Tech billionaire Peter Thiel has sunk big money into two GOP Senate candidates: Blake Masters of Arizona and J.D. Vance of Ohio. On the surface, both seem promising standard-bearers for the new populist-style movement on the right that hopes to create a Trumpist politics with broader appeal than the original model ever had.
Yet some Republicans are now confiding to reporters that they fear these candidates are weaker than expected, which could put GOP hopes of winning the Senate at risk. And they indicate that at least to some extent, Thiel’s involvement is part of the problem.
Thiel has spent more than $13 million to support Masters’s primary bid to challenge Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, a top GOP target, and some Republicans worry Masters might lose if Thiel’s cash makes him the nominee. Some $10 million from Thiel also propelled Vance to the Ohio nomination. Yet Vance is struggling unexpectedly, though Ohio’s red lean renders Masters a more serious worry for Republicans.
At first glance, it’s hard to discern why Thiel is heavily investing in them. Thiel is sometimes described as a radical libertarian, while Masters and Vance represent a form of conservative populism that is supposedly hostile to libertarianism and envisions the robust use of state power to fight liberal cultural enemies wherever necessary.
Yet in a twist, the very things that apparently appealed to Thiel in these candidates might help explain their flaws. Despite surface differences, he and they share overlapping views: An own-the-libs trollish glee in flirting with race-baiting and falsely claiming Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election, and an apparent belief that liberal institutions are corrupt to their core. These views push these candidates to politically unsavory places.
Indeed, The Post reports that Masters is worrying Republicans in part because of this extremism. Some of this revolves around Masters’s use of a Nazi leader’s quote in a 2006 essay, which he has disavowed; his anti-immigrant attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.); and his culture-warring on sex, gender and abortion.
But Masters’s rhetoric about Trump and 2020 is also part of the problem. In campaign ads, Masters flatly declares “Trump won.” Masters is also feeding the idea that voting in the 2022 midterms might be illegitimate, and CNN reports that Arizona Republicans fear this will cost him the support of independents in a general election.
It gets worse: Masters has also turned this into a broader indictment, declaring in his ads that the 2020 outcome is in doubt due to the corruption of voting systems, Big Tech and the news media, which would “do anything to hurt President Trump.”
In other words, for Masters, it’s justifiable to claim our democratic outcomes are illegitimate not just because of fictional voter fraud, but also because our institutions are corrupt across the board.
Vance has also dabbled in this narrative. After previously vouching for the integrity of Trump’s loss, he flipped to supporting Trump’s 2020 lies, which he justifies by insisting Trump exposed the deep corruption supposedly rotting our institutions. Like Masters, Vance vaguely claims Trump’s loss just couldn’t have been legitimate, given how corrupt our system is overall.
Vance is also worrying Republicans for another reason: He is apparently campaigning in a lackluster way, and they say his reliance on Thiel’s money might be why. One Republican tells Bloomberg this is the “Thiel effect.”
Regardless, there is little doubt this Masters-Vance talk about institutions helps explain Thiel’s backing. The tech billionaire, who spent millions bankrolling other GOP candidates who adhered to Trump’s 2020 lies, has written that politics is about “interfering with other people’s lives without their consent” and even that freedom and democracy are fundamentally not “compatible.”
As Thiel biographer Max Chafkin notes, Thiel melds libertarianism with a kind of reactionary hyper-capitalist outlook, holding that the lone visionary entrepreneur must not be constrained by popular opinion, government or even politics itself.
It’s easy to see how this worldview finds an ally in the Masters-Vance view of our institutions. Whether the motivating idea is that democracy is akin to popular tyranny or that those institutions are irredeemably corrupt, in both cases a hated democratic outcome (such as Trump’s loss) can easily be dismissed as illegitimate.
All of this has created a strange set of ironies. Defenders of this new Masters-Vance populism like to say it represents a kind of Trumpism that could have broader popular appeal than Trump ever mustered. Yet its standard-bearers are on the forefront of casting majoritarian outcomes as inherently suspect.
The charitable way to defend this is to say that Masters and Vance are sincerely trying to create a new right-wing politics with genuine majoritarian appeal but feel compelled to question electoral outcomes because of Trump’s continuing influence.
But what if deeper tendencies in this form of politics — the relentless attacks on our institutions, the constant hunting of liberal cultural enemies around every corner — are themselves what inevitably pull toward casting democratic outcomes as illegitimate?
What if this is in the very DNA of this type of populism, at least as practiced by Masters and Vance? As Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell argue on their “Know Your Enemy” podcast, at a minimum adherents of this politics should wrestle seriously with this question.
These tendencies are surely part of what appeals to Thiel about these candidates. And if they render Masters and Vance less electable in a general election, well, that would be a justly deserved outcome.