Unless you’ve been in a cave for the past week, you’ve likely read a review or some discussion on “The Contrarian,” a new book on billionaire investor Peter Thiel from Businessweek Bloomberg columnist Max Chafkin for a long time.
It is not surprising. Thiel has become an important figure in America over the past 15 years, and Chafkin is a fascinating storyteller who invested 15 years of reporting on the book and who drew on relationships with “hundreds of sources,” he writes in his acknowledgments. .
To find out more, we spoke to Chafkin last week in what turned out to be a lively discussion that covered how much Thiel (who spoke to Chafkin unofficially) revealed about his personal life; why “the Trump thing was partly ideological, but partly it was an exchange, an idea that Trump was undervalued,” says Chafkin; and why Thiel’s beliefs are “extremely inconsistent,” according to Chafkin’s report. We also discussed Thiel’s relationship with Mark Zuckerberg, who accepted one of Thiel’s first Facebook checks and has been linked, for better and for worse, with Thiel ever since.
You can listen to that for 30 minutes interview here. In the meantime, we’re taking out a piece of that Zuckerberg-centric conversation because we find Zuckerberg’s relationship with Thiel to be particularly fascinating and important, given Facebook’s impact on American society and humanity in general. We have lightly edited this excerpt for further expansion.
TC: You talk about Thiel’s biggest and most important gamble really being Facebook, and you suggest in the book that he used his position as a board member since 2005 to persuade Mark Zuckerberg to allow an all-fair stance, including misinformation. It also suggests that there have been frictions between Thiel and Zuckerberg for some time, especially since Thiel has come to embrace Trumpism. Do you anticipate that Thiel will be a member of the Facebook board for much longer? Do you think he has been marginalized in some way?
MC: There is an anecdote in the book: when Facebook went public, its shares plummeted and Thiel sold the shares fairly quickly, but of course he stayed on the board. [and in the book] I’m talking about this meeting they had on the Facebook campus to cheer people up, because when you’re working in a company and stocks are going down, I understand that it’s the most depressing thing in the world. Everybody is losing money every day. The press is beating you, the firefighters and teachers were suing them. It was just an endless parade of bad news. So they had all these speakers come in to try and pick up the troops. And Peter Thiel gave a talk. And during the talk, he said: ‘My generation was promised flying cars. Instead, we have Facebook. ‘ Usually attacks Twitter [with that language]. He says, ‘They promised us flying cars, but we have 140 characters,’ but he did it on Facebook in this case, and if you’re sitting in a crowd, or you’re Mark Zuckerberg, it’s like, ‘Oh, so the member of the Longest-serving board, mentor, guide to my business philosophy, he just came up and said I was shit. ‘
I think Zuckerberg really respects that of Peter, right? When you’re Mark Zuckerberg, it’s very difficult to get honest feedback. No one will ever tell you that you suck except maybe Peter Thiel. But, as you say, Thiel has really come very close to the line over the past few years.
He’s often talked about tech monopoly and tech power, and singles out Google, which. . . Maybe it takes the heat off Facebook, but it doesn’t help much, because Facebook and Google are very similar companies and if you’re going to regulate one, you can possibly regulate the other. I’m not sure Zuckerberg is excited about that.
Thiel has embraced this type of right-wing activist project in Silicon Valley on several occasions. You’ve got [conservative activist] James O’Keefe and others who intend to expose what they see as the hypocrisy of Facebook, Google, Apple, all the big tech companies, and Thiel has subtly embraced them.
But he is also embracing them more and more in public. Right now, Thiel has two candidates running in the US Senate elections. Both are running in the Republican primaries – Blake Masters in Arizona and JD Vance in Ohio – and Thiel has donated $ 10 million to the super PACs that support each of these candidates. These guys are constantly attacking Facebook, and not just attacking Facebook on an intellectual level or raising questions. They are making almost personal attacks on Mark Zuckerberg. There’s an ad for JD Vance [funded by Thiel], where are these dark shades, and it’s like, ‘There’s a contingent of elites in this country that are out of touch,’ and there it is, there’s Mark Zuckerberg’s face.
There was an instance [in 2017] where Zuckerberg asked if Thiel thought he should resign, and Thiel didn’t and Zuckerberg didn’t fire him, so at least there’s been some tension. [As for whether] Thiel’s value has diminished, that’s a really canny question because with Biden in charge, with Democrats in power controlling the presidency and both houses of Congress, Thiel’s connection to the right is less valuable. That said, there is a high chance that Republicans will retake the Senate in 2022. And there is a chance that some of those senators will be very, very close to Peter Thiel, so that could dramatically increase his value.
TC: You mention in the book that many people close to Thiel and admire him are also terrified of him. Despite the fact that Mark Zuckerberg is probably the most powerful person in the world, I wonder if his perception of things is that he is afraid of Thiel.
MC: I think Zuckerberg could fire Thiel. I mean, Mark Zuckerberg is a formidable guy. It is worth a lot of money. He could afford a war with Peter Thiel and he could afford backlash. But I think there’s a question of whether he would want to do it, because right now, the reason Thiel can get away with serving on the board and being this public critic is to do with the fact that there would be a price to pay if Mark Zuckerberg fired him, and the price would be that it would be a great, gruesome story.
Thiel had been such an important ally to Mark Zuckerberg during the Trump presidency. There have been these running memes in conservative circles that Facebook is systematically discriminating against the views of the right, [that it’s] a liberal company made up of liberal employees who hate Donald Trump and who, as a result, is putting his thumb on the scale and promoting the interests of the left. . . [But] Zuckerberg had an incredible response to that, which is’ Hey, I have this board member. He is not just a Republican. He’s not just some kind of middle conservative like George Bush or something. He is Peter Freaking Thiel. He’s the guy who’s too crazy about Steve Bannon. He is a staunch Trump player. And that gives Facebook a really powerful argument.
When someone like Josh Hawley, who has taken money from Peter Thiel, or Ted Cruz, another person who has taken money from Peter Thiel, shows up and attacks Facebook. . . I think so [Thiel] he left, especially if he got fired, if that was a story that came out, it would be open season.
I don’t think it’s an existential problem for Mark Zuckerberg. But I think it might be more comfortable to retain his friend and board member, Peter Thiel, even though they might have profound differences of opinion about the value of Facebook.