Peter Thiel was clearly terrified. Speaking nervously off a teleprompter he didn’t really know how to use, he gave a very short speech which was in many ways the exact opposite of Donald Trump’s very long one. Trump lionized carpenters and miners; Thiel valorized engineers at Case Western Reserve University. Trump’s speech was aggressive and emotional; Thiel’s was subdued and intellectual. Trump painted a dark picture of a nation besieged by enemies both foreign and domestic; Thiel talked about rocket ships and a “bright future.” Trump talked about us and them, while Thiel went out of his way to dismiss “fake culture wars.”
Trump, of course, is all anybody’s going to remember from Thursday night. But Thiel’s speech, alongside Ivanka Trump’s, bears examination, because both of them were doing the obvious thing, the thing any common-sense person would expect from a major party’s national convention. They understood that the primary campaign is now over, and that the nominee no longer needs to simply appeal to the most zealous voters in his own party, but instead needs to broaden his appeal to the entire country. And so they made moves towards the center. Ivanka talked about the plight of working mothers and the importance of childcare; Thiel talked about how a proud gay man could support Donald Trump because he wants to rekindle the America that put a man on the moon.
And then Steamroller Trump came on stage, accompanied by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and gave America 75 minutes of undiluted fear, hate, and darkness.
The contrast was so great that the cognitive dissonances within Thiel’s speech – and there were many of them – essentially evaporated. How can a man who claims that he’s “proud to be gay” be the same man who wants to destroy the publication which outed him? How can a man who works in venture capital inveigh against bankers who “inflate bubbles?" How can a man who encourages students to drop out of college wax lyrical about Case Western? How can the chairman of Palantir, a company which makes half of its money selling software to the government, complain that “it would be kind to say the government’s software works poorly, because much of the time it doesn’t even work at all?" How can a man whose book, Zero to One, rhapsodizes about a bright future of ever greater inequality, complain about the difference in prosperity between San Francisco and Oakland?
But after Trump’s speech, none of that matters. Trump is the anti-politician, and his speech managed to make everybody else’s, including Thiel’s, seem like standard-issue political boilerplate. His speech acted like a set of blackout shades descending on the Quicken Loans Arena and obliterating everything that had come before it: all of the hope, all of the light, all of the outreach to Americans who want something to believe in. The “honest” Trump that Thiel praised, the altruistic father introduced by his adoring daughter, was nowhere to be seen. If there was anybody who was even the slightest bit convinced by their speeches, the only way that they would have stayed that way would have been if they turned off the television a few seconds before Trump started speaking.
Thiel is a libertarian; Ivanka used to be a Democrat. Neither of them are traditional Republicans; both of them instinctively want the party of Trump to be as broad and all-inclusive as possible. But there is no party of Trump; really, there is no Republican Party, any more, except down-ticket. There is only Trump, the great I Am, the man who says that “I alone can fix it.” He doesn’t have a movement, he’s building a personality cult. More than any other politician in recent memory, there is no Trumpism, there is only Trump.
That’s why Thiel’s speech is ultimately so sad. Thiel, if nothing else, is an intellectual, a man with principles, who believes in ideas. He likes to debate, he likes to think. And yet here he was, introducing Trump, a man going out into a storm and pointing his flashlight at a thunderhead. All he succeeded in doing was demonstrating his own irrelevance and impotence.
Trump has no shrift with policy positions; he has no need for the support of a gay California billionaire. He has an army. And his army does not look like any of the people who went up on stage on Thursday and rhapsodized about him. The battle lines of November 2016 have been drawn, and almost everybody in America knows, in the wake of Trump’s speech, which side they are on. The people who would listen to Ivanka Trump, the people who would listen to Peter Thiel – those people are voting for Hillary. Thiel made his best case. But ultimately he doesn’t represent what Trump is fighting for. He represents what Trump is fighting against.