Peter Thiel likes an outsider.
At least that's one of the muddled reasons he gave Monday morning during a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C explaining why he's voting for Donald Trump.
"I have always had a bias of favoring outside candidates. I would've liked to see a race between Trump and Sanders," he said, saying both men "viscerally" feel America's problems.
The speech itself was a brief 13 minutes, during which Thiel praised Trump, decried cloistered "bubble" thinking in Washington and elsewhere, and distanced himself from some of the comments Trump has made, specifically about women.
"Nobody thinks his comments about women are acceptable. I agree they were clearly offensive and inappropriate,” Thiel said before explaining why he and others are still voting for Trump. "It's not a lack of judgment that leads Americans to vote for Trump. We’re voting for Trump because we judge the leadership of our country to have failed.”
As Thiel sees it, those failures are manifold: involvement in foreign wars, free trade agreements, regulations.
"It helps Trump that the other side just doesn't get it," Thiel said, though it was unclear whether he was referring to the Democratic Party or "elites," whom he repeatedly took aim at more broadly.
Thiel's last public discussion of the candidate was at the Republican National Convention this past July. In Cleveland, he both served as a California delegate for Trump and gave a speech where he praised the candidate. At the RNC, his speech focused more on what he described as a "broken" government than on Trump himself or the candidate's ideas.
But Thiel's donations have been more telling than his words, particularly the $1.25 million contribution in support of Trump that he made in mid-October. The donation led to fairly widespread demands that Thiel resign or be removed from several positions, particularly his seat on Facebook's board and his job as a part-time partner at Y Combinator (he remains in both positions).
Ahead of his speech, Thiel told the New York Times that he hoped the event would "have the give-and-take of debate," anticipating "tough questions" from the crowd of Press Club members and credentialed media. Delivered by National Press Club president Thomas Burr, the questions turned out not to be too tough after all.
When asked about Trump's comments on banning Muslims from the United States, Thiel said that he didn't support such a ban, and then criticized the media by cribbing from The Atlantic's Salena Zito. “The media always is taking Trump literally," he said. "It never takes him seriously but always takes him literally.” Thiel's thinking ignores Trump's own history of literalism about such a ban, but there was no pushback.
Presented with the question of whether Silicon Valley "understands America," Thiel drew a dichotomy between two worlds, one of bits and one of atoms, and explained that it's easier to do business in the former than the latter. This quickly turned into a way for Thiel to criticize government regulation, saying tech companies (the world of bits) face less regulation than other industries, and therefore are somewhat more insulated from the world. Unmentioned was the role lobbying by companies like Facebook plays in insulating Silicon Valley from the realities of other Americans.
Asked about Trump's merits, Thiel praised him as a businessman and real estate developer, areas in which Trump has been an abject failure, buoyed mostly by clever accounting and use of bankruptcy law. In all fairness to Thiel, he did admit he wasn't much of an expert in real estate.
“I suspect that in many ways what Trump did was par for the course,” Thiel said of Trump's dubious real estate practices.
Thiel was also asked about Hulk Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker Media, which Thiel secretly funded until his involvement was revealed in May. The lawsuit drove Gawker to declare bankruptcy and shutter its namesake site. (Univision, Fusion's parent company, bought Gawker's assets in August.)
Thiel said he didn't believe his funding of the lawsuit set a dangerous precedent, describing Gawker as a "singular, sociopathic bully." He also offered another reason for his funding of the Hogan lawsuit:
"If you're middle class, if you're upper middle class, if you're a single-digit millionaire like Hulk Hogan, you have no effective access to our legal system. It costs too much."
While Thiel made an offhanded reference to mass incarceration, he remains fundamentally invested almost entirely in the rights of people who are as much like him as possible. Even as the court system overwhelmingly fails the poor, with less than one legal aid attorney for 10,000 Americans in poverty, Thiel is worried about single-digit millionaires like Hogan.
This isn't particularly surprising, as Thiel has decried women's suffrage as a blow to democracy, donated to anti-immigration groups, addressed white nationalist groups, and recently offered a non-apology apology regarding comments on rape from his 1995 book The Diversity Myth (which he co-wrote with David Sacks).
Much has been made of Thiel's sinisterness in the past few months, but today's speech and Q&A session just seemed to drive home the banality of his ill-advised decisions. As Maria Bustillos did well to point out in May, he's not a supervillain. Despite his investments in seasteading and creepy life-extension-via-blood-transfusion stuff, Thiel is a pretty rudimentary billionaire with terrible opinions. He's one who thinks, as he said today, that money played little role in the election this year, despite the $1,312,110,914 that has been spent on it. What's scary about Thiel isn't that he's exceptional, it's that he's ordinary. And he has a lot of money.
After Thiel received the gift of a National Press Club Mug there was a final question from Burr: Does Thiel have a political future? He said he does not, beyond what he's doing currently.
“It’s a horrible business, it’s incredibly destructive,” he said, comparing politics to trench warfare. “The way I deal with my schizophrenia [about being interested in politics] is occasionally getting involved, but I don’t wanna make it a full-time thing.”
Then it was over, and Thiel left. Even though he'd spoken harshly of "bubbles" where the powerful are insulated from critical speech, the crowd of reporters in the room had to wait until Thiel left the building before they were allowed out.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org