Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters enters a 'Save America' rally on July 22, 2022 in Prescott Valley, Arizona. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Blake Masters Wants to Be Trump 2.0

Peter Thiel’s protege is clobbering a former Top Gun pilot in the Arizona Senate race. How did this happen?

PHOENIX—Blake Masters was about to duck into this GOP candidates forum thing—this was in Mesa, late morning, early summer, and it was already 100 degrees outside—when a West Palm Beach number popped up on his phone. He’d been expecting the call. Peter Thiel, the billionaire founder of PayPal and his old boss, had given him the heads up, and then a very giddy Tucker Carlson had done the same. So he answered his cell, and there was a woman on the other end asking if he was free to speak with The Big Man. 

Then the voice everyone knows—he whom half the nation bows down to and the other half burns in effigy—hopped on to tell him he was throwing his support, his name, his cause, his followers, all the disaffected Boomers and petite bourgeoisie, behind Masters’ bid for the Republican nomination in Arizona. That he believed Masters was the man to take on Democratic Senator (and former astronaut) Mark Kelly. That he was sprinkling a little DJT fairy dust on his campaign.

It worked. 

For months, Masters, 35, the former chief operating officer of Thiel Capital, had been struggling to break out of third place in the five-man GOP Senate primary. In early June—in the wake of Donald Trump’s June 2 endorsement—Masters leap-frogged ahead of the self-funder, solar power executive Jim Lamon, and the state attorney general, Mark Brnovich. Later that month, Masters tweeted out a campaign ad featuring Masters and Trump in which Trump explicitly (and gratuitously) took a swipe at Masters’ Republican rivals.

The August 2 primary is now a week away, and every poll shows Masters leading. The most recent, in early July, had him at 25 percent and Lamon, in second place, at 18 percent.

It’s not just the polls. It’s Masters’ kinetic energy (he grabbed an old man by the throat!), the youthful idiom (he said “fuck” in a campaign ad!), the unapologetic snark (he called Democrats ”psychopaths”!)—and, at the center of it all, the vaguely fox-like visage. Talking to him on the campaign trail, he seemed to grasp that he was one of the few Republicans in the game who could—if anyone could—forge a Trumpian post-Trump politics. 

Masters has been able to do something that many Republicans so far have failed at: articulate a vision that was inspired by the 2016 election but not captive to it. He got that the former president had been onto something (about trade, borders, China, the hollowing out of the American hinterland) but grasped that a more durable politics would have to expand the boundaries of Trumpism. 

“America First is bigger than Trump,” Masters, whose campaign website calls him “Arizona’s true MAGA candidate,” told me. We were at this bagel joint in an office park in gleaming Scottsdale, just east of Phoenix. Where the money was. “I don’t think that’s a criticism of President Trump. If anything, it’s praise. If your political movement is only as big as you the person are, well then, when you’re out of office—everyone shuffles off the Earth at some point. I wish him a long and healthy life, but, you know, he’s not going to be around in 50 years, and I think America First will be.”

During a recent Newsmax debate, Masters pivoted to the fall. It was important, he said, that the Republican nominee be able to speak to independents. (In 2020, Kelly won independents by 10 points, and he has $25 million in the bank, compared with the five Republicans in the race, who, all together, have about $3 million cash on hand.)

But for now, for the purposes of winning the GOP nomination, what mattered most was that Masters wasn’t a squish. Republicans once celebrated the self-made man—that would be Lamon, who played football at the University of Alabama and was an Army paratrooper before becoming an entrepreneur. But all they seemed to care about now was that Masters had the Trump imprimatur, that he was the guy they could trust 1,000 percent.  

What was odd was that the guy the MAGA voters thought they could trust had gone to college and law school at Stanford and managed money for Thiel, who had been, until a few weeks ago, on Facebook’s board and had pumped $15 million into a super-PAC backing Masters. Which was why Lamon had taken to calling Masters a “California globalist.” “This guy’s a true fake,” Lamon said at the debate. That swayed almost no one.

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To grasp the paradigm shift that has engulfed the GOP—to appreciate just how remarkable it is that the Silicon Valley rich kid with the super-rich benefactor is on top—consider the story of Mick McGuire, also running for the Republican Senate nomination in Arizona, and currently trailing in fourth place.

In August 1990, McGuire, then 25, was on an outboard in the middle of a lake in Colorado. He was trout fishing, having a beer, spending some time with his wife, who was six months pregnant with daughter No. 1, when a power boat pulled up. “Are you Mick McGuire?” this guy yelled. “There’s someone in the boat house who wants to talk to you.” So McGuire, who majored in chemistry at the Air Force Academy before becoming one of only two people in his pilot training class to fly F-16s, jumped into the power boat, and when they got to the boat house, he walked over to this rotary phone and picked up, and a voice on the other end said, “Mick, you gotta come home. We’re deploying to the Middle East.”

Fast-forward five months: McGuire’s zig-zagging over the Iraqi desert in his fighter jet, dropping bombs, liberating Kuwaitis. He’s more Maverick than Maverick.

His last job with the Air Force had been adjutant general of the Arizona National Guard, where he oversaw a small army of 8,300. He took tons of flack for refusing to send troops to D.C. after the January 6 insurrection—he thought it was unconstitutional. He said that Democrats and reporters called him a GOP hack. Thing is, McGuire did the same thing in June 2020, when Black Lives Matter was protesting outside the White House and Republicans wanted to flood Lafayette Square with national guardsmen.

“Both were illegal,” he told me when we met at his campaign office in Phoenix. He was in a starched, white shirt with an American flag tie. You could imagine Jeff Daniels playing him in the Hollywood adaptation. “In June, 12 states participated. All of them had Republican governors. In January, 53 states, territories and the District participated. Only Arizona said no. I went home that night, and I said to my wife, ‘I’m watching a coup or an invasion. The media’s acting like a bunch of clapping seals. And nobody seems to care.’”

Point is: Until about five minutes ago, Mick McGuire was The Republican Dream, and, in the pre-Trump era, it would have been him versus Brnovich, the party man, and, this being Arizona, McGuire probably would have won.

But McGuire is polling in the single digits. In the early July poll, he was 19 points behind Masters.

McGuire will tell you it’s all about the moolah. “The whole game has become a money game,” he told me. “The media is for sale, endorsements are for sale.” But, really, it was because McGuire hadn’t tapped into the Republican zeitgeist right now. He wasn’t a good investment. If he were, another billionaire sugar daddy would have materialized.

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The next night, Masters turned up at a GOP get together at the public library in Buckeye, 40 minutes west of Phoenix. It was in the high 90s when the sun dipped behind the rock-face hills and a purple, limpid light descended on the cul de sacs and miniature farms and rehab centers just off the interstate. 

He was smoother than the solar-power executive, Jim Lamon. (I’d seen Lamon the night before, at a town hall in Prescott.) Crisp, full of snappy bullet points, Masters came across as a little studied, which he was. And he wore a jacket and tie, which made him look like he wanted the job too much. He wasn’t a man of the people as much as a man applying to be a man of the people. He took a few swipes at Big Tech, ESG scores, woke capital, Chinese-style social credit systems, and the “radical Bolshevik burn it all down revolutionary mentality” that, he said, had consumed the Democratic Party. He called Mark Kelly “the worst senator.” 

“My pledge to you is to play offense,” Masters said. He predicted he’d beat Kelly by three or four points. He said that, with J.D. Vance, the GOP Senate nominee in Ohio, and Josh Hawley and maybe Tom Cotton and Rand Paul, “Mitch McConnell isn’t going to know what hit him.” 

This was the big idea: To create a new right-wing populism and a powerful block of senators who would be the movement’s vanguard. It would revolve around not free markets or “compassionate conservatism” or anything abstract but the almighty blue-collar breadwinner—the machinist, the trucker, the day laborer, the innumerable “warehouse associates” sorting packages at Amazon fulfillment centers in the exurbs and nomadlands. 

The agenda was, by now, well known: build the wall; double or triple border security; label the Mexican drug cartels terrorist organizations; support the cops in whatever way possible; support Israel; battle China; fire the woke generals; avoid stupid wars; clamp down on the military industrial complex while outfitting the Pentagon with the high-tech weaponry it needed to deter would-be rivals; and embrace a series of economic proposals like fair trade and country-of-origin labeling that, until a few years ago, would have been viewed as the purview of Elizabeth Warren. Masters talks repeatedly about building an economy in which families can thrive on a single income.  

In other words, the new Republican populists want to do what Democrats had promised to do, which was to build, or rebuild, the working-class coalition that used to be the beating heart of left-wing politics.

“I really reject that the way to get there is somehow by compromising with this system that’s inherently broken and corrupt and just kind of drags us further left,” Masters said. “If you compromise and play defense with that system, you will end up in the same place, maybe just a little bit more slowly. That’s managed decline. We just have to completely bust through that.”

The problem Masters had with the GOP establishment—Reagan Republicans who didn’t get that the world had changed—was that it didn’t have the stomach. Or it was criminally negligent. That Liz Cheney was just another shade of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. 

It was possible to make out, while listening to Masters, this unspoken faith in the American volk, a belief that if you could somehow lift from the shoulders of the great, heaving nation the seemingly immovable yolk of WashingtonCNNHollywoodHarvardGoldmanFacebook, the truth would out. That was why free expression was so important.  

Masters said he held out some hope that new technologies would liberate us from the tech behemoths—maybe a blockchain-based social media network, one that allowed its users to take their followers wherever they went. But, he said, “I don’t think we can afford to wait. That’s why politics still matters. You’ve got to get the right people in to meaningfully restrain Facebook and Google and YouTube.”

In a follow-up text, he explained: “Big Tech poses an existential threat to this country. A handful of companies control the flow of information to hundreds of millions. We need to stop playing defense, stop treating them as if they’re a local hair salon.” The Section 230 debate—the question of whether the social-media networks were publishers or platforms—was beside the point, he said. “‘You don’t even have a choice, Twitter. At your scale, you’re a platform, not a publisher.’” Twitter, like all the biggies, was a “common carrier,” he explained, and it should be regulated that way. He wanted a Digital Bill of Rights to end data-privacy abuses.

But there is a parallel universe in which things do not unfold that way. In which the new Republican climbers, instead of rising above the MAGA din, succumb to it. Reject liberalism itself, declare it spiritually vapid and incapable of filling the gargantuan crater that is our crisis of meaning. One had reason to fear that this was the real Masters, the candidate who was not above race baiting (he’d blamed black people for America’s gun problem), or dabbling in the lunatic fringe (he’d praised the Unabomber). 

His rival Lamon had released an ad—on the same day Trump had endorsed Masters—slamming Masters for having quoted the Nazi Hermann Göring, which was technically true, except that it happened when Masters was in college, and Masters didn’t praise Göring, but he didn’t not praise him either. It was true that Masters called Marjorie Taylor Greene, who had compared mask mandates to the Holocaust, “a friend.” And he said that, post-Dobbs, marriage between gay people should not be on the chopping block, but he also told me: “Let’s acknowledge that they’re a small minority, and that they’re not the norm.” He said that overturning Roe was just the beginning: “We’re going to make this a pro-family country again.” 

There was a friction, and it pitted Masters against Masters—the nationalist against the populist, the right-wing identitarian against the builder of a new American proletariat—and it was unclear whether he was undecided or dissembling or just experimenting with different messages. That would have been a very Silicon Valley thing to do. Let’s see what works here, shall we? He seemed to slip seamlessly from one persona to the other. 

“I’m only running because I know that this is existential for the country,” he declared in a recent campaign ad. It was gritty and dark, and there was the now-familiar Manichean showdown and the implication, unstated but unavoidable, that that showdown might justify taking whatever steps necessary to prevail. Speaking directly to camera, Masters continued: “I know that I have to beat Mark Kelly. If we don’t win Arizona, I don’t think we take the Senate back. If we don’t take the Senate back, the Democrats might be able to get their agenda through, and then the country’s over.”

Peter Savodnik’s last piece for Common Sense was about the revolt against Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon. You can read it here. And if you appreciate Peter’s reporting, please become a subscriber today:

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