There are many aspects of presidential electioneering in the United States that make me want to run my head through a stone wall. The dirty money, the endless campaigns, the corporate “news” media’s insipid talent for dividing their time between the horserace angle and “coverage” of a handful of utterly unimportant bits of quasi-factual flotsam that have no bearing on policy or the state of the nation. This current election — between Healthapalooza, Birtherpalooza, who’s up, who’s down and did Trump really say that — is a proper bellwether for just how bad it can get. The 2020 presidential election better eat its Wheaties and pack a lunch if it expects to outdo the disgraceful display we have been forced to endure this time around.
More than anything, however, I am driven to distraction by the laser-like focus on the candidates alone. Call it the “I’d like to have a beer with him” phenomenon which served George W. Bush quite well in 2000. He seemed like a nice enough guy, an affable dude who would be a boon companion in an aluminum boat with a cooler full of suds hauling in stripers from the local creek. Al Gore, fishing? Ha. He’s too busy reading his stupid books to crack a can and just be a regular fella. Don’t discount the phenomenon; it allowed Bush to keep the election close enough for the Supreme Court to steal it.
Why is this so distressing? Because a presidential nominee does not stand alone. You see them there, bathed in the hot lights of the big stage, their shadow a lonely puddle at their feet … but there are other shadows, and within them just out of sight lurks the real government to come. A president may have the final word, but it is the hundreds of people who follow a successful candidate into government that actually do most of the governing, and the content of their character says a great deal more about a candidate than whether or not they can bait a hook.
Consider, again, the case of Mr. Bush. When he finally came gallivanting through the door to 1600 Pennsylvania in January of 2001, he had quite a crew in tow. Harvey Pitt helped deregulate the Securities and Exchange Commission, which led in no small part to the financial collapse of ’08. Dick Cheney nominated himself to the vice presidency, where he championed the EPA-gutting “Clear Skies Initiative” before anointing himself Lord Of Destroying All the Things in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ruinous tax cuts, the ending of stem cell research because snowflake babies or something … Bush didn’t come up with all this on his own.
I said this many years ago: Blaming George W. Bush for the calamities of his administration is like blaming Mickey Mouse when Disney screws up. It was names like Rumsfeld, Perle, Cheney, Rice, Powell and Wolfowitz, for openers, that were signed at the bottom of the policy memos Bush inevitably approved. If the American electorate really wants to get serious about being effective voters, they need to look over the candidate’s shoulder and see who is waiting in the wings with dog-eared white papers from obscure DC think tanks. Yes, Mr. President, of course we can invade every Middle Eastern country simultaneously and take their oil while bringing democracy to the Moon. I have it all written down right here.
A case in point from our current presidential election: Last week, the Huffington Post published a story claiming to have two sources that said Donald Trump intends to nominate Peter Thiel to the Supreme Court if he wins in November. Media-savvy readers will recognize the name from the recent Gawker debacle; Thiel quietly bankrolled Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker to the tune of $10 million, which shut the publication down permanently when Hogan was awarded $140 million in damages. Thiel’s reason for interceding? He didn’t like the way Gawker treated people.
On paper, Thiel is just another 1%-er with a net worth north of $2 billion. He is a renowned tech entrepreneur, co-founder of PayPal and Palantir Technologies. He was the first outside investor in Facebook, and the return on his investment netted him more than $1 billion. He is also a venture capitalist with high positions in four different hedge funds and venture firms.
Peter Thiel is also a very strange man. An avowed conservative Libertarian, his main goal in life is to defeat death. He takes human growth hormones to achieve this end, and is dabbling with the idea of receiving blood transfusions from 18-year-olds to maintain his youth. At a minimum, he seeks to live to be 120 years old.
In an essay he wrote in 2009 titled “The Education of a Libertarian,” Thiel proposed that all like-minded Libertarians join him in the search for true freedom by exploring outer space together. “Because the vast reaches of outer space represent a limitless frontier,” he wrote, “they also represent a limitless possibility for escape from world politics.” If space doesn’t work out, Thiel wants all the Libertarians to join him in living under the ocean as part of a project he calls “Seasteading.” Why the desire to use technology to flee the world? “We are in a deadly race between politics and technology,” wrote Thiel. “The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.”
While I take great joy in imagining Thiel and a clutch of Libertarians singing “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid while ensconced in some floating glass parabola off the coast of Nantucket, that last sentence should give deep pause. You see, Mr. Thiel believes capitalism is far more important than democracy, and that, in fact, democracy must be diminished in order to save capitalism. He went so far as to say that giving women the right to vote was a disaster because it created more democracy, which further threatened capitalism. According to Thiel, the last good year the US has enjoyed was 1920. It’s been all downhill from there.
Pretty nifty choice for the high court, right? Nominating Thiel to the Supreme Court would be like nominating a hammerhead shark to be Secretary of Veganism.
Spokespeople for Thiel and for Trump have both denied that such a nomination plan is afoot. The Huffington Post, for its part, stands by its reporting. Until we know for sure, treat the curious case of Peter Thiel — spaceman, Aquaman, seeker of immortality and foe of democracy — as an exercise in the exploration of the possible. Remember, we’re talking about Donald Trump here. In this weird theater, literally anything could be prowling behind the curtain.
Never forget to look behind the candidate. All too often, there are strange creatures hiding in the hustings, waiting for their chance to pounce.