It’s been a weird year for Peter Thiel. The always contrarian investor has managed to stir up quite a bit of ill will with his shadowy support of the lawsuit that brought Gawker to its knees and his vocal — and now financial — support for Donald Trump.
Along the way, each of Thiel’s controversies has led to calls for the companies he funded and advised, like Facebook and PayPal, to distance themselves from him. Those calls renewed this weekend when news broke that Thiel plans to donate $1.25 million to the Trump campaign and supportive Super PACs, and have been particularly directed at Y Combinator, where Thiel is a part-time partner.
Y Combinator’s Sam Altman wrote in a blog post that the organization is standing by Thiel, even though Altman himself is a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton.
“Some have said that YC should terminate its relationship with Peter over this. But as repugnant as Trump is to many of us, we are not going to fire someone over his or her support of a political candidate,” Altman wrote. “As far as we know, that would be unprecedented for supporting a major party nominee, and a dangerous path to start down (of course, if Peter said some of the things Trump says himself, he would no longer be part of Y Combinator).”
But Altman is facing plenty of blowback from others in the industry, who argue that Thiel’s ideology isn’t as distant from Trump’s as Altman claims.
Project Include’s Ellen Pao said that her organization would cut ties with Y Combinator over its continued association with Thiel. “While all of us believe in the ideas of free speech and open platforms, we draw a line here. We agree that people shouldn’t be fired for their political views, but this isn’t a disagreement on tax policy, this is advocating hatred and violence,” Pao wrote.
Slack engineer and Project Include co-founder Erica Joy Baker also called on Y Combinator to break ties with Thiel, and disputed the notion that reasoning with the investor about his long-held beliefs would change his mind.
So what should Silicon Valley do about Thiel?
Some of his views, like the merits of seasteading, seem outlandish but relatively harmless. Altman certainly seems to see Thiel as someone — he likens Thiel to the other Trump supporter in his life, his grandma — who should be reasoned with rather than cast out. “We should all feel a duty to try to understand the roughly half of the country that thinks we are severely misguided,” Altman wrote. “If our best ideas are to stop talking to or fire anyone who disagrees with us, we’ll be facing this whole situation again in 2020.”
But Thiel’s political stances aren’t vastly different from Trump’s — in fact, the two are aligned on many issues. Altman’s assertion that Trump should be denounced for his views while Thiel should be gently talked out of his similar views amounts to splitting an incredibly fine hair.
“The basic problem is that a racist past cannot be undone through more racism. Race-conscious programs betray Martin Luther King’s dream of a color-blind community, and the heightened racial sensitivity they cause is a source of acrimony and tension instead of healing.”
The GOP candidate has taken several stances on affirmative action, saying last year, “I’m fine with it,” but adding that it would soon be obsolete and that would be a “wonderful thing.”
Thiel reportedly donated $1 million to NumbersUSA, an anti-immigration organization, in 2008. At the time, the donation led to calls for Facebook to distance itself from Thiel. FWD.us, the immigration reform advocacy organization founded by Mark Zuckerberg, has singled out NumbersUSA for its “hateful rhetoric, extreme views, and blatant falsehoods — including ties to white supremacists.”
Trump famously called for a ban on Muslim immigration and the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump’s immigration platform also calls for a reduction in H-1B visas, particularly in STEM fields, so that tech companies would be forced to prioritize hiring U.S. citizens rather than immigrants.
In 2009, Thiel penned an essay that expressed frustration that women had gained the right to vote. “The vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron,” Thiel wrote. He later clarified, “It would be absurd to suggest that women’s votes will be taken away or that this would solve the political problems that vex us.”
Trump frequently remarks on his respect for women, but multiple women have recently come forward to accuse him of sexual assault. Trump, in turn, blamed the media for sabotaging his support among female voters and said the lack of support might cost him the election.
Freedom of the press
Thiel has been criticized and praised for funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media. He once compared Gawker journalists to terrorists, saying, “I think they should be described as terrorists, not as writers or reporters.” He estimates he has spent $10 million backing various lawsuits against Gawker and claimed the litigation was “one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done.”
Trump has a similarly dim view of press freedom. He’s revoked press credentials from reporters because he disliked their coverage of his campaign, and Trump supporters have attacked members of the press at his rallies. He’s called for expanding libel laws to make it easier to sue news outlets he disagrees with and frequently claims that the media operates as an extension of the Clinton campaign. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom organization that has previously received funding from Thiel, denounced Trump based on his track record on press freedom. “This is not about picking sides in an election. This is recognizing that a Trump presidency represents a threat to press freedom unknown in modern history,” CPJ chairperson Sandra Mims Rowe said in a statement.
Although Thiel backed away from his assertion that allowing women to vote was a blow to capitalist democracy in his 2009 essay, his primary argument — that perhaps democracy should not exist at all — was left standing. “Most importantly, I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” he wrote.
As his campaign has struggled to respond to sexual assault allegations, Trump has increasingly suggested on Twitter and in speeches that the Clinton campaign, the media and international banks are engaged in a widespread conspiracy to rig the election against him. He summarized his theories on the fall of democracy in a recent speech in Florida, in which he said the U.S. is at “a crossroads in the history of our civilization that will determine whether or not we the people reclaim control over our government.”
Although Thiel’s phrasing isn’t similar to Trump’s, the sentiment of his statements often is. And, as Altman said, “If Peter said some of the things Trump says himself, he would no longer be part of Y Combinator.” Perhaps, if Y Combinator condemns Trump’s statements, it’s time to do the same for Thiel’s.