New York (CNN Business)Peter Thiel, the controversial billionaire tech founder and investor, has used his fortune to encourage kids to skip college, to back a lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker Media and to donate to the presidential campaign of Donald Trump when many in Silicon Valley were strongly opposed to him.
Now, Thiel’s exit from the board of Meta Platforms (neé Facebook) could free up more time for Thiel to double down on his political efforts and position himself as a new kingmaker in the Republican world.
Meta (FB) announced on Monday that Thiel — one of the company’s longest-serving board members and a close adviser to CEO Mark Zuckerberg — would not stand for reelection as a board director at its annual meeting later this year. Zuckerberg suggested that Thiel is leaving his position on the board to “devote his time to other interests.”
Multiple news outlets reported Monday that Thiel plans to focus his efforts on supporting Republican candidates in the US midterm elections following his exit from Meta. A review of his recent political donations indicates that he’s aiming to elect a new generation of Trump-aligned Republicans to both houses of Congress. And leaving Meta doesn’t just free up Thiel’s time to pursue his political agenda, it may also make him less constrained by removing potential political headaches for Meta from his activities.
Political analysts say Thiel’s intensified pivot to politics highlights his power to shape the Republican party and, by extension, the future of American democracy.
“There’s two levels to analyze this on,” said David Karpf, a political scientist at George Washington University. “The first is, Peter Thiel now has a lot more time to spend his money on electing Republicans in the fall; what’s that going to mean for election outcomes? The other is, Peter Thiel, prominent Trump backer, has decided that his priority, instead of being a board member at Meta, is keeping the GOP in the clutches of Trump.”
A spokesperson for Thiel did not respond to a request for comment on the timing of his departure from Meta or his political ambitions.
Thiel’s early forays into politics
Thiel, 54, got rich by launching and backing a number of billion-dollar tech companies. He co-founded PayPal and data analytics firm Palantir Technologies; he was the first outside investor in Facebook; and he was an early investor in LinkedIn, Yelp and other major tech firms.
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He has proven himself to be a power player in the tech industry, with a network of influential friends and investment firms throughout Silicon Valley. In recent years, he’s begun to build up influence in politics as well, in a way that has sometimes led to rifts with friends and critics in the tech industry.
He supported Texas Republican Ron Paul’s presidential bids in 2008 and 2012, as well as that of Republican and former HP CEO Carly Fiorina in 2016. But it was Thiel’s decision to very publicly throw his weight behind Donald Trump’s candidacy for president in 2016 that sparked outrage throughout Silicon Valley.
Thiel was a delegate for Trump and speaker at the 2016 Republican National Convention, and donated $1.25 million to his campaign. Zuckerberg at the time defended Thiel and his place on the company’s board, saying on an internal post, “we can’t create a culture that says it cares about diversity and then excludes almost half the country because they back a political candidate.”
After Trump won, Thiel joined his official his transition team and brought in other members of his inner circle; several Thiel allies also joined the Trump administration. During Trump’s presidency, Thiel helped organize meetings between the Trump and tech leaders, including, reportedly, with Zuckerberg.
Since the Trump presidency ended, Thiel has begun backing other GOP candidates with similar agendas. That includes some insiders from Thiel’s own network whose political careers he has propped up, such as venture capitalist J.D. Vance, who is now running for Senate in Ohio, and Blake Masters, a Thiel Capital executive who is running for Senate in Arizona. Last year, Thiel contributed $10 million each to political action committees supporting Vance and Masters, in addition to smaller, individual donations to the candidates, Federal Election Commission data show.
Masters is principal at Thiel Capital and president of the Thiel Foundation, and co-wrote with Thiel the book “Zero to One,” which argued, among other things, that entrepreneurs should aspire to create monopolies. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” previously worked for an earlier Thiel venture capital fund, Mithril Capital, and in 2020 started his own Ohio-based VC firm with backing from Thiel. Vance and Masters have both taken a hard line on immigration, railed against critical race theory, criticized Big Tech, and called for fewer restrictions on gun ownership. Masters, Vance and Thiel have also all criticized American university system, despite being educated at the likes of Stanford and Yale Law School.
Thiel has also made a number of smaller donations to other Republican candidates and lawmakers, including Wisconsin Congressman Mike Gallagher, Florida Congressman Mike Waltz, and Patrick Witt, a candidate for Georgia’s Senate seat. He also has donated to and reportedly held a fundraiser for Wyoming Republican Harriet Hageman, a primary challenger to a Trump foe, Rep. Liz Cheney.
An emerging Republican kingmaker
Thiel’s full-throated embrace of Trump in 2016 — and now candidates who model themselves after the former president — may make it harder for establishment Republicans to counter the more extreme elements within the party, said George Washington’s Karpf.
“The future of American government hinges on how the GOP comes to deal with Trumpism,” Karpf said, explaining that Thiel’s wealth enables him to threaten more moderate Republican candidates with well-funded primary challengers. “This is pretty clearly yet more evidence that it’s going to be a long time before the Republican party has space for people who are willing to contradict Trump.”
Thiel’s greater involvement also reflects a power vacuum in Republican donor circles, said Katie Harbath, a former GOP official who later spent a decade working for Facebook, most recently as the company’s public policy director for elections. (Harbath left the social media giant last year, expressing disappointment in the company’s leaders and adding that Meta is not well-prepared to handle future elections around the world.) In recent years, establishment mega-donors on the right have ceded some ground, with the death of billionaire Sheldon Adelson in 2021 and a decision by Charles Koch to scale back his partisan political donations amid his expressed regrets for having divided the country for decades.
For Thiel, there may be no better time to take on their mantle and to put his own brand of techno-libertarianism on the GOP.
“It feels a little bit like he’s filling the void where the Koch brothers were, the past decade,” Harbath said.
So far, Thiel has focused on giving to individual candidates whereas the billionaire donors of Koch’s generation spent years building complex networks of funding and influence on public policy issues.
“It’ll be interesting if Thiel decides to move in that direction,” Harbath said, adding that how Thiel engages with mainstream party organizations like the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee will say a lot about how he views his role within the party. Thiel donated more than $36,000 to the NRCC last year, and has also donated to Republican fundraising platform WinRed, according to data from the FEC.
If Thiel does aspire to become the next Republican kingmaker, he’ll first need to put wins on the electoral map, said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. Right now, the candidate most visibly associated with Thiel this cycle, Vance, has been struggling.
“If Vance loses,” said Sabato, “it will not reflect well on Thiel. Thiel is doing more than giving him money; he’s clearly giving him a lot of advice.”
Still, a setback with Vance wouldn’t necessarily torpedo Thiel’s rise. Stepping back from Meta’s board gives Thiel more time to spend picking candidates and spreading his money more widely. And Thiel’s continued association with Trump, combined with his wealth, is likely to make him a powerful source of influence on Republicans at all levels of the pecking order.
“The super-rich are in a special category,” said Sabato. “They have the ability to affect the system in ways that most people don’t. And it’s not just money: It’s the fact that [Thiel] has built a universe of influence in Trump world. I doubt there are many people in Trump world who won’t take his phone calls or help in whatever venture he’s engaged in.”
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