Thanks for reading The Backstory, our weekly summation of the best new work at Puck.
It was a really amazing week here at Puck: Bill Cohan documented the latest S.B.F. legal colonoscopy; Teddy Schleifer reported on a berzerk Peter Thiel oppo campaign; Julia Alexander documented Amazon’s streaming dilemma; Matt Belloni essayed on Hollywood’s summer from hell; Julia Ioffe penetrated the Kalorama crowd for an only-in-D.C. drama; Eriq Gardner went deep on the Zuck-Musk litigation feud; Dylan Byers gave the readout from the Sun Valley Lodge; and Lauren Sherman reported on Kering in the age of LVMH.
Check out these stories, and others, via the links below. And stick around for the backstory on how it all came together.
|A number of months ago, in the midst of our normal weekly check-in meeting to discuss editorial ideas and subscription metrics, my partner Teddy Schleifer mentioned an interesting tip that had come over the transom. Cunning forces on the left were engaging in a grim opposition research campaign to try to diminish Peter Thiel’s influence in politics.
During the course of the past decade, of course, Thiel had become a caricature: he was the increasingly muscle-bound Gawker-slaying billionaire who had facilitated the rise of Zuck, Facebook, and Donald Trump. During the 2022 midterms, he supported the senatorial campaigns of hillbilly elegy vet J.D. Vance and his disciple Blake Masters as vanity projects. Many Democrats despised him. Republicans, on the other hand, wondered if he was the heir to Sheldon Adelson—a zillionaire true believer, who could support their cause and operations for a generation.
The details of this oppo campaign were just coming together in Teddy’s notebook, but they were already unusual, even by the modern standards of our politics. The operation, itself, was being overseen by a protégé of David Brock, the former muckraking conservative activist journalist turned Clinton buddy, and funded by some of the left’s perennial donors. Meanwhile, its focus wasn’t on the inner workings of Thiel’s business empire, but rather the guys he socialized with in and around West Hollywood. I don’t agree with Thiel’s politics, but I do hold pretty ardent views that people are entitled to their private lives. Most chillingly, there had been a human tragedy adjacent to the campaign. The whole thing just stunk.
Thiel, Brock & a Gutter Oppo Campaign for Our Times is an incredible, illuminating story about how politics really works at the very highest levels in our culture. And perhaps the most quietly stunning element of Teddy’s reporting is that this campaign against Thiel took place in plain sight.
A generation ago, oppo campaigns were managed in ways that concealed their fingerprints. Nowadays, they have become components of a professional brand. As longtime donor and Clinton ally Susie Tompkins Buell told Teddy regarding her support of this operation, in a veritable refutation of Michelle Obama’s famous mantra, “It’s just gone so low—and you’ve got to fight back.” And yet the most eye-opening quote in the story belongs to Thiel, who told Teddy: “I never thought I would say this, but it’s made me more sympathetic to Anita Hill.”
As we stride into the heart of the 2024 election cycle, Teddy’s piece illuminates how the sausage really gets made these days—candidates chow down on corn dogs at the Iowa State fair while unaffiliated organizations dig up dirt at satellites around the nation. Indeed, opposition research used to be the province of FOIA requests and high school yearbooks and tax returns. Now, like so much else in our society, it seems we’ve entered a period of transformation where the industry is being remade before our eyes. It’s one of the great stories of our time, and it’s precisely what you should expect from Puck.
Have a great weekend,