Thiel spoke at the Republican convention.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bllomberg

Trump's Contrarian Silicon Valley Supporters

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Donald Trump has few supporters in liberal Silicon Valley -- even Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder and Facebook board member, who spoke for the Republican nominee at the Republican National Convention, hasn't given a cent to the campaign. Yet the tech world doesn't unanimously favor Democrats.

Consider, for example, the financial support that Oculus founder Palmer Luckey has given to a pro-Trump trolling campaign. Luckey, 24, sold his virtual reality startup to Facebook for $2 billion after Oculus became a crowdfunding star. He has confirmed to the Daily Beast that he's donated money to a group called Nimble America to produce memes and negative posts about Hillary Clinton. Nimble America also put up a billboard outside Pittsburgh with a large image of Clinton's face and the legend, "Too Big to Jail." Luckey explained that he'd met the meme-makers behind the group on Facebook and offered them money because he "would love to see more of that stuff." It's this kind of surprising support that has made Trump a strong contender for the presidency.

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Nimble America was set up by two moderators of the r/The_Donald thread on Reddit, which is full of not just anti-Clinton, but also anti-immigrant and outright racist memes. Luckey made it sound as if he just enjoyed the trolling as "a real jolly good time." That would ring hollow to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who offered to launch Trump into outer space after the candidate lashed out at him as the owner of The Washington Post. Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, wouldn't see it the same as Luckey either: He withdrew Apple's support for the Republican National Convention this year after Trump called for a boycott of Apple products because of the company's reluctance to help U.S. law enforcement decrypt a terrorist's iPhone.

The Silicon Valley has long leaned Democratic or even further left. This year, the most typical donor of the Green Party candidate Jill Stein is a male software engineer from California, according to Crowdpac, an organization that analyzes political donation data. Trump's right-wing views are unappealing to this constituency. A group of tech executives and venture capitalists, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and a few other important names in the industry, published a strongly-worded anti-Trump letter in July. Trump hasn't been nice to the Valley's aristocracy such as Bezos and Cook, and they have no reason to back him. According to data from Crowdpac, the technology industry has donated all of $225,000 to the Trump campaign. 

Clinton has collected $6.1 million from tech donors, according to Crowdpac, out of her total of $510 million. Barack Obama had did better with tech workers in both of his presidential campaigns.

Neither Thiel nor Luckey has described himself as a hardcore Trump fan. The PayPal co-founder is a libertarian who believes that an increasingly incompetent government has run down the economy. Luckey claims to be a believer in politically incorrect fun. It's not easy to find people in tech who would be against trade or immigration as Trump says he is: The industry wins from both. Those who back the billionaire do so out of contrariness, the spirit of disruption and rebellion that is as important to Silicon Valley's soul as social liberalism. 

The rare open Trump backers are not so much pro-Trump as anti-Clinton. To them, she stands for the bland, faceless status quo; Thiel says that the U.S. needs to be "rebuilt" and that Clinton would be a one-term president because she'd drive the economy into a new crisis. Luckey, in one of his Reddit posts as "NimbleRichMan," wrote of "fighting the American elite."

This doesn't present any serious danger to Clinton in Silicon Valley, where polls show she has more than double Trump's support. It's just that the backing, at least initially, was less enthusiastic than for Obama, and techies' belief that she can shake things up and bring positive change is weaker than it was with the outgoing president. That's a bad sign for her nationwide. So is the departure from their peers of Thiel and Luckey: The U.S. is at least partly built on the same contrarian spirit that drives these two successful startup founders, and it can outweigh many voters' distaste for the Republican's views.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net