As the Republican party primaries play out across the US, the most sought after endorsement is still that of former president Donald Trump. But when it comes to the most vital part of any American campaign – money – another figure is emerging on the right of US politics who is becoming equally significant.
Peter Thiel, the PayPal founder and former CEO referred to as the “don” of the original PayPal Mafia, a group that included Elon Musk, is establishing himself as a serious power player in American rightwing politics by wielding the power of his vast fortune.
Thiel, styled as a billionaire venture capitalist and tech entrepreneur, plowed more than $10m into a super Pac backing Hillbilly Elegy author JD Vance, winner of the Republican primary for an open US Senate seat in Ohio.
In August, Thiel’s backing will be tested again after shoveling $13.5m into supporting former employee Blake Masters in the competitive Republican primary for a US Senate seat in Arizona.
In both cases, Thiel put his money – his fortune is said to be in the region of $6bn – to work behind candidates aligned with Trump’s rightwing agenda in 2022 midterm elections.
Earlier this year Thiel stepped down from the board of Meta, where he was an early investor, and a long-serving adviser to CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “He wanted to avoid being a distraction for Facebook,” according to a person close to Thiel. With his resignation effective this month, the source told Forbes Thiel “thinks that the Republican Party can advance the Trump agenda and he wants to do what he can to support that”.
But there is a vacuum between the entire Trump political agenda and Trump himself. The former president is apt to pick candidates who promote his stolen election claims. Not all succeed, or are likely to. Trump’s failed backing of David Perdue as Georgia’s Republican gubernatorial candidate looked like a personal grudge against incumbent Brian Kemp, who certified Biden’s victory in 2020.
Thiel has so far helped Trump in that cause. By some estimates, Thiel has donated $25m to 15 other 2022 candidates for the House and Senate towing the Trump election fraud line.
Max Chafkin, author of a Thiel biography The Contrarian, recently wrote that Thiel’s goal is to turn Trump’s ideology into “a disciplined political platform”.
For Thiel, endorsements of Vance and Masters follow a $300,000 donation to the campaign of far-right senator Josh Hawley, then running for Missouri attorney general in 2016. He also donated money to help elect Trump president and spoke on his behalf at the Republican National Convention.
Thiel stayed out of the 2020 presidential race, and instead donated $2.1m to a super Pac supporting Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who had proposed creating a registry of Muslim immigrants and visitors.
“Thiel is one of the conservative mega donors that has the ability to shore up candidates that might need additional support. His spending is targeted, and his ability to spend millions can be impactful,” said Sheila Krumholz at OpenSecrets.
Where Trump often seems a single issue political player – obsessed with the 2020 election loss – Thiel is more flexible in terms of what he represents, Krumholz says.
“Often when your’e talking about party-aligned mega donors, there are people who have been active over decades, so Peter Thiel strikes a different figure. He’s an entrepreneur, he’s tech industry, super successful, seen as part of the young conservative vanguard that some see as more libertarian.”
“They might be Trump supporters, but their portfolio and persona waters down the connection,” Krumholz adds.
Like Musk, Thiel – called The Dungeon Master by the New York Review of Books because he played Dungeons & Dragons as a teenager and read J R R Tolkien’s trilogy ten times – presents a contradictory picture.
As an undergraduate, he founded the conservative Stanford Review and in 1995 Thiel co-authored The Diversity Myth, a book sought to question the impact of multiculturalism and “political correctness” at California’s higher education campuses.
“In bright and shallow Silicon Valley, Thiel stands apart for having retained the intellectual intensity of a bookish undergraduate, a quality that has made him an object of curiosity, admiration and mockery,” the publication noted. “He stands apart amid the orthodoxy of tech-world social progressivism as much for his conservatism as for his business sense.”
In 2003, he co-founded Palantir Technologies, a firm to assist US intelligence agencies with counter-terrorism operations. Last week, Palantir and global commodities trader Trafigura announced a new target market to track carbon emissions for the oil, gas, refined metals and concentrates sector. BP is among its customers, Reuters reported.
Thiel’s libertarian credentials, and perhaps in part his political motivation, were publicly established in 2016 when he funded an invasion of privacy lawsuit filed by Terry Bollea, known more popularly as wrestler Hulk Hogan, that bankrupted the news website Gawker. Gawker had outed Thiel in 2007.
“It’s less about revenge and more about specific deterrence,” Thiel said of the action. “I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest … I thought it was worth fighting back.”
Funding the lawsuit, he added, was one of the “greater philanthropic things that I’ve done”.
Blake Masters, the 35-year-old Republican US senate candidate for Arizona, has suggested he would use the same tactics after the Arizona Mirror wrote that the candidate opposes abortion rights and “wants to allow states to ban contraception use”. Masters denies those positions.
“If I get any free time after winning my elections then you’re getting sued, and I’ll easily prove actual malice,” Masters wrote in a tweet. “Gawker found out the hard way and you will too.”
Thiel, said Masters last year, “sees some promise in me, but he knows I’ll be an independent-minded senator”.
But the larger issue for Thiel may be intense cross-currents in the US around big tech, social media and free speech. His former PayPal Mafia consigliere, Musk, is also emerging from the tech world to have influence in US politics – where he recently declared himself a Republican – and free speech as he seeks to buy the social media platform Twitter.
“[Tech is] an industry on the cutting edge and caught in the cross-fire between the parties,” said Krumholz. “There are a lot of conflicting pressures on and from within the tech industry. Tech is being scapegoated by some, and held responsible for much of the disinformation, excesses of social media, partisan division and radicalization we see.”
Moira Weigel, a professor of communications at Northeastern University and a founding editor of Logic magazine, argued in the New Republic last year that Thiel does not really matter: “What matters about him is whom he connects.”
At the moment, Thiel is busy connecting some of the most rightwing politicians in recent US history.
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