CLEVELAND - On the final night of the Republican National Convention, a brash, wealthy businessman with somewhat wacky ideas will take the stage.
No, not that one.
Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook who was recently in the news for funding Hulk Hogan's lawsuit of Gawker Media, is set to speak before Donald Trump accepts his party’s nomination.
Trump is the evening’s main event, and his performance will be scrutinized for clues as to what kind of general election campaign we can look forward to, and what type of president Trump would be. Can he overcome the series of stumbles that have marred the convention? Will he tweet while delivering it? You never know.
We have a better idea, however, of the general contours of Thiel’s speech — taking more tolerant positions on social issues (Thiel is openly gay) while celebrating entrepreneurial ambition.
The steeped-in-theory Libertarian supports sea-steading, the creation of utopian permanent dwellings at sea, and views outer space as an escape from “world politics.”
“I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual,” he wrote in a 2009 article for the Libertarian journal Cato Unbound.
If that doesn’t pan out, he might at least represent a path forward for the party of Trump.
The Libertarian wing
Thiel is so well-known in tech and entrepreneurial circles as to be almost a caricature — he was literally caricatured on the HBO TV show “Silicon Valley.” He broke ranks with his heavily Democratic peers in supporting Donald Trump.
Yet Trump is not so farfetched as a recipient of Libertarian support. He’s not known for consistency, but he has settled into some familiar Libertarian positions — supposedly promising to cut government programs like Obamacare while being more liberal on certain social issues like transgender rights.
Bigoted positions on Muslims, immigrants in the country illegally and criminal justice issues are less Libertarian orthodox, and meant instead to rile up an anti-establishment Republican base that has powered Trump to nomination.
New York delegates surveyed on Wednesday acknowledged this new group — “the people who are here are not the politicians,” said Sandy King, a delegate from Yates County. But there was little established interest in Thiel as an upcoming speaker or philosophical leader.
Outside the convention center, things were different.
A group of young activists from Turning Point, a Libertarian-leaning organization, held signs saying “Taxation is Theft” and chanted “free markets, free people.”
Their crystalline button-down shirts, blond hair and khakis glistened in the afternoon heat. One, Joshua Thifault, thought the ideology was catching on among millennials. The financial crisis meant they’d “lost faith in the system,” he said, and many were Libertarian in their views even if they didn’t know it.
They want to be unconstrained by society socially and fiscally, Thifault said, be it legalizing marijuana or starting a business. Like Thiel, the young entrepreneur sees that freedom in the tech world. He says he's in the process of creating an app in the “social tech genre.”
A new movement?
There has been talk at this convention among the harried party establishment about reaching out to new voters in younger and minority communities. That’s likely impossible with the Trump train, which is polling dismally with minorities and actively insulting them.
But a tech-savvy, less socially doctrinaire push could be an alternative for young voters. Some of Thiel's more ambitious (zany) beliefs verge on parody, but they have the pull that Ayn Rand's books did on another generation. Technology's promise of a better and more socially accepting world can be enticing.
Republicans still have a long way to go down that road, and libertarianism comes with pitfalls. The common sense-seeming pronouncements extolling freedom in life and business leave little room for the complexities of the actual universe, or at least this corner of the solar system. Not everything can be solved by individualism and good software.
That tension was on display in Public Square Wednesday, where Libertarians clashed verbally with black protesters. Thifault faced off with a young man who took issue with his understanding of racism.
The young man said that Thiffault was “talking about market corruption,” but African-Americans had to deal with “a whole plethora of injustice.”
Thiffault said he advocated a system where everyone was exactly equal and not discriminated against by the government.
His interrogator asked him if he’d ever heard of white privilege.
While cameras watched, the two millennials argued, never convincing the other, about the best way to make a better world.
Check amNY.com throughout the week for more analysis from the GOP convention.
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