcategui, Bloomberg News)
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Now that J.D. Vance has won the GOP nomination for Senate in Ohio, heightened scrutiny will fall on his chief financial backer, billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel. Thiel’s involvement has unleashed much snickering about the absurdity of Vance, the self-styled scourge of globalist elites and Big Tech, being backed by an obscenely wealthy venture capitalist and globetrotting tech oligarch.

That does seem bizarrely incongruent. But in reality, the politics of Vance and Thiel overlap in a discernible fashion. And this sheds light on the broader political project that Vance and some of his right-wing nationalist fellow travelers are pursuing — revealing something that’s much uglier than even the mockery suggests.

The New York Times has new reporting on Thiel’s importance to Vance’s victory. Thiel bankrolled a pro-Vance super PAC with $15 million and brokered a meeting with Donald Trump that helped secure his endorsement, which proved decisive.

Thiel’s support interlocked with Tucker Carlson’s Fox News megaphone. Vance appeared on Carlson’s show 15 times, according to Media Matters: The combined cash and airtime helped enable Vance to withstand a barrage of negative ads from rivals funded by traditional GOP-aligned plutocratic interests.

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But why is Thiel backing Vance in the first place?

Thiel has emerged as a major financial backer of the MAGA movement. He’s backing well over a dozen Senate and House candidates, many of whom have embraced Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.

Thiel agrees with Vance’s preoccupations about things such as mass immigration and globalization. In a speech last year, Thiel hailed nationalism as a “corrective” to globalization’s failures, while also absurdly suggesting critics of nationalism secretly want to impose a “brain-dead, one-world state.”

What makes Thiel complicated is that he’s also seemingly a radical libertarian. How to square Thiel’s libertarianism with his nationalism?

Taken together, a sympathetic reading of Thiel’s views might look something like this. It’s the nationalists who truly value individual self-determination, because the nation is the primary protector of individual freedom and self-determination. Hysterical anti-nationalists aim to suppress dissent from that view, in service of their goal of what Thiel calls globalist “totalitarianism.”

In reality, many mainstream liberal democratic thinkers who worry about nationalism’s well-documented destructive tendencies do agree that the nation-state should and will remain the primary vehicle for political self-determination.

But those thinkers also think that, given the global nature of the long-term problems humanity faces, international institutions and multilateral cooperation will have to play an essential role in securing future human progress.

Thiel apparently has little time for such nuances. Indeed, Thiel is something of a hater of liberal democracy: He has written that freedom and democracy are not “compatible,” and that politics is inevitably “about interfering with other people’s lives without their consent.”

This disdain for democracy and politics is central to Thiel’s worldview, according to journalist Max Chafkin, the author of a Thiel biography. As Chafkin notes, Thiel seems to see the individual entrepreneur and capitalist, and his capacity for innovation, as the potential long-term savior of humankind, provided he is not constrained by politics, government or mob groupthink.

In an interview, Chafkin characterized Thiel’s views this way: “If we just got out of the way and let our civilization be run by people like him, the world would be a better place." Chafkin says Thiel might be defined as a “reactionary capitalist.”

How does all this lead to support for Vance-style and MAGA-fied politics?

The overlap might lie in the belief that our institutions, particularly our political and governing institutions, are irredeemably corrupt to their very core. Vance has suggested that Trump providentially led him to grasp this truth, almost as divine inspiration. Vance recently told Vanity Fair that these institutions are on the verge of total collapse and should be purged of all liberal elements in a “de-Baathification program.”

The synergy is plain. Whether you think democracy itself is illegitimate (as Thiel seems to) or that our institutions are so corrupted that emergency measures are required (as Vance does), it’s a short step to believing electoral losses can be treated as inherently illegitimate and nonbinding.

Small wonder, then, that many candidates Thiel has endorsed have pledged fealty to this notion, via loyalty to Trump’s 2020 lies. Similarly, becoming a full-fledged MAGA candidate required Vance to migrate from affirming the integrity of our elections to declaring the 2020 outcome corrupt and rigged.

What does Thiel envision in place of liberal democracy? Writer John Ganz suggests that this sort of reactionary tech-utopianism posits a world entirely beyond politics and the messy proceduralism and contestation it requires, replaced by one in which the benevolent (or not) entrepreneurial genius sets the tone from above:

In short, it’s a model of the kind of corporate society they wish to secure and reproduce on a larger scale: big bosses, middle-management, workers, all happily coordinated and cooperating. No unions, no pesky social movements, no restive professional managerial-classes with their moral pretensions, no federal bureaucracy meddling and gumming up the works with regulations.

Another possibility, of course, is that Thiel genuinely believes popular majorities will simply have to be overridden in the future. We’d still have politics and government, but dictated by minority rule.

I do not know whether Thiel has explained anywhere how we can have nations without politics and without governments chosen in elections that the national populace fundamentally accepts as legitimate. But perhaps he’ll figure that one out when Vance gets to the Senate.