Wait, Wasn't Peter Thiel a Libertarian?
The tech billionaire and his contrarian circle are developing new nationalist visions for America's future.
Eleven days after the first case of an American suffering from COVID-19 was reported, an essayist at an online journal run by the Claremont Institute—whose stated purpose is to "restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life"—argued that a sensible response would be to prohibit humans from crossing oceans. "The obvious solution to an emerging pandemic," wrote Curtis Yarvin in The American Mind, "is cutting off flights to China, then all air travel across the Pacific, then across the Atlantic."
This was more than an extreme emergency reaction to an extreme emergency crisis. Yarvin was using COVID-19 as a news hook to push the long-term strategic goal, common among a curious new subset of conservatives, to "refute internationalism" and replace it with an "isolationist vision." Imagine a world, he mused, "where travel between hemispheres is cut off next week—and stays cut off for years, decades, centuries….Would this be a disaster? No—it would actually be fine." After all, Yarvin averred in a trollishly insincere pivot, unmolested global wandering destroyed the vibrant cultures of the mysterious Far East, reducing their unique citadels to just more tawdry simulacra of Boston.
Who is Curtis Yarvin, and what was this atavistic assertion doing under the aegis of Claremont, a staid conservative institution founded by disciples of the late political philosopher Harry Jaffa? The Claremont Review of Books, for most of its two-decade run, has been a polite repository for intellectual conservatism. Jaffa, for his part, had defended the legacy of Abraham Lincoln to many then-skeptical fellow conservatives while elevating the equality of man to near-mystical primacy in the American founding.
Claremont's web journal The American Mind, though, was launched in 2018 with a more provocative agenda: to "rethink the ideological framework of the American Right." The animating idea, founding editor Matthew Peterson explains, is that traditional right-of-center groups are out of touch: They don't even realize that their own staffs include "people under 35" who "fundamentally disagree with supposedly fundamental [classical liberal] tenets of their organization. No one wants to hear or deal with it. They want to stick their heads in the sand." A vibrant and ideologically adventurous new conservative movement, Peterson says, is "bubbling beneath the surface, or even online all over the place. We are not supposed to talk about these things or engage that movement?"
Yarvin is perhaps better known for the pen name under which he rose to internet fame in the late 2000s and early 2010s: "Mencius Moldbug." At his Unqualified Reservations blog, Moldbug, a software entrepreneur by day, unspooled head-spinningly long-winded "neoreactionary" screeds, wielding a broadsword of abandoned pre-Enlightenment wisdom against the squalid lies of equality, democracy, and the smothering tyranny of what he called the communist-progressive "Cathedral." Back then, the Cathedral ruled the discourse so totally and viciously that it wasn't prudent—perhaps wasn't even safe—to burden Moldbug's true identity with his brutally honest thoughts. But TechCrunch outed Moldbug as Yarvin in 2013, and in the Trump era he seems happy enough to publicly be himself.
Yarvin, a follower of the 19th century British polemicist Thomas Carlyle, is the type of outside-the-box thinker who argues that monarchy is inherently better than democracy, that street crime is more of a danger to his readers' lives than all of government's depredations, and that one of the worst sins of modernity is that people refuse to speak candidly about IQ differences across human types. Such notions are by no means new to the American right, but they feel fresh again in 2020 not only because libertarianism has made some inroads against conservative traditionalism over the last few decades but also because Yarvin's extreme anti-cosmopolitanism comes with a genuinely modern twist: He is connected, via friendship, venture capital, and at least some ideological affinity, with one of America's wealthiest and most controversial men, the tech tycoon Peter Thiel.
Thiel, whom the George Mason economist Tyler Cowen in 2019 called "the most influential conservative intellectual with other conservative and libertarian intellectuals," is co-founder of PayPal, the big data analytics firm Palantir Technologies, and the trailblazing venture capital group Founders Fund. The latter entity has funded Yarvin's software company Tlon, the company's CEO, Galen Wolfe-Pauly, told The Verge in 2017. Yarvin and Thiel watched the 2016 election results together, according to a BuzzFeed-obtained email exchange between Yarvin and alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.
"Peter needs guidance on politics for sure," Yiannopoulos posited in one of the messages.
"Less than you might think!" Yarvin responded. "He's fully enlightened, just plays it very carefully."
Both Thiel and Yarvin trace the ruination of our tech, education, and governing culture to the dominance of progressive political correctness. Associates of Thiel say the financier does not consider himself "neoreactionary," though he did write as far back as 2009 that "I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible." That was the same year Yarvin, as Moldbug, wrote that "socialism and fascism produce a mix of substandard and disastrous results, for a simple reason: both originate in democracy, a precancerous growth always pregnant with some malignancy."
Prior to Donald Trump's presidential campaign, Thiel moved through the 21st century like a mysterious science fiction wizard of finance. He was, among other things, the first key outside investor in Facebook (a company on whose board he remains, albeit as a kind of loyal opposition), and he has pumped his V.C. winnings into such colorfully contrarian projects as private space travel, new floating countries, and the quest for human immortality. He paid for the lawsuit that bankrupted the web tabloid Gawker, encouraged kids to drop out of college by offering them prizes via his Thiel Fellowship program, and argued that the ultimate entrepreneurial goal was to create and control a monopoly. In short, he made himself the patron saint of the kind of libertarian-adjacent intellectual exercises that most normies find obscure and sometimes alarming.
Since striding on stage at the 2016 Republican National Convention to tout Trump as an agent for reversing American decline, though, Thiel and his ideas have graduated from the ideological margins to the vanguard of 21st century conservatism. He is now the wealthiest ally, if not quite the most generous funder, of the new conservative nationalist movement, becoming that rare radical right-winger whose dinner parties are covered by the establishment scorekeepers at Vanity Fair.
Sources within the national conservative space say they see no signs Thiel intends to become a financier, in the mode of Charles Koch or George Soros, of the new nationalist conservatism as a political cause. But the fact that the often-reticent Thiel has taken to speaking at national conservative conferences and writing gnomic essays in the Christian traditionalist journal First Things may say more about the depth of his engagement than does his check writing.
This new ferment involving and surrounding Thiel (a man who still occasionally refers to himself as libertarian) shows that ideas libertarians once thought were reasonably and blessedly settled on the right—that industrial subsidies and high tariffs make the world poorer while giving too much power to corrupt and inefficient governments, say, or even that people shouldn't be sentenced to forever reside on whatever land mass they happened to be born on—are now up for grabs.
What Does Thiel Want?
Through his overlapping social and intellectual worlds of venture capital, goal-oriented philanthropy, and Overton window–moving conservatism, Thiel has helped create a kind of rolling debate society in which entrepreneurs and technologists trade ideas with politicians and theorists. This "Thielosphere," says Patri Friedman, is "more willing to engage with deliberately transgressive ideas" than are most groups aiming for concrete power and influence in America.
Friedman, son of anarcho-capitalist David and grandson of Nobelist Milton, established the Thiel-funded Seasteading Institute in 2008 to develop the concept of sovereign seaborne micro-competitors to the nation-state. Yet he happily coexists in the Thielite ecosystem with such aggressively nationalist politicians as Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.), to whom Thiel has donated. The key, Friedman says, is that the thinkers and doers surrounding Thiel don't tend to be yes men, and the loose group conversation tends to "grapple with [ideas] in different ways," with participants getting "value in parts even if they don't agree with all the goals."
So what are Thiel's ideological goals? The billionaire took the opportunity to sum up his views at the July 2019 National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C., organized by new nationalist founding father Yoram Hazony under the auspices of a freshly launched group, the Edmund Burke Foundation. It is striking that Thiel chose that otherwise inauspicious venue to speak, which again demonstrates that he has made a priority of engaging with this new ideology.
In his hourlong presentation, Thiel expressed no particular libertarian inclinations. Instead, he talked about how public policy decisions should be based on how they would better not individual lives but a collective "America" while crushing her enemies. These latter foes he named as Google, China, and the U.S. university system, advocating vigorous police actions against the first and third and a trade war (at the least) against the Middle Kingdom.
Universities, Thiel said, are spreading the virus of "cultural Marxism" while perpetrating criminal fraud by shackling students with debt that the institutions themselves should be forced to repay. (He's been railing against political correctness on campus since his days as co-founder of the right-wing student newspaper The Stanford Review in 1987.)
Silicon Valley, too, is trying to impose a monoculture of identity politics on an unwilling America, he said. Google's collaborations with Red China on artificial intelligence merit scrutiny from the CIA and FBI, who should ask executives "in a not excessively gentle manner" about their "seemingly treasonous" behavior. The day Thiel gave that speech, July 16, 2019, Trump tweeted regarding Google's supposed treason: "The Trump Administration will take a look!"
Meanwhile, Thiel said, tariffs of 25 percent on Chinese products, negotiated by representatives untainted by free trade dogma, would be a good opening bid.
It's true that China is sinisterly authoritarian, makes for a difficult trading partner, and stretches its prerogatives in and around Asia. But the new conservative nationalists have no well-developed theory of how industrial policy will succeed in hobbling China and no prudent theory of how to fight one of our largest trading partners and debt holders without costs that far overwhelm any imagined benefits.
The dog that never barked in Thiel's long disquisition on national conservatism was any concern about government size, scope, or spending. Nor was there any nod toward the moral value and material fecundity of free markets.
In other contexts, Thiel has said he'd like to see the U.S. be more of a low-tax business haven, attacked NIMBY ("not in my backyard") urban planning and zoning for jacking up the cost of housing, and expressed general scorn about the effectiveness of government. But with Trump as the great disruptor, Thiel is making the bet that a more nationalistic state can outperform its equally sized or even smaller antecedents, managed as those were by politically correct globalists.
Who Does Thiel Learn From?
"The whole issue of human violence," Thiel wrote in a 2004 essay collected in a book titled Politics and Apocalypse, "has been whitewashed away by the Enlightenment." The 9/11 terrorist attacks, he argued, demonstrated the West's urgent need "to awaken from that very long and profitable period of intellectual slumber and amnesia that is so misleadingly called the Enlightenment," whose "easy bromides have become deadly falsehoods in our time." Thiel's essay was titled "The Straussian Moment," in reference to Leo Strauss, best known in the 21st century for his ideas about how philosophers have never felt free to openly speak their real truths. But the main thrust of Thiel's argument was channeling Carl Schmitt.
Who was Schmitt? An internationally influential German political philosopher who defended the notion of dictatorship over the more flabby bureaucratic state well into the 1940s.
"The high point of politics are the moments in which the enemy is, in concrete clarity, recognized as the enemy," wrote Thiel, quoting Schmitt, in his essay. He would later assign the philosopher to a class he taught at Stanford in 2019.
Schmitt was obsessed with how political communities unify in relation to enemies and with the idea that a singular, independent executive is best suited to dealing with threats. If a bloc within a given political community "declares that it no longer recognized enemies," Thiel quoted Schmitt as saying, then "it joins their side and aids them." On the wilder edges of the new nationalist conservatism, libertarians are seen as precisely such quislings in the eternal war with the left.
Written during the George W. Bush administration—a time when governing neoconservatives were employing Straussian arguments to justify an ever-expansive notion of executive power—the essay lamented that "a direct path forward is prevented by America's constitutional machinery" and that no "single ambitious person" can "reconstruct…the old republic."
Especially close to Thiel's heart is his old Stanford professor, the French literary critic and Catholic philosopher René Girard, "the one writer who has influenced me the most," as Thiel has described him. The billionaire in 2007 co-founded with Girard an institute to promote Girardism called Imitatio.
What is Girardism, precisely? The philosopher pushed a complicated set of notions about our inescapable desire to imitate others—what he termed "mimetic" tendencies. But his oeuvre is also purposely obscurantist, with an emphasis on the importance to human history of ritual violence and an intimation that a full understanding of his insights would upend the order of the world.
Mimetic theory tells us that the things we we want and love and fight for (and against) are not authentic to us but rather handed down by our parents and absorbed from our communities. Thiel says Girard cured him of a naively individualistic early libertarianism by teaching him how our very sense of being is irreducibly social.
One crucial Girard insight that you can see the new nationalism's keyboard warriors embody on a daily basis is that opposing tribes are drawn like moths to the flame of an ever-escalating battle. As Girard scholar Cynthia L. Haven put it in a December 2019 essay in Church Life Journal, "moral indignation so often leads us to echo and amplify the very behavior that triggered the indignation" in the first place. "The greater the expression of outrage, the less likely it will lead to any real change, and the more likely it will lead [to] violence," Haven wrote. "Bystanders are drawn into 'taking sides,' in mimetic conformity with admired friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Thus the conflict can envelop a whole society, with cycles of retaliatory (and therefore imitative) violence and one-upsmanship."
Girard, then, saw Twitter's soul before it existed. His theory of mimetic desire leads to an important point: The national conservative covets the progressive's cultural power, while the progressive lusts after the national conservative's political power in the age of Trump.
Some seeming paradoxes in Thiel's corporate actions and political concerns can be usefully interpreted through a Girardian lens. Thiel in 2003 co-founded a company called Palantir, whose board he still chairs. It was seed-funded by an offshoot of the CIA and marshals the forces of big data and artificial intelligence in the solving of large problems, often at the behest of both foreign and domestic law enforcement.
Could there be something, shall we say, mimetic about how a man so fiercely critical of Google's collaboration with China can turn around and help U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) track and deport illegal immigrants? Thiel is fond of lamenting the "eye of Sauron" aspects of technomodernity as a tool of the repressive modern state, a "Chinese Communist A.I." Yet in important ways he emulates the very Chinese he despises. After 200 Palantir employees wrote a letter of concern about the company's collaboration with ICE, co-founder and CEO Alex Karp snapped back that the company was not about to tell "the average American" that "I will not support your defense needs."
One of Thiel's most famous tech-contrarian quips is that "we wanted flying cars; instead we got 140 characters." Yet his investments skew toward companies dedicated to data analytics, financial services, management, security, and social networking rather than moonshot futuristic changes in the physical world. On the spectrum of flying cars to Twitter, he's significantly closer to the latter.
This Is War
The American right once aspired to limit government and unleash the free market. Now, with encouragement from Thiel, it increasingly seeks to unleash government and limit the free market. What explains such ideological whiplash?
Part of it "is just the need to engage with existing political systems in order to accomplish actual change," Friedman says in an email. But also, times have changed.
"In a well functioning 'liberal' (enlightenment values, not libertarian) society, as we had in the '80s & '90s, pushing for more freedom makes sense. But when there are paramilitary extremist groups fighting in the streets," Friedman continues, referring to groups such as antifa and their right-wing street-fighting foes, "that lack of basic civil harmony seems like a bigger problem than government spending." He thinks Thiel "would point to things like leftist bias in universities, low interest rates, technological stagnation, as being more problematic in 2020" than taxes and regulation.
Thiel, who moved his operations from the Bay Area to Los Angeles in part to escape the ideological conformity of Silicon Valley, seems to view lefty political correctness as both a trivial distraction from grave matters of import and an active menace to be urgently confronted. "Until the left is able to move beyond identity politics," he said in a 2019 Manhattan Institute lecture, "it's not going to be able to focus on the scale that we need to be focusing on for this country."
So what are the new nationalists focusing on? Big-heave manifestos calling to empower the state and attack the woke left and its Big Tech enablers. In December 2019, a group of thinkers from The American Mind, The American Conservative, American Renewal, Human Events, and First Things jointly proposed a "Tech New Deal" to bring increased government oversight and management to U.S. technology companies in the name of "American greatness."
"The turbulence of the Trump administration has cleared away old conceptual brush and made room for clear-eyed perceptions of the world as it is, not as fanatics imagine it should be," the manifestoists proclaimed. The real fanatics, to them, are those who don't understand that the nation must forcibly harness innovation to "serve human ends." The essay makes a sly nod toward Thiel himself, noting that only "billionaires" have the nerve to oppose "the creepiest transhumanists and posthumanists" in tech or to admit that "in the name of economic growth, human life is being diminished."
The document, like so much of the new-nationalist ferment, is shot through with hostility toward progressive political correctness. "We must strengthen safeguards against the use of tech power to establish a radical secular religion within America's public institutions," the writers advocated, demanding punishment for private social media companies that censor conservative or traditionalist viewpoints. "As important as de-platforming the worst of moral degenerates may be, our free democracy depends even more on ensuring Americans can openly deliberate foundational questions, from the significance of citizenship to the biology of sexual differences."
As that last comment illustrates, the Thielosphere devotes significant time and emotional energy to fighting for the ability to say things that offend the sensibilities of progressives. In practice, that means controversy-courting observations involving race, immigration, gender, and the like.
Eric Weinstein, the managing director of Thiel's personal investment firm, Thiel Capital, coined the term "intellectual dark web" to refer to opinion slingers uncowed by the prevailing orthodoxies (and, as a result, frequently shunned by mainstream and elite institutions). As Thiel once said, "it's so important for me to have environments in which people who don't agree on things, but agree on what constitutes a conversation, can sit down with an idea [and] that nobody's going to leave the table with their reputation in tatters to the extent that they can't find a job on Monday to support themselves."
The Edges of National Conservatism
Libertarians generally agree with the new nationalists that the parameters for what is considered acceptable debate should be expansive. They just don't want to use government as a crowbar toward that end, nor do they take the same transgressive delight in making negative collective judgments about entire population blocs—very often segments of the population that have been historically discriminated against.
In The American Mind last year, one loud new voice complained that too many cowed conservatives "are fanatical believers in the public religion of the regime—they've internalized 'antiracism,' hysteria about 'anti-Semitism,' and similar taboos….They are regime toadies and kapos, much like the journalists attacking me." So wrote a pseudonymous shock jock known as "Bronze Age Pervert," or BAP for short, under the once-sober auspices of the Claremont Institute.
BAP's self-published book, Bronze Age Mindset, was reviewed respectfully and at length in The Claremont Review of Books by Michael Anton, a former Trump administration official most famous for penning a then-pseudonymous 2016 essay in that same publication, "The Flight 93 Election," which analogized a Hillary Clinton presidency to "Russian Roulette with a semi-auto." Bronze Age Mindset had been gifted to Anton by none other than Thiel's pal Curtis Yarvin.
That secondhand link does not, of course, mean BAP necessarily shares ideas with Thiel. Far from it. But Anton's choice to establish the chain of custody endows the Pervert's transgressive wildness with a semi-respectable pedigree. Even if Thiel himself wouldn't go where BAP dares to tread, Anton and others seek to connect the latter's thought to their new form of conservatism, one that is totally unmoored from any connection to libertarian principles.
"Tax cuts, deregulation, trade giveaways, Russophobia, democracy wars, and open borders are not, to say the least, getting the kids riled up," Anton wrote in his review. So what's quickening youthful pulses these days, according to BAP? Apparently, "teenage put-downs," "crude sexual or scatological slang," and "sweeping generalizations about women, homosexuals, and, to a lesser extent, national and ethnic groups."
Anton squinted hard enough to see the virtues of such anti-Enlightenment conservatism. "On reflection, I came to believe that some of the ridiculousness is intended to help the unscientific and unphilosophic grasp concepts beyond their conceptual framework," he wrote, echoing some of the mysticism that surrounds Girard. "And a great deal of BAP's silly outrageousness seems to be there to provide air cover for the outrageous things he means in deadly earnest."
In a response essay in The American Mind, BAP insisted that he is indeed earnest about (among other things) bringing "unvarnished, unedited Nietzscheanism" to U.S. politics, defending whites against the "violent racial hatred" of the left, and lamenting "the religion of our time…unquestioned and absolute worship of human equality." Suck it, Harry Jaffa!
The Pervert is little more than a long-winded, reactionary, Jack Kerouac/Hunter S. Thompson–style materialist atheist who justifies his drunken revels in the Far East's fleshpots with a pseudoscientific celebration of hormonal vitalism and argues that "the peoples that have arisen out of nature must be preserved in their distinct forms." His game is to gin up enthusiasm among aimless, underemployed young men using a brew of physical bravado and passionate resentments. It all reads as fascist, and deliberately so. Of course, in the meme age, you are the sucker for letting such things troll you—even if what you're repulsed by is exactly what you think it is.
There's something both desperate and decadent about a respected intellectual institution giving considered attention to a work containing such one-liners as "At Masada and at other times the Jews killed their own children to escape subjection, when they were still a noble people" and "Imagine lesbian mulatta commissars with young Martin Sheen face and haircut manning the future Bergen-Belsens, installations that will span tens of miles." But hey, the international elites have failed us, the woke left keeps marching on, and at least the Pervert is learned—he quotes Carl Schmitt, after all.
We might never fully understand what Peter Thiel, or the new nationalist conservatives, really want. But to the extent they claim to be defending "the West," attacking the Enlightenment is an odd way to go about it. Claremont's embrace of BAP and Yarvin, and its publication of government-aggrandizing manifestos about the need to shackle the tech industry for the national good, should serve as fair warning to libertarians that principles such as free trade, equal rights, and drug legalization are considered boring "Cathedral" ideas on the hip new right. It's more thrilling to make ordinary people mad by flirting openly with racism and fantasizing out loud about political violence. Libertarians, clinging to their no-longer-cutting-edge preferences for toleration and the minimization of force, will no doubt shiver seeing the likes of Claremont Institute President Ryan P. Williams writing that Americans are stuck in a "cold civil war" in which one side or the other must win "decisive and conclusive political victory."
On the front lines of this cold civil war are rhetorical warriors in the mold of Bronze Age Pervert (though they're more likely to be Christian than to openly embrace his paganism), exuding an extrapolitical disgust with progressive freaks and their decadence, their tattoos and their obesity, their transgenderism and their whining about the sins of the West, their porn and their just plain weakness. The New Right that Claremont is promoting is consciously grooming a young generation to obsess over how the dominant mores of post-1960s liberalism have failed them.
Immanentizing the Eschaton
Generating human flourishing is hard, as is changing the culture around you via the state. Knowing that, Thiel has long favored visionary and experimental proposals for enacting change through a variety of novel mechanisms. But of late his engagement on that question has generated strange bedfellows.
Fifty years ago a generation looked at the dominant traditional mores, found they left many people distressed and dissatisfied, and advocated loosening them. Now a generation growing up under a new dominant set of mores has also—surprise—found they leave many people distressed and dissatisfied. Conservatives used to understand that one cannot and should not try to use government power to "immanentize the eschaton"—to bring about heaven on Earth. That was a heresy only communists believed in. Much of the new nationalist conservatism has forgotten this central insight, seeking instead to sic the state on everything that feels wrong about the economy and the culture alike.
Only a genuine, principles-based, rights-oriented classical liberalism—one that understands that your side can't always control every relevant citadel of social or intellectual power—can enable the republic, however imperfectly, to continue flourishing. An ever-escalating politics of hostility, as Schmitt's intellectual opponent F.A. Hayek recognized, places that noble project in jeopardy, because it threatens "the self-ordering forces of society and the role of law [as] an ordering mechanism."
A conservatism influenced by the likes of Girard or Schmitt can quickly turn into a danger to civic peace and to the republic itself. The choice to engage in a mimetic war with the opposing team's devils—whether over belief or comportment or ethnicity—can become a self-fulfilling Manichean prophecy.