Recently there's been a lot of interest in the question of whether billionaire investor Peter Thiel poses a threat to press freedom in the United States and, by extension, the larger project of American democracy. That interest has lately focused on Thiel's decision to finance a series of harassing lawsuits against Gawker Media, a company that angered him years ago by revealing to the world that he's gay. Both Tim Lee and Ezra Klein at Vox have made the case against Thiel's legal tactics, while economist Tyler Cowen stands up for him.
To me, the good news/bad news of the situation is that we don't really need to worry about a Thiel-induced slippery slope leading to the collapse of the free press and the democratic system. Thiel has a much more plausible path to achieving this through his support for Donald Trump's presidential campaign.
And make no mistake about this — Thiel wrote in 2009: "I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible," because a system of universal suffrage subjects capitalists "to the unthinking demos that guides so-called 'social democracy.'"
"The fate of our world," he wrote "may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism." At the time he was referring to Patri Friedman's ridiculous plan to build an offshore utopia composed of boats that would be free from the long arm of the state. Thiel's decision to serve as a Trump delegate at the forthcoming Republican convention in Cleveland seems to suggest that he's turned away from that turn away from politics and has now embraced a new Great Leader to make the world safe for capitalism: Trump.
Donald Trump's threats to the free press
Trump himself, of course, is no stranger to the idea that a rich person can use harassing lawsuits to discourage critical media coverage. When veteran business journalist Tim O'Brien reported that Trump isn't as rich as he says he is, Trump launched a series of frivolous lawsuits.
He's indicated that as president, one of his top priorities will be to make it easier to stifle media criticism of himself:
- Trump has vowed to "open up the libel laws" to make it easier to deploy litigation and threats of litigation to silence criticism.
- He has also vowed to use the president's regulatory authority to damage the business interests of investors in media companies that criticize him.
- He maintains a blacklist of reporters and media outlets prohibited from covering his events.
- His campaign manager allegedly assaulted a reporter covering a Trump event.
- Trump himself has incited crowds at his rallies against specific reporters.
As president, Trump may or may not care what Thiel thinks of Nick Denton, Gawker Media, or any other news organization. But if he does care what one of his richest and most prominent supporters thinks, he'll have plenty of tools with which to try to crush the media. Of course it may not matter whether Thiel has any influence in the Trump administration, since Gawker's coverage of Trump will give Trump ample reason to try to crush it anyway.
Trump's frightening contempt for norms
Recall that back in mid-March during a swirling controversy about violent behavior by Trump supporters, Trump tweeted what can really only be interpreted as a threat to send goons to beat up Bernie Sanders supporters.
Bernie Sanders is lying when he says his disruptors aren't told to go to my events. Be careful Bernie, or my supporters will go to yours!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2016
He then followed this up by suggesting that he would use the resources at his disposal to help his supporters obtain immunity from legal consequence for violent acts they undertook on his behalf.
The implications of this for what President Trump might do in the White House are terrifying and go well beyond any dispute over public policy.
The framers of the Constitution rather sharply circumscribed the president's authority to make and repeal legislation, making it in many respects a weaker office than the prime ministerships of more majoritarian countries. But the president and his appointees have enormous discretion over the enforcement of existing laws.
Putting a leader who would condone violence against the supporters of his political opponents in charge of the federal law enforcement apparatus is frightening. Giving him the power to unilaterally issue pardons is terrifying.
Many people supporting Trump's presidential campaign are essentially supporting him despite the considerable concerns that exist about his willingness to comply with the rules and norms of American democracy. Thiel's view is that democracy is bad, and Trump's contempt for it is likely a feature rather than a bug. If you want to get alarmed about something this week, make it that.