Donald Trump, Peter Thiel and the End of Politics
Donald Trump signed up a couple of high-profile California delegates in recent days. One turned out to be a white nationalist. (The campaign said it was a mistake.) The other was billionaire tech investor and Facebook board member Peter Thiel. The “European-American” got most of the attention. But Thiel, a libertarian who seems to regard technology as a competing, and superior, system to politics, is the more compelling figure. In a 2009 essay, Thiel wrote, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”
All aboard the Trump campaign's strange flight from politics as usual.
“Politics as usual” has only a negative connotation. Gridlock, sleaze and dysfunction all fall under the rubric. A Social Security check that doesn't bounce, a lower interest rate on a student loan or access to health insurance may each be a result of politics, and each, in turn, may have become usual to someone. Strangely, none qualifies as “politics as usual.”
Hillary Clinton is running as a firm believer in politics and in its ability, even now, to improve lives. Her entire campaign is built on plans for incremental improvements to the status quo, each calibrated by cost-benefit analysis and its potential to be achieved in a complex and difficult political environment.
Clinton has not merely spent her life in politics, she has devoted her life to it. It's something she believes in with religious conviction. Confronted by Blacks Lives Matter activists last August, she neither truckled to their anger nor rebuffed it. Instead, she gave them a stern parental lecture about the nature of the game.
“Look, I don't believe you change hearts,” Clinton said with a weary indifference to their claims of moral superiority. “I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”
Clinton offers voters a square meal and a set of building blocks. Trump is peddling a 5-Hour Energy booster and a branded experience at a theme park. His mix of authoritarian impulses, policy infidelities and seat-of-the-pants operational style marks him not only as Clinton's opposite, but as a break from politics, usual or otherwise.
That's a vital element of his appeal. In his 2009 essay, Thiel wrote of seeking “escape from politics in all its forms -- from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called ‘social democracy.’”
It's possibly ironic that a man who distrusts the “unthinking demos” has thrown in his lot with a populist rabble-rouser. Or it's possible that Thiel senses that Trump could hasten the end of the whole messy experiment.
The New Yorker's George Packer wrote in 2011 that “Thiel has recently begun to express a strong antipathy toward politics.”
He doubts that it can solve fundamental problems, and he doesn’t think that libertarians can win elections, because most Americans would not vote for unfettered capitalism. “At its best, politics is pretty bad, and at its worst it’s really ugly,” he said. “So I think it would be good if we had a less political world.”
Few Trump voters share Thiel's vaulted IQ, billions or libertarian philosophy. But many seem prepared to ride shotgun as Thiel speeds away from the drab disappointments of democracy. In a March focus group in Missouri, a Trump supporter relished the discomfort that Trump's success has inflicted on the political establishment. “These politicians in Washington are now freaking out that Donald Trump could be the nominee,” said Gail Capelovitch, whom the Wall Street Journal described as a 57-year-old Republican data specialist. “They have nobody but themselves to blame for putting Donald Trump in the fast lane.”
In Republican primaries this year, voters seeking a candidate who “tells it like it is” chose Trump by wide margins. If you're fleeing fast enough from the shattered hopes and dreams of politics, Trump's flagrant, frequent departures from the truth appear to be standing still.
Of course, when politics fails in a democracy, the question of what comes next is an interesting one. The establishment's demise “sort of suggests that we’ll get something outside the establishment, but it’s going to be this increasingly volatile trajectory of figuring out what that’s going to be,” Thiel told the New Yorker.
Thiel's prediction may have lacked precision, but Trump's rise shows that he was on to something. American politics has left its orbit. We are on an increasingly volatile trajectory. And we are too angry, hurt and confused to figure out what it's going to be.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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