Searching for what makes a tech mogul tick. ''The Contrarian : Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley's Pursuit of Power by Max Chafkin.''

After reading ''The Contrarian'' Max Chafkin's judicious biography of Peter Thiel, the secretive and Trump-supporting tech mogul, I was struck by how much Thiel remains a mystery - less of an intriguing enigma than a hollow cipher.

This isn't to fault Chafkin, who is unfailingly diligent in his efforts to narrate Theil's life and understand, as far as possible, what he actually believes. But contrarianism tends to be reactive, not constructive; if there's truly a there, it risks getting lost in the incessant repositioning of oneself against a fickle discourse.

Chafkin recounts a telling scene during the recession that followed the 2008 financial crisis. Thiel's hedge fund, Clarium Capital, seemed poised to make a killing from the crash that he - in the true contrarian form - had long been predicting. But Thiel's employees at Clarium ''went too far,'' getting pulled into a hall of mirrors and ''devising contrarian takes to his original contrarian take.''

I found this anecdote very funny and wanted to know who revealed it, but Chafkin promised anonymity to some sources to get any number of unfaltering details about Thiel into this book.

[Thiel himself would only speak to Chafkin off the record, and refused to respond to a list of fact-checking questions.]

After all, Thiel had developed a reputation for being both ''brilliant'' and ''vindictive,'' Chafkin writes.  A co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, he had used his enormous fortune to bankroll Hulk Hogan's relentless lawsuits against the website Gawker, driving the site and its owner to bankruptcy in 2016.

Chafkin recalls a source asking him why he wanted to write a book about Thiel at all : '' I mean, aren't you worried he'll like come after you?''

Chafkin is a technology reporter for Bloomberg businessweek, and ''The Contrarian'' isn't just about Thiel; it's about Silicon Valley's political coming-of-age, too. ''The tech industry, which is still seen by many as cultural backwater full of socially clumsy but well-meaning nerds, is now an acquisitive and seemingly amoral force,'' Chafkin writes.

Thiel's ruthlessly unsentimental libertarianism went from being an eccentric stance to a dominant brand during the Trump era.

As it happens, Thiel was bullied as a child - a skinny, socially awkward, chess-playing boy, he protected himself by becoming resolutely ''disdainful.''

He was born in Germany and moved to the United States as an infant, in 1968. His father's job at an engineering firm also meant a sojourn in apartheid South Africa, where the younger Thiel attended an elite, all-white prep school.

He went to Stanford and started the Stanford's Review, a conservative newspaper, staying put to go to law school. An unsatisfying stint as a corporate lawyer ended when he failed to get the Supreme Court clerkship he so desperately wanted.

''I was devastated,'' Thiel would later recall, saying it precipitated a ''quarter- life crisis.''

''The Contrarian'' recounts Thiel's professional trajectory in full, depicting him stumbling into the tech industry not out of any particular passion but because it presented an opportunity to get rich. 

Thiel, unlike the fantasy of the American entrepreneur who risks it all, for his dream, was always hedging his bets - even at one point, proposing that PayPal turn over its limited cash reserves to his own hedge fund so that he could speculate with the money.  

Thiel likes to use the word ''builder,'' Ayn Rand's preferred term for an entrepreneur.. He has referred wistfully to the midcentury days of the space race, and according to Chafkin has succeeded in bringing the military industrial complex to Silicon Valley, which has been a boon for his bottom line.

Still, it's never quite clear what kind of world Thiel the builder seeks to build.; he has proposed things like seasteading [floating independent city-states] and space travel - mostly escapes from the apocalyptic future he foresees.

But then a principled consistency isn't the contrarian strong suit; if anything, it's just another sucker's game.

Thiel's brand of libertarianism somehow includes ''a politics of closed borders,'' Chafkin writes - even if, as detailed in the book, Thiel lobbied the New Zealand government, which was conservative at the time, to grant him citizenship.

Chafkin recounts how Thiel had spent just 12 days in New Zealand, far from the requisite minimum of 1,350, and made an elaborate show of investing in government-backed venture capital fund - only to extricate himself once he got the passport he wanted.

It was the kind of brazenly cynical power move that even Trump, for all his nativist rhetoric, probably appreciated. When you're rich, they let you do it.

The World Students Society thanks review author Jennifer Szalai.


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