Peter Thiel is an avowed libertarian who has endorsed Donald Trump. But if you didn’t know that and you walked into the middle of his Monday speech at the National Press Club, it would have been easy to mistake him for a liberal technocrat.
“Voters are tired of hearing conservative politicians say that government never works,” Thiel said on Monday. “They know the government wasn't always this broken. The Manhattan Project, the Interstate Highway System, the Apollo program. Whatever you think of these ventures, you cannot doubt the competence of the government that let them get done.”
Thiel believes that in recent decades, we have suffered a catastrophic decline in government competence. And he argues that “we cannot let free market ideology serve as an excuse for decline,” arguing that Trump would usher in a “new Republican Party beyond dogmas of Reaganism.”
You might think this seems like an argument for Hillary Clinton — a centrist technocrat who has spent her career sweating the details of public policy. But Thiel, of course, goes in the opposite direction, endorsing a man who hasn’t shown the slightest interest in policy specifics.
Thiel seems to have constructed a fantasy version of Donald Trump and convinced himself that that’s who we’d get if Trump became president. This version of Donald Trump is a thoughtful policymaker who carefully weighs costs and benefits and pushes policy in a more rational direction.
But that Donald Trump doesn’t exist. So why is Thiel trying to will him into existence? I suspect his preference for Trump ultimately flows from a mistaken diagnosis of what’s wrong with Washington. Thiel seems to think there are simple solutions to America’s problems that today’s leaders are ignoring because of corruption or stupidity. And so getting an outsider — any outsider — into the Oval Office will be enough to get the country back on a sensible path.
But that’s wrong. The problems with American government are complex, and it’s going to take both in-depth knowledge and perseverance to fix them. You might think Hillary Clinton is too wedded to the status quo to do it — or that the problems have become so entrenched that no one could fix them in eight years. Maybe so. But it’s crazy to think that Trump — the actual guy, not the fantasy candidate Thiel has constructed for himself — can get the job done.
Thiel is naive about government’s problems
A good example of Thiel’s mistaken view of government is a claim that he first made at the Republican National Convention — that the newest American fighter jets are unable to fly in the rain. He repeated this claim in Monday’s speech:
“The question is, whatever we spend on the military, can we achieve the same for less?” Thiel said. “If you have an F-35 fighter jet that doesn't fly in the rain, is there such a thing as a less expensive jet that can fly in the rain? I suspect there is.”
Thiel seems to be referring to the F-22 here rather than the F-35. And the issue was that the F-22’s exterior sustained costly damage when flown through the rain, not that it was unable to fly in the rain at all.
But the larger issue here is that Thiel seems to think it has never occurred to Pentagon officials that they ought to make better, cheaper airplanes. But that’s ridiculous.
The big reason the Pentagon spends too much money on overpriced, poorly designed military hardware is that Congress often forces it to do so. And a big reason Congress does this because defense contractors carefully locate their manufacturing facilities to maximize support in Congress:
Lockheed Martin, for instance, has put together a handy map of how its troubled F-35 fighter jet has created 125,000 jobs in 46 states. The actual figures are, in fact, considerably lower, but the principle holds: Having subcontractors in dozens of states makes it harder for members of Congress to consider cutting or slowing down even a failed or failing program. Take as an example the M-1 tank, which the Army actually wanted to stop buying. Its plans were thwarted by the Ohio congressional delegation, which led a fight to add more M-1s to the budget in order to keep the General Dynamics production line in Lima, Ohio, up and running. In a similar fashion, prodded by the Missouri delegation, Congress added two different versions of Boeing's F-18 aircraft to the budget to keep funds flowing to that company's St. Louis area plant.
The Obama administration has been trying to do exactly what Thiel is calling for: cutting spending on ineffective defense programs to free up resources for more effective ones. Hillary Clinton’s administration may try to do the same thing — and it’s possible that Clinton’s background as a former senator would make her more effective at this than Obama has been.
Improving procurement policy will require sitting through a lot of boring meetings with people at the Pentagon and then making a lot of boring calls to Capitol Hill to round up support for cutting wasteful defense spending — the kind of thing Clinton has been doing for decades and Trump has shown no interest in doing.
And the same point applies to the other policy issues Thiel mentions in his speech. He complains that America has one of the world’s most expensive health care systems and that college tuition is spiraling out of control. And he’s right that those are real problems. But solving them requires more than noticing that they’re big problems — something that’s been obvious to insiders for years. It’s going to require a president who puts in the time to understand the issues, formulate specific reform ideas, and then get those reforms enacted into law.
Thiel is even more naive about Donald Trump
The problem, of course, is that Trump has made it clear he has zero interest in this kind of thing. Indeed, back in August the Washington Post wrote of the Trump campaign that “most of the policy shop’s most active staffers quit” because their work was being ignored and they weren’t getting paid.
Thiel seems to deal with this problem by pretending that President Donald Trump would behave very differently than candidate Donald Trump has.
For example, when asked about Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim immigration to the United States, Thiel had this to say:
I don't support a religious test. I certainly don't support the specific language Trump has used in every instance. But I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media is always is taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously but it always takes him literally. I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally. So when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, or things like that, the question is not are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China or how exactly are you going to enforce these tests. What they hear is we're going to have a saner more sensible immigration policy. We're going to try to figure out how do we strike the right balance between cost and benefits.
But there’s no reason to think Trump agrees with this interpretation. He has repeatedly talked about the wall as though it’s a literal, physical construction project. He doesn’t seem to regard it as a metaphor for a more sensible immigration policy.
And ultimately, that’s the larger problem with Thiel’s case for Trump. Thiel regards Trump as an extended metaphor for what’s wrong with our political process — as the elites’ rightful punishment for decades of mismanaging the economy. He believes that if America can just get those elites out of power, the country can start to fix the many problems facing the country.
But Trump isn’t just a metaphor. He’s a human being who will wield actual power if elected president. And there’s no reason to think that the real President Trump would behave remotely like Peter Thiel’s fantasy President Trump.