What does Peter Thiel want? He's building the right-wing future, piece by piece

Everywhere but barely visible, the billionaire investor may have more clout in MAGA world than Donald Trump

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published March 27, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Donald Trump shakes the hand of Peter Thiel   (Getty/Drew Angerer)
Donald Trump shakes the hand of Peter Thiel (Getty/Drew Angerer)

Billionaire Peter Thiel is something of a spectral presence in American politics, media and culture: He is seemingly everywhere, but rarely seen. Recently, Thiel reportedly led the second-largest bank run in U.S. history, leading to the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and one other financial institution, and necessitating the bailout of several others. He has backed or bankrolled a number of far-right Republican candidates, including newly-elected Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio and losing Senate candidate Blake Masters in Arizona. He supported Donald Trump conspicuously in 2016, and then much more quietly, and perhaps hesitantly, in 2020.

Thiel became exceedingly rich as a venture capitalist and then widely known for his sometimes bizarre notions. He started the notorious data-mining firm Palantir, its name drawn from an all-seeing magical-tech gizmo in "Lord of the Rings." He made a fortune on PayPal and Facebook, sued the satirical muckraking publication Gawker into its grave and has spent the last several years funding or building a nearly invisible media empire.  

Thiel's rise has been charted in any number of profiles: In the New York Times (more than once), the Washington Post, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker (another repeat offender), NPR, the Atlantic, Mother Jones, the Financial Times, The Guardian, the BBC and dozens more. He's appeared for commentary on CNBC, published op-eds in the Wall Street Journal, and been the model for a handful of satirical send-ups. 

If you're interested in some of the stranger tangents, consider these: Thiel spent $7 million on unsupervised medical research in 2017, flying 20 Americans to an offshore for widely condemned herpes vaccine experiments. He once invested $10 million on a cyber-warfare startup that hacked WhatsApp, but just $100,000 on woolly mammoth resurrection research. 

If you need the quick-and-dirty on Big Tech's preeminent New Right libertarian — and without a doubt the leading gay conservative of our time — look no further. 

Palantir and Cambridge Analytica

Peter Thiel didn't just wake up one day with a net worth of roughly $4.9 billion. 

His claims to fame largely start as the don of the PayPal Mafia — a nickname embraced by PayPal's slate of co-founders, which also included Elon Musk. Though the digital banking service raised just $3 million in venture capital on its launch in 1999, PayPal was ultimately sold in 2002 for $1.5 billion. Thiel's 3.5% stake brought him an estimated $55 million which he used to start his empire. 

Then there was the $500,000 "angel investment" he gave Mark Zuckerberg in 2005. That 10.2% stake in Facebook turned into more than $1 billion in 2012. 

After a few successful bets in 2004 on tech-industry bubbles — and a few critical failures — Thiel launched Palatir, a massive data-analytics firm whose first backer was none other than the CIA. 

A boon to the burgeoning surveillance state, Palantir helped the Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection track and surveil immigrants using a combination of biometric and non-public databases, wielding an analytical superstructure whose power matched Google's. Palantir's exploits are too numerous to detail here, but went far beyond policing, and included plans for corporate cyberattacks and private espionage offensives, as well as helping another notorious firm, Cambridge Analytica, parse Facebook user data as it drew up the blueprint for Donald Trump's 2016 election victory

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By 2015, Palantir was already worth $20 billion. 

Thiel's taste for data-tracking continued. In 2017, he became one of the first outside investors in Clearview AI, the controversial facial recognition software often used by law enforcement agencies to monitor protests. 

Trump and the MAGA set

During the 2016 election, Thiel's support for Trump wasn't limited to Palantir's work with Cambridge Analytica. He contributed about $1.5 million to pro-Trump outfits and spoke at the Republican National Convention, by far the most prominent openly LGBTQ speaker at that event. It wouldn't be the first time Thiel threw his personal (rather than corporate) weight into politics, and also coincided with a renewed interest in political investment.

Thiel has funded a "scientific" publication that questioned evolution and climate change, a conservative YouTube clone and a right-wing dating app.

When future U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley ran for attorney general in Missouri in 2016, Thiel put $300,000 of support behind him, chipping in a bit more when Hawley successfully ran for the Senate just two years later. In 2018 and again in 2020, Thiel threw his financial support behind two failed campaigns — the first for governor, the second for U.S. Senate — by former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who had briefly led Trump's "voter fraud commission" before it evaporated.

In 2021, Thiel launched the Senate campaigns of Vance and Masters by sinking $10 million apiece in super PACs backing their candidacies. Vance, the bestselling author of "Hillbilly Elegy," won comfortably in a race for the open seat previously held by Republican Sen. Rob Portman — although Thiel's pro-Vance PAC was accused of skirting campaign laws — but Masters was handily defeated by Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly in Arizona. 

The New Right: Beyond MAGA

Lately Thiel has moved beyond individual MAGA-friendly candidates into what might be called multi-sector MAGA networks, such as media ventures that look at first like traditional journalism outlets but are really thinly-veiled vehicles for right-wing ideology.  

In fact, Thiel's been interested in media for years. He backed the infamous James O'Keefe, formerly of Project Veritas, in 2009 — if only with the token sum of $10,000, distributed "through a small government group" to fund one of O'Keefe's controversial video productions. 

As the entire media universe knows, Thiel ultimately confessed in 2016 that he had secretly spent $10 million to fund Hulk Hogan's four-year lawsuit against Gawker over a sex tape the news site had published, in what turned out to be a successful attempt to shutter the publication.  

By 2018, Thiel was reportedly considering the launch of a conservative cable news network. He funded a purported scientific publication called Inference in 2019, which posed "questions" about evolution and climate change, among other topics. In 2021, Thiel funded a YouTube clone aimed at conservatives, where former aides to Trump and Rep. Devin Nunes landed well-paying legal gigs

Thiel-funded ads for Masters' 2022 Arizona Senate campaign were designed to look like local newspapers, except for the fine print: "Paid for by the Saving Arizona PAC," to which Thiel contributed more that $13 million. That same year, he poured $1.5 million into a right-wing dating app

Thiel's true goals have not quite come into focus, but he clearly wants to shape the future of the American right, perhaps through a coalition of intersecting or overlapping conservative think tanks and media networks. He has extended the techno-utopian entrepreneurial model into the political realm, perhaps on the theory that tomorrow belongs not just to the constellation of groups he has personally funded, but also the groups he has inspired

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at @raehodge@newsie.social. 


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Business Conservatives Donald Trump Explainer J.d. Vance Media Peter Thiel Republicans Tech