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Billionaire investor and PayPal founder Peter Thiel at the Bitcoin 2022 Conference in Miami. (Marco Bello via Getty Images)

Weekend Listening: Peter Thiel Says We Have Bigger Problems Than Wokeness

The ‘pariah of Silicon Valley’ on China, TikTok, AI, Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, Florida and California, God, new moonshots, and how to make America great again.

A few weeks ago my producer, Candace, and I went to Miami to talk to the tech entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel at his home. Peter Thiel is one of the most formative men in modern Silicon Valley. He’s also one of the most despised people among the New York media set, having successfully conspired to put the publication Gawker out of business. 

So depending on your view of the world, or your politics, or perhaps what coast you live on, you might think Peter Thiel is a hero or a villain, or maybe you haven’t yet heard of him at all. 

Thiel was one of the founders of the online payment system PayPal, and his cohort of co-founders, known as the PayPal Mafia, included people like Elon Musk, David Sacks, and Max Levchin. Thiel was called the Don. He was also the first outside investor to Facebook, and his investments in companies like LinkedIn, Palantir, and SpaceX have made him a billionaire many times over. But unlike a lot of wealthy, powerful people who often say the popular thing in public and the thing they actually believe in private, Thiel has used his voice and his fortune to steer the culture and the country in the direction he believes in, despite sometimes unbelievable blowback. In 2016 that meant breaking ranks with almost the entire Silicon Valley set by throwing his weight behind Donald Trump, who he believed could shake up a stagnant Washington and therefore a stagnant America.

From Peter Thiel’s speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention:

Good evening. I’m Peter Thiel. It’s hard to remember this, but our government was once high-tech too. Defense research was laying the foundations for the internet. The Apollo program was just about to put a man on the moon. The future felt limitless, but today our government is broken. Our nuclear bases still use floppy disks. Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East. On this most important issue, Donald Trump is right. It’s time to end the era of stupid wars and rebuild our country.

The decision to support Trump, and in such a public way, was seen by even some of his fans as a bridge too far. But Thiel has always been comfortable being a contrarian. Indeed, beyond supporting Trump’s presidency, in last year’s midterms, Thiel was a huge backer of two anti-establishment Republican candidates: Blake Masters in Arizona, who lost, and J.D. Vance in Ohio, who won. But in our conversation today, Thiel says he’s changing course. When I asked him who he’d back in 2024, he refused to answer the question. He says he’s backing away from supporting politicians and is urging the political right to shift their focus from the culture wars to things that he believes matter more, like economic growth and tech innovation.

We cover a lot in this conversation: Thiel’s love of progress and his conservative politics and whether there’s tension between the two. We talk about why he believes that Democrats are the evil party and Republicans are the stupid party. We talk about why American infrastructure has fallen so far behind other nations, and why we’re so impressed with the apps on our phones instead of dreaming of new moonshots. We also talk about AI, China, TikTok, Twitter, and the right way to defeat what Elon Musk calls the “woke mind virus.” 

What does the man who’s won on all of these big bets, from Facebook to Trump, make of those bets now, and what are the bets he’s making in the decades ahead? 

Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Listen to the whole thing here:

On being the pariah of Silicon Valley:

BW: Peter, you’ve been called the pariah of Silicon Valley. You’ve been called mysterious, a provocateur. The New Yorker called you opaque, enigmatic, and oracular, and secretly the most important person in Silicon Valley. And perhaps most often you’re simply described as a contrarian. There was a book by that name that came out about you a few years ago. When I hear that word, I think of someone who’s intentionally at odds with conventional wisdom. Do you think that’s true of you and of your worldview?

PT: Man, some of these things are flattering, but they’re mostly, I think, caricatures. I don’t like the contrarian label because that just means putting a minus sign in front of the conventional wisdom, which surely isn’t that different. As an investor, there is probably some value in being contrarian. You want to invest in things that aren’t popular, but it’s at least equally important to be right. I think something like that is true of so many other things. So it’s when you are contrarian and right, you’re onto something important, something that’s not being discussed, but there’s no great virtue in being contrarian and wrong.

BW: Have you been at odds with the prevailing culture around you for a very long time? I think about your college years and starting The Stanford Review. It’s pretty unusual to be a conservative on a college campus. Was that an early experience for you? How do you think about that time?

PT: Yes, although I wasn’t thinking of myself as a rebel without a cause or anything like that. I was interested in big-picture questions of how all these different things integrated. That’s probably why I majored in philosophy as an undergraduate, and that’s what I’ve always pushed on. When we started The Stanford Review, probably the signature issue, in the late 1980s, was the core curriculum around the Western Civ class, the required freshman class at Stanford. And there was a Jesse Jackson rally at Stanford: “Hey hey, ho ho. Western culture’s got to go.” And in some sense, it was a narrow debate about this particular class. And then it was a much broader debate about our whole culture, and the simultaneously parochial and patricidal approach to our culture, had to go. In some sense, it was almost a topic too big for us to deal with. All sorts of debates triggered and escalated—we didn’t even know what we were getting ourselves into.

On making America great again:

BW: I think the first time that many people outside the world of tech and Silicon Valley learned your name was in July 2016 when you stepped on stage at the Republican National Convention to endorse Donald Trump. You said this: “Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Of course, every American has a unique identity. I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all, I am proud to be an American.” What brought you to that stage, into that moment?

PT: Well, on a very narrow level, it was a concatenation of random things. Ten days before that speech, Don Jr. had asked me to speak and we thought this would be a cool thing to do. And two months before that, I had volunteered to be a Republican delegate from San Francisco, where you just needed to sign up. There were three Republican delegates and you could just get one of the slots since nobody wanted to have them. But the bigger context was that I had a sense that the country was in stagnation—maybe not outright decline—but for a long time, we were not progressing as a society. We were not even progressing in the area that’s seen as quintessentially progressive, namely technology, information technology in particular. There was a hope that there was something about the Trump campaign, the Trump presidency, that was a scream for help that was going to enable us to have a debate about the stagnation—how to move beyond that. I always like to say that Trump’s slogan, Make America Great Again, was in some sense the most triggering thing possible in Silicon Valley. It didn’t trigger people at Goldman Sachs because they don’t think they’re making America great, but the tech people—

BW: What do they think they’re doing?

PT: They think they’re making money. And they have a slightly bad conscience about it. But when the financial crisis hit in 2008, they knew they had done a bunch of bad things, and they lobbied to get Dodd-Frank passed in a way that wouldn’t be too bad for the banks. But they’re arrogant. 

BW: But the people that go to the Bay Area to build things, they imagine they’re changing the world.

PT: They imagine they’re changing the world. There are extremely moralistic stories they tell themselves. And then there are all these ways that, I would argue, has fallen far short of that. In some ways, they don’t deserve all the blame for the stagnation, because if Silicon Valley isn’t building flying cars, they’re not also not being built anywhere else. So it’s unfair to put all the blame on Silicon Valley. But there is something about the narrative in Silicon Valley that I think is very disconnected from the reality. And of course there’s a California version of this where, in one sense, you’ve had this gold rush boom on the internet for the last quarter century in the context of a state where so many of the institutions, the physical infrastructure, are just disintegrating. And so it’s very discordant even on the level of the city of San Francisco, or you go to the East Bay and things are in much less good shape than they are on the peninsula. So there are all these ways that it’s very myopic.

BW: The fact that you endorsed Trump and that you took to the stage in that way triggered a lot of people in your world. People demanded that Facebook drop you from its board, that the incubator Y Combinator sever ties with you. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who you had served on the Facebook board with, called your decision to support Trump “catastrophically bad judgment.” Was it? Did you see something others didn’t?

PT: I certainly thought it was one of the least contrarian things I ever did in the—

BW: Really?

PT: Sure. Half the country is supposed to vote for one person and roughly the other half is supposed to vote for the other person. So if you’re doing something that half the country’s doing, it shouldn’t be that controversial. And that was something I was certainly very wrong about. On some level, the election was a debate about us not really being able to touch certain rails, a narrowing of the Overton window, and things like that. And then I think it was triggering in the summer and fall of 2016 in certain ways. But I also underestimated how triggering it would be if Trump actually won, which I actually, I sincerely thought he had a good chance of winning. I thought he had a 50/50 chance of winning all the way through 2016 just because the political correctness was stopping people from even telling what they thought to the pollsters or answering the polls. So I thought there were all these ways that the sentiment wasn’t quite being captured. And I also thought I’d be in more trouble if Trump won, but strangely enough, I wasn’t able to connect those two basic thoughts.

BW: Why did you think you would be in more trouble if Trump won?

PT: Because it was just a super eccentric thing to support Trump if he lost badly. If he won, it would be seen as a much more dangerous thing. But these were all half-formed thoughts in the summer/fall of 2016.

On evil Democrats and stupid Republicans: 

BW: Looking back at the promise that Trump offered people—making America great again—did he do it?

PT: My expectations were never that high because I think the problems in our country are deep, and they’re hard to change. In some ways he did the first step of talking about them. It was a scream for help, much like Brexit in the UK was a scream for help against a more and more dysfunctional European Union, and then it’s going to be a long, long process. And so ask me that question in 10 years.

BW: You’ve said that Democrats are the evil party and Republicans are the stupid party.

PT: I don’t think that’s original to me. But—

BW: Okay, but you’ve said it in a lot of interviews.

PT: I agree with it. Yes.

BW: Why are Democrats evil, or rather why is the Democratic Party the evil party? I don’t think you believe Democrats are evil, or maybe you do.

PT: Well, it is the party that controls these central left institutions and they are, from my point of view, centralizing things too much. It’s led to the—it’s not quite socialist, but it keeps pushing our society in a more homogenized groupthink, stagnationist direction, and they should know better. Then I think the Republicans are this often rather weak resistance to that.

BW: Do you think they’re still weak?

PT: I think they’ve probably been relatively weak for a hundred years. Probably the last time one could have said that the institutions genuinely tilted Republican was maybe the 1920s. And yes, there were things that went wrong in the Great Depression. But, yeah, I think if you look at the media, the universities, the big cities, the culture-forming institutions, the sense-making things, those have tilted center-left or further left for close to a hundred years now.

On wokeness and defining culture wars:

BW: One of the other things you said in that RNC speech and I went back and read, it was this: “Fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline, and nobody in this race is being honest about it except Donald Trump.” Seven years after the fact, it seems to me that the culture wars have not just gotten worse, arguably because of Trump—or you could say he has a reaction to it, he’s a catalyst of it. We can have that debate—but it actually seems to me that the culture wars matter a great deal to people. We’re sitting here in Miami. The governor of this state has described it as the place “where woke goes to die.” He’s basically making his name, at least nationally, on fighting things like critical race theory and the culture war. Do you still think the culture wars are a great distraction, or are you defining culture war in a more narrow way?

PT: Well, things can be both important and a distraction at the same time. And in part, that comment that I made at the RNC speech in 2016 was a self-reflection on what I had done in the 1980s and 1990s, where I was involved in these, maybe not culture wars, but these campus wars where a great number of these debates were prefigured in the universities. Critical race theory was something I learned about at Stanford Law School in the early 1990s. And I wrote a book with my friend David Sacks on this, published in 1995, entitled The Diversity Myth. I think it’s still a good title. You don’t have real diversity when you have a group of people who look different and think alike. Diversity is more than just hiring the extras from the Space Cantina scene in Star Wars. So there were all these arguments that we made 25-plus years ago that I think were, in some sense, correct. They’ve stood up incredibly well over time. And then at the same time, there are all these things I worry that they missed. That the focus on identity politics, on the woke religion, is probably a distraction from stagnation. It’s a distraction from economics. It’s a distraction from the way in which the younger generation in the U.S. is probably going to have a hard time having as good a standard of living as their parents. And so there’s a set of issues we do not want to talk about. I think DeSantis would make it a terrific president if he’s the Republican nominee. I will strongly support him in 2024. But I do worry that focusing on the woke issue as ground zero is not quite enough, just to give a very different kind of a metric. We’ve thought some about moving our offices from California to Florida, and it’s a tough thing to do at this point because the real estate prices in Florida have doubled and the interest rates have doubled. And so if you buy a house in Miami today versus just three years ago, you’re paying four times as much in a monthly mortgage payment, and that kind of an economic cost is probably not enough to offset all the wokeness in the world, or even the taxes. And so it’s a really hard problem to solve. What do you do about these runaway rents, these runaway housing costs? That’s a super hard problem to solve. I have no idea how to solve that. I understand why DeSantis doesn’t talk about that, but it surely is a bigger problem.

BW: So when Elon Musk said recently, basically, if we don’t defeat the woke mind virus, it’s game over. Do you believe that?

PT: I can believe that, but there’s always this philosophy distinction between things that are necessary and sufficient. And so to take our civilization to the next level—let’s frame this more positively—for us to go back to a society that’s progressing in many ways from generation to generation, in many real ways, I think it’s necessary to defeat the woke mind virus. I don’t think it’s sufficient. I think even if you defeat it, you will still have this economic stagnation, this runaway debt problem. Even if people take more serious subjects in college, you still have a runaway student debt problem, and it’s not just these fringe subjects that are bad. Most of the college education probably does not have a good ROI.

On China versus the U.S. or China versus the world:

BW: How do you rate how the U.S. is doing vis-à-vis its competition with China?

PT: There are a lot of ways that the United States is not doing terribly well. And you have to, of course, also start by defining the competition. The tricky thing with China is that it is quite different from the competition with the Soviet Union, which was, in some ways, ideological and military. China certainly has all these military dimensions, some of them involving these new technologies where we don’t even know how they will work—space-based weapons, cyber weapons, hypersonic missiles. And then of course you have this broad internet competition, let’s say TikTok versus the U.S. tech companies. You have a whole range of economic competition involving this export-oriented, manufacturing model in China, which creates all sorts of cheap consumer goods in the U.S., but also hollows out much of our economy. So it is this very multidimensional set of dynamics that we tend to be quite bad at thinking about. 

I think there are a lot of strange problems China also has. It is very uncharismatic. Even if it’s somehow on the side of the future, it’s an extremely dystopian future. They have a housing bubble. There’s all sorts of ways that it’s far from inevitable that China is going to take over the world. The U.S. has 350 million people. China has 1.4 billion. It has four times the population of the U.S. If China just catches up to the U.S., if it just copies our economy, and gets to, let’s say, one-half the per capita GDP of the U.S., you’ll have an economy and military that’s twice as big as ours. And in all these ways, the scale of China suggests it will win versus the U.S. But I think it’s more likely to become China against the whole world. 

This is where the Trump administration was right to start with a more unilateral approach of doing things to China. Over time, we have to also get our allies to work with us. And this is where Western Europe, Japan, even India, are all much more aligned with the U.S. in finding ways to contain China than they were a decade ago. So, I think if you frame it as China versus the U.S., that’s a frame where our side, the U.S., is likely to lose. If you frame it as China versus the world, China has 1.4 billion people, the rest of the world has over 5 billion. That seems hard. By 2100, with the demographics in China, China will have 700 million people, the rest of the world will have 10 billion. And so it’s China versus the world. That looks very, very bad. China under Xi is a socialist country. It’s an extremely racist country. And there are things about that that can be powerful. But they’re not going to be charismatic for the rest of time.

BW: I am just consistently scandalized by how weak our country is vis-à-vis China. I see Wall Street, I see Silicon Valley, I see our universities. I see the commissioner of the NBA being asked extraordinarily basic questions about, say, human rights in China and being absolutely paralyzed and unable to answer them because of business interests. This might—

PT: It’s pathetic. I agree with you. It’s very pathetic.

BW: Explain it to me.

PT: Look. . . flip this around. We are still more of a free and open society, and we don’t have this one party, one state fusion.

BW: But Peter, that’s a really low bar.

PT: No, but we’re not China. China, it’s a fascist country. Basically, you have this one party fused with the economy and it’s all in sync. And there are things about that that are strong, there are things about our side that are discombobulated, but in some ways it comes with a more free society. Look, I think there are fewer parts of the U.S. that are still getting any benefit from China. There certainly still are parts of Wall Street, parts of Hollywood and the universities. Those are the three sectors.

On the definition of progress and how it’s lacking:

BW: So your investment firm, Founders Fund, used to begin its online manifesto with a quote that’s become really famous. It goes like this: “We wanted flying cars. Instead, we got 140 characters.” In other words, we were promised big things about the technological revolution. We were promised a cure for cancer, we were promised a man on Mars, and instead, we await the latest iPhone updates that promise us the ability to delete a text message sent on mistake. You have this great line in this interview with Mary Harrington in Unherd where you said, “We tell ourselves we’re advancing because grandma gets an iPhone with a smooth surface, but meanwhile she gets to eat cat food because food prices have gone up.” The conventional wisdom, à la Steven Pinker, who makes this argument in his book, Better Angels, is that we’re living through a time not just of tremendous change, but of betterment of progress, perhaps the most progress that any human beings have ever lived through. Make the case for me that that’s wrong.

PT: Well, I’m trying to think where to even begin. . . you can define progress and there are all these different dimensions of progress we can debate. There’s economic: is it per capita income? Is it moral progress? Do we have a better functioning government? But I would say, even if we think about how much technological progress is happening, how fast it is happening, I would argue it’s a narrow cone of progress where the definition of technology itself has narrowed. If we were here in 1970, technology would have meant computers, but it also would’ve meant new medicines, it would’ve meant the green revolution in agriculture, it would’ve meant rockets, supersonic aviation. . . it was multi-multidimensional. In the last 50 years, we’ve had progress in the world of bits, not in the world of atoms. We’ve had progress in computers, internet, mobile internet, things like that. But the nuclear regulatory commission in the U.S. has not approved a new nuclear reactor design in 50 years. And so that’s an area where we’re not progressing as a society. And then—

BW: So the reason there’s no progress in the world of Alzheimer, cancer, nuclear, is because of regulation. Meantime we have the Airbnbs and the Netflix because there’s none?

PT: The why questions are always over-determined. Yeah, the libertarian answer is there’s too much regulation. There are arguments that the education systems are screwed up, and the scientists aren’t able to think as freely and independently as before. People argue that the low-hanging fruit has been picked and the easy discoveries have been made. This is the Tyler Cowen argument, and there probably is some truth to a lot of these arguments. But the FDA also has regulated things a great deal, and it is a scandal that there’s been zero progress on dementia in 40 or 50 years.

But then we get into these questions, how do you measure and how do you compare all these things? How do you compare the lack of progress on nuclear reactor design with the progress on the smoothness of the iPhone or things like this, and how do you sort and add it all up? And that’s where the qualitative things I get to are. There’s a sense in which incomes have been relatively stagnant. There’s this generational sense that things are not progressing. And that’s broadly where I think we have quite a problem.

I think the thing I liked about the Trump MAGA slogan was not the new age optimism, but it was the realistic pessimism that the U.S. is not as great a country as it was in the past, which is, first off, if we’re going to go back to being a society in which there’s progress on many fronts, real progress, maybe we have to start by acknowledging that something’s gone wrong and that things have really slowed down.

But yeah, the ad hominem argument I always am tempted to make with people like Pinker is that it’s just this baby boomer mentality where that was the last generation where things broadly worked better for them than for the generation that came before—and I don’t think things even worked that well for the Boomers. I’m also tempted to say that they were in control of a lot of the institutions in our society when things went wrong. And so this whole debate about stagnation, it’s probably unfair to just blame the boomers, but something went very, very wrong with that generation. And so you end up with some—it’s almost a personal ad hominem argument against Steve Pinker, because I think of him as a quintessential boomer. That’s the argument I’m tempted to make. And I suspect that’s a big dimension of this as well.

On fixing brokenness in America:

BW: I want to talk about the way you think about change, because here’s how I see the present moment. Most people that are paying attention agree that things are broken, that they’re not working the way that they should. And it seems to me that there are two reactions to this. One is the attitude of the reformers who basically say, you’re right, things are broken, but we can fix them, and we can fix them by tinkering at the margins. And we can get back to the place before brokenness by focusing on the right values, by reasserting liberalism, by reasserting Enlightenment ideals.

And then there are the radicals, or the revolutionaries, and these radicals say, you know what? Things are broken and we need to understand the foundations for that brokenness. There was something inherent in that worldview, in the worldview of liberalism, say, that got us to this juncture. And the only way we can solve things is by looking at the root cause, by looking at the root problems. And it strikes me that that is the camp that you find yourself in, and I want you to make that case for radicalism and against reformation.

PT: Yes. Well, to frame this maybe in a slightly too political way, I think there’s a group of people who characterize themselves as the true liberals, and then somehow they have not changed any of their values as the way they describe themselves. The rest of society’s changed. Liberalism has become illiberal, and they don’t quite understand this. And what that reminds me of is Marxist professors in the 1970s who described themselves as the true communists, and that true communism had never been tried. So that’s where I end up being on the not reformist but more radical side, that somehow things have gone very wrong. And we have to ask questions about, not just where did things go wrong five years ago in the Great Awokening, or— 

BW: But centuries ago?

PT: —at least 50 years ago, which is when I put the tech stagnation, and maybe a hundred years ago where Europe self-destructed in World War I, and it became a fundamentally pessimistic place where a lot of the tech innovation that happened had this very dangerous military dimension. So, from a European perspective, after 1914, the question of progress was very different from the nineteenth century where it was much more broadly hopeful and optimistic. 

BW: Well, you’ve criticized the Enlightenment.

PT: There are a lot of things that were good about the Enlightenment. It had to go that way. But certainly the French Revolution was already a prototype for the totalitarian twentieth-century nightmares that we had. And so there’s an Enlightenment question of where one could be optimistic about human rationality and human potential in the 1770s, in a way that was probably harder after 1789 and what happened in France. I think there are all sorts of things that one should rethink. I’m not a reactionary, though. I don’t think we can go back in any sense, and even if we could go back, wouldn’t that just be a Groundhog Day? If we could go back to 1960, wouldn’t that just be a way in which we would cycle and repeat the WASP establishment with all the things that were good and bad about it? It would collapse like it did in the late sixties, and the same thing would happen. I think there’s a part of understanding the history that’s very important, and understanding what’s going on and why it happened, that’s very important. 

On a yearning for God and meaning:

BW: You’ve talked about how Christianity is the prism with which you look at the whole world. Is there something in that picture that you feel could be, if not cosmically redemptive, redemptive for America?

PT: I think it’s a very important part of it. It’s a very important part of what’s going on. I think of the woke religion, and in some ways it’s anti-Christian and some ways it’s hyper-Christian. There’s something about Christianity that involved this change of perspective where Christ was a victim. It’s already—Judaism has, it’s from the point of view of the Jewish people who are oppressed by Pharaoh in Egypt, or the story of Cain and Abel is told from the point of view of Abel, whereas the normal story’s told from the point of view of Romulus, the founder of Rome who kills his brother. And Cain, the founder of the first city in the world; Romulus, the founder of the greatest city of the ancient world. They’re the same story. The Bible tells the story from the point of view of Abel. The conventional pagan closed culture tells it from the story of the winners, from the story of Romulus.

So there’s something about the Judeo-Christian heritage of thinking about the problem of violence, the problem of all these injustices. That’s very important. And I think there’s something about that. There’s something about that’s gone very, very wrong. Where you can think of the woke religion—it’s like Christianity, but there’s no forgiveness. And then maybe if you’re right that there’s been all this injustice, but you’re never going to forgive anybody. There’s never going to be a solution. So I have an intuition that the identity politics and wokeness are—on one level, they’re a distraction from just these materialistic economic factors like real estate or lack of productivity growth. But to the extent there’s something deeper going on, it’s much deeper. And it’s something like—

BW: A yearning for God?

PT: —a yearning for God, for meaning, for what it all means. But I don’t know how you’d engineer that from the top-down.

BW: Would you think we’re ripe for a third Great Awakening?

PT: I would be so hesitant to even speculate on that. I’d like to say something like only God knows.

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