These stages of the cross led Thiel to Silicon Valley in the mid-1990s, hot to leave big law and gamble on young Randian Übermenschen. An early bet on a coder named Max Levchin hit it big. The two devised PayPal, the company Thiel is famous for, which supercharged his antipathies with capital. Thiel, who’d published a book called “The Diversity Myth,” “made good on his aversion to multiculturalism,” Chafkin writes. “Besides youth, PayPal’s other defining quality was its white maleness.”
In 2000, PayPal got in business with Elon Musk. “Peter thinks Musk is a fraud and a braggart,” one source tells Chafkin. “Musk thinks Peter is a sociopath.” According to Chafkin, Thiel remained coldblooded during the dot-com crash that year, as PayPal loopholed its way to market dominance. The company rebounded with a growth strategy known as “blitzscaling,” as well as the use of some supremely nasty tactics. “Whereas [Steve] Jobs viewed business as a form of cultural expression, even art,” Chafkin writes, “for Thiel and his peers it was a mode of transgression, even activism.”
When PayPal went public, Thiel took out tens of millions and turned to investing full time. With various funds he scouted for more entrepreneurial twerps, and in the mid-2000s he latched onto Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. He also set up a hedge fund called Clarium, where, according to Chafkin, Thiel’s staffers styled themselves as intellectuals and savored the wit of VDARE, an anti-immigration website that regularly published white nationalists. Hoping to make death less inevitable, at least for himself, Thiel also began to patronize the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, which has been steadily freezing the corpses of moneyed narcissists in liquid nitrogen since 1976.
Thiel passed on investing in Tesla, telling Musk (according to Musk) that he didn’t “fully buy into the climate change thing.” But he gave Zuckerberg a loan for Facebook, which intermittently let him keep a leash on the young founder. After Sept. 11, Chafkin reports, Thiel also panicked about “the threat posed by Islamic terrorism — and Islam itself.” Libertarianism deserted him; he created Palantir, a data-analytics surveillance tech company designed, in essence, to root out terrorists. The C.I.A. used it, the N.Y.P.D. used it and Thiel became a contractor with big government. By 2006 his Clarium had $2 billion under management.
Around this time, the wily Nick Denton, of the gossip empire Gawker, took notice of what Chafkin calls Thiel’s “extremist politics and ethically dubious business practices.” Gawker’s Valleywag site dragged Thiel, whose homosexuality was an open secret, suggesting he was repressed. This enraged Thiel, who by 2008 seemed to have lost it, firing off a floridly religious letter to Clarium investors warning of the imminent apocalypse and urging them to save their immortal souls and “accumulate treasures in heaven, in the eternal City of God.”
The planet avoided the apocalypse, as it tends to do, but that year the financial crash laid the economy to waste. Several big investors pulled out of Thiel’s fund. In Chafkin’s telling, Thiel unaccountably blamed Denton for scaring away ultraconservatives by outing him. He determined to put Denton out of business, and in 2016, by clandestinely bankrolling a nuisance lawsuit designed to bankrupt Gawker, he did.