Peter Thiel’s high school classmates voted him Most Likely to Succeed. Good call, kids – at least on the face of it. Assuming mid-80’s San Matteo youth would have defined success as making scads of dough, their boy Theil (pronounced like the greenish color) has checked that box several billion times. But if they reconnected with him via PayPal or Facebook – two of the many startups Thiel left his fingerprints all over – they may also realize that, like readers of Max Chafkin’s The Contrarian do, he likely has very few true friends. One wonders if the author or Penguin Press suits were tempted to title it The Charlatan, with Chafkin concluding that Thiel is not so much a free thinker as “a calculating operator” and “self-created, a Silicon Valley Oz, who has, through networking and a capacity for storytelling, constructed an image so compelling that it has come to obscure the man behind it.” What sort of so-called futurist shorts the US economy? A libertarian with the CIA as a client? He’s got a couple years before the 40th reunion to clarify.
At 336 pages covering the man’s entire adult life, this story’s thread is revenge. Thiel, treated badly by fellow undergrads at Stanford and rejected from a Supreme Court clerkship, has spent his career in search-and-destroy mode, a scorched earth campaign to enrich the “Thielverse” (oh boy). Nothing wrong with a chip on the shoulder or good old-fashioned motivation, of course, but Thiel is presented as petty, immature, and greedy. On announcement day for eBay’s acquisition of PayPal, he no-showed as incoming CEO, instead exercising put options to optimize his hedge fund, a heretical move in tech. And from the You Can’t Make This Stuff Up files, he haphazardly created an audacious fellowship sponsoring teenagers who committed to forgo college not so much due to his legitimate concerns about the state of modern higher ed, rather because he’d previewed Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for “The Social Network” and was “worried about his portrayal as the cold-blooded investor who’d set into motion the power play that the movie suggested amounted to the theft of [Facebook].” Yikes. Kids upended their lives – it was “disastrous for some” – on what amounted to a public relations afterthought.
Chafkin does note that his subject has earned history’s respect, what with the founding of companies that have defined our economy while creating hundreds of thousands of jobs along with trillions in wealth. It’s the hypocrisy that gnaws at the author and, in turn, us. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the formation of Palantir, the data analytics software firm. Co-founded in 2003 by Thiel, who for decades has longed for “the erosion of the nation-state,” it wins huge contracts from the U.S. Department of Defense while making baseless claims about Google being “anti-American.” This from the same guy who bamboozled New Zealand into granting him citizenship (preppers gotta prep, no?), plans to create a floating country (it’s called “seasteading” – seriously, don’t ask), and was alt-right enough to convince Steve Bannon of all people to abandon his White House role. (Yeah, that guy!) An anonymous source – and people, the book is littered with the unnamed with legitimate concerns about privacy – says Thiel just wants to see Rome burn. No doubt he’d enjoy the view from a billion-dollar raft.
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