There were more than a few dropped jaws when the Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel agreed to a prime-time speaking slot on the final night of the Republican National Convention, barely an hour before the acceptance speech of Donald J. Trump. Mr. Trump wants to emboss a big fat T on government, promising huge infrastructure projects, starting with a wall between the United States and Mexico. What was a former Ron Paul supporter and proud libertarian like Mr. Thiel doing on the same stage?
Mr. Thielâs endorsement puts him at odds with many Silicon Valley chief executives and investors who oppose Mr. Trump on issues like climate change, same-sex marriage and, of course, immigration (they want more visas available for software engineers). It is easy to depict Mr. Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, board member at Facebook and influential investor, as an outlier even in the oddball tech world: He believes there will be a cure for death, promotes the construction of floating islands exempt from societyâs rules and secretly financed a lawsuit to take down Gawker.
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But Mr. Thiel isnât just embedded in the business of Silicon Valley. Heâs also deeply embedded in the worldview of Silicon Valley that, despite many disagreements with the Republican platform, matches up surprisingly well with Mr. Trumpâs ideas about fixing government.
Like many of todayâs technology entrepreneurs, Mr. Thiel grew up in the early days of the web when it was a true libertarianâs dream, a fringe system that allowed people to share thoughts and ideas undisturbed and unmonitored. It was a place for individualists: You alone determined your place in the world. A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, conceived by the cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow in 1996, codified this creed: âWe are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.â
Twenty years later, Mr. Thielâs embrace of Mr. Trump reflects a different time in Silicon Valley, as tech companies are increasingly moving into offline real-world businesses and bumping up against government regulations and traditional institutions. The car-hiring service Uber fights local taxi rules; Airbnb seeks to avoid being treated as either a hotel, with safety rules, or a renter that must follow guidelines against racial discrimination; there are high-tech attempts to centralize and privatize education, which battle with teachersâ unions; and Facebook has undertaken an effort to provide a free, Facebook-centric form of internet access that has been blocked by the Indian government.
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For these companies, government regulation is the enemy when it fails to appreciate the genius of their schemes and tries to slow them with Old World concerns over safety, privacy or copyright infringement. They are also now coming under scrutiny for their lack of diversity. The fantasy of the early web â a world without color or sex â fostered a belief that the world was largely past issues like inequality. Companies that strive for greatness, some argue now, naturally seek out employees with elite backgrounds. Larry Page of Google could have been speaking for many in the Valley when he said that from the start, âWe just hired people like us.â
But Silicon Valley doesnât hate government categorically. When Mr. Thiel harked back to the great projects of the past, like building the atom bomb, creating the internet and landing a man on the moon, he was citing three of the most important United States government initiatives of the last century. He praised them in his speech for inspiring the tech dreamers of Silicon Valley, who today inspire America to be great again.
Believing in greatness â especially great ambitious projects â is what Mr. Thiel and Mr. Trump have in common. After all, what is the border wall but a giant undertaking, like the Washington Monument or the Hoover Dam, except that, Mr. Trump insists, it will pay for itself? By nominating Mr. Trump, Republican primary voters have abruptly left behind the party that believes in Ronald Reaganâs gospel that âgovernment is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.â It is now firmly in the camp that believes that when it comes to certain issues, âonly government can do thisâ or, in Mr. Trumpâs phrase, âI alone can fix it.â
Mr. Trump claims this because he is a builder whom we can trust to get things done. Mr. Thiel comes from Silicon Valley, where the belief in talent, and the rewards owed to talent, are paramount. âMy industry has made a lot of progress in computers and in software, and, of course, itâs made a lot of money,â he said. Mr. Trumpâs appeal to someone like Mr. Thiel is that they both believe that government should be brash and bold, while politics as usual produces tame mediocrity. They also believe they are the right kind of people to change that.