Peter Thiel’s case for electing Donald Trump doesn’t make any sense.
In a Thursday night speech at the Republican National Convention, the technology billionaire depicted a nation in decline. "In 1968, the world high-tech capital was not just one city," he said. "All of America was high-tech."
During that era, he argued, even government was high-tech. America split the atom. It sent a man to the moon. It funded research that laid the foundation for the internet.
Today, by contrast, "our government is broken. Our nuclear bases still use floppy disks. Our newest fighter jet can't even fly in the rain. That is a staggering decline."
"We don't accept such incompetence in Silicon Valley, and we must not accept it from our government," Thiel concluded.
Then, for some reason, he endorsed Trump, arguing that other than Trump, "nobody in this race is being honest" about America’s economic decline.
It’s hard to see how electing Donald Trump — a man not known for his managerial competence or his mastery of policy details — could make government competent again. But his position makes more sense if you assume Thiel has become so pessimistic about American government that he wants to blow up the system and start over.
Electing Donald Trump isn’t going to make government work better
I can think of a number of reasonable ways to deal with a government that’s becoming increasingly ineffective.
The liberal approach would focus on greater investment in government programs. Maybe we need to bring back programs like the Office of Technology Assessment to provide technology expertise to senior policymakers. Maybe we need to pay senior decision-makers salaries that are more in line with what they could earn in the private sector.
Conservatives might focus on changing how government operates. That might mean reforming civil service rules to make it easier to fire incompetent workers, cutting spending on ineffective programs, or reforming the government procurement process.
However, if you think Donald Trump is interested in these kinds of reforms — or likely to enact them once he reaches the White House — I have a 58-story skyscraper on Fifth Avenue I’d like to sell you. Trump has made it abundantly clear that he’s bored with these kinds of nitty-gritty policy details.
Many of Trump’s supporters are under the impression that Trump is a successful businessman who will bring his management expertise to Washington. But Thiel can’t possibly believe this.
It’s not just that Trump has a long string of business failures, from Atlantic City casinos to Trump steaks. Thiel himself described Trump as "symptomatic of everything that is wrong with New York City" just two years ago — he’s under no illusions that Trump is a great businessman.
Does government have to get worse before it gets better?
So what’s going on? I think the most likely explanation is that Thiel has become so disillusioned with the American political system that he thinks it would benefit from the political earthquake of a Trump presidency. It’s not that Trump would directly fix what’s wrong with the American government. Rather, it’s that major changes only happen during a crisis — and a Trump presidency makes crises dramatically more likely.
You can see signs of this kind of apocalyptic thinking in Thiel’s other recent projects.
PayPal, the company that made Thiel rich, was an (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to create an alternative financial system that operated beyond the control of governments and big banks. PayPal’s larger vision was quickly crushed by regulators, who forced PayPal to become a conventional payment service that worked with big banks instead of disrupting them.
In 2008, Thiel provided seed funding for the Seasteading Institute, a nonprofit organization devoted to building a new society from scratch on the high seas.
"I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible," Thiel wrote in a 2009 essay explaining the ideas behind Seasteading. He evidently believed it would be easier to build a new society from the bottom up than to fix the problems with the American political system.
He also created the Thiel Fellows program, which pays high school graduates $100,000 not to go to college.
These ideas have a common theme: American institutions — its banks, universities, and political system — have become so dysfunctional that they’re beyond saving. And if you truly believe that America is on a path toward destruction, then Trump’s loose-cannon personality could start to look like an argument in his favor.
Yet this argument ignores just how much a wealthy, peaceful society like the United States has to lose from political chaos. Our 150-year history of peaceful democratic government is almost unprecedented in world history. We’re the wealthiest large country in the world. That means we have a lot to lose if a Trump presidency led to a war or economic crisis.