Peter Thiel’s Masterful Luck

Peter Thiel at a 2018 New York Times Dealbook event.
Photo by Michael Cohen/Getty Images for the NYT
Theodore Schleifer
June 10, 2021

Six months after Donald Trump was ousted from office, the venture capitalist who helped put him in the White House is surprisingly poised to be more powerful than ever. Peter Thiel, the seasteading, blood-swilling billionaire who euthanized Gawker, is back. And I think he could end up more of a player in the post-Trump G.O.P. than he ever was in the Trump G.O.P., when his influence was greatly exaggerated. The half-dozen people in Thiel’s political orbit I chatted up this week—yeah, talking their book—agree.

That’s because there’s a chance that two of the Republican Party’s nominees for Senate next year could be dyed-in-the-wool Thiel disciples: Blake Masters in Arizona and J.D. Vance in Ohio. Thiel donated an astounding $20 million to two super P.A.C.s that have been set up to make them credible candidates in next year’s Republican primaries. That’s twenty times the amount he donated to back Trump. It also stands out because Thiel is actually pretty frugal, as billionaires go. “Peter doesn’t like spending money,” as one former aide put it.

Let’s talk about Masters first. I’ve always been struck by the sprawl of Thielworld. Thiel’s fingers are everywhere—he’s got the venture capital firms that he manages, the startups he founded, and the political and philanthropic vehicles that have his imprint. In some regards it mirrors the everyone’s-on-the-payroll world of Eric Schmidt, one of Thiel’s favorite intellectual foils. Lots of these Thiel aides like to knife one another, too, which has complicated things in the Presidio over the years.

Managing that chaos is the job of Masters, the 35-year-old former Thiel student who serves as chief operating officer of Thiel Capital. Masters turned his class notes into Zero to One, the self-help startup manual that made Thiel a household name.

Masters should be the one overseeing Thiel’s political resurgence—he ran Thiel’s election work, including Thiel’s failed bet on immigration hawk Kris Kobach in Kansas last year. But Masters is about to become a candidate himself. He is technically still exploring a challenge to Mark Kelly, but I’m told by a few sources that Masters has been interviewing and actively hiring staff for a campaign that could go public this summer. So this isn’t just idle talk. Masters is a political novice and faces an uphill climb in Arizona, to be sure, but $10 million goes a long way in a primary.

You’d think that there’s nobody closer to Thiel than his longtime consigliere. But some in Thiel’s orbit actually argue he is closer with Vance these days. That’s surprising because Vance generally orbited on the periphery of Thielworld—he was very briefly a flyby junior employee at Mithril Capital, a firm that Thiel largely leaves alone. But Thiel is a major investor in Narya, Vance’s own venture capital firm (he sits on the LPAC, or its advisory board), and the two now talk frequently, I’m told. They have gotten very close, very quickly. “He’s the golden child for Peter,” said one person familiar with their relationship. “He’s got his hands on J.D. quite a lot.”

Vance, best known as the author of Hillbilly Elegy, has lately reinvented himself as a tech-skeptical culture warrior, despite owing his political career to the data-mining visionary who cut Zuckerberg his first big check. Knowing Thiel’s love of the troll, I can’t help imagining his pride watching Vance’s remarkable success at pissing off liberals on Twitter. It’s probably good politics too in Ohio: the primary so far has been defined by unusual quests to prove their loyalty to Trump in a state where Republicans are vying to name a park after the 45th president.

To some extent, Thiel’s post-Trump ascendance is purely a coincidence. Both Vance and Masters have flirted with previous bids and didn’t pull the trigger. This isn’t a grand strategy run out of Thiel HQ to take over the National Republican Senatorial Committee. But coincidence or not, Thiel is arriving in the big leagues at the perfect time. Sheldon Adelson and David Koch and Foster Friess are no more. There’s a vacuum in Republican mega-donor world, and Thiel is filling it.

You don’t have to be a Thiel protégé to read an F.E.C. report, and G.O.P. operatives tell me that seemingly everyone in Republican politics over the last two months is now soliciting his largesse. For instance, Mo Brooks, a Senate hopeful in Alabama, has been aggressively trying to find an entree into Thielworld with ambitions to secure his own mega-donation, I am told, and did eventually talk with Thiel’s team. My suggestion for the Alabama congressman would be to de-age himself by four decades, go to Stanford or Yale Law School, and apply to be an associate at Founders Fund first.

Thiel is in-demand at a time when he is focusing inward, camping out until recently at his new $18 million Miami Beach mansion, tending to a newborn daughter when he isn’t getting lunch with Mayor Francis Suarez. “Peter was generally seen as a guy who had a whole lot of money—and was rumored to be spending a lot of money—but nobody could ever find it,” said one person in the middle of this all. “He had a reputation for being a donor that wasn’t matched by his actual donations. That has changed.”