Facebook billionaire Peter Thiel may not be the first person you think of when it comes to the insurrection at the Capitol, where Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president today.
But thanks to his generous contributions to some rather odious politicians, he played a key role in putting the inciters in office, inevitably leading to their assault on our democracy.
First and foremost, Thiel was one of the few Silicon Valley figures willing to place a bet on Donald Trump. Thiel’s wholehearted endorsement of Trump earned him a primetime spot at the Republican national convention that year, where he praised the candidate and told the assembled crowd of right-wing party faithful that he was “proud to be gay.” (It was not exactly a big applause line.)
More to the point, at a time when Trump’s campaign was starved for cash in 2016, Thiel invested $1.25 million, making him one of Trump’s largest donors. The investment came late in the campaign after the tape of Trump boasting about sexual assault became public.
Thiel was also partly responsible for the presence in the Senate of Ted Cruz, who fueled the lie that the election was rigged even after the insurrection.
Thiel was the largest donor to the super PAC that was instrumental in helping Cruz secure the GOP senate nomination in 2012. When Cruz started his campaign, he polled in the low single digits. Thanks to the investment of wealthy donors like Thiel, he was able to score an upset.
Trump, Cruz, and Hawley have all been branded as the lead inciters in the Capitol insurrection. They are in office, at least in part, thanks to Thiel’s financial backing.
This isn’t to say that Thiel underwrote the insurrection. He just bankrolled the politicians who inflamed the crowd with lies about the election.
But as a reminder, Thiel is no fan of the democratic system. He has said in the past he doesn’t believe freedom and democracy are “compatible.” He’s not a fan of the press either, despite his appearance on Fox’s Tucker Carlson Tonight to denigrate “identity politics,” as if that term could not describe Trump’s support for White Supremacists. He spent millions of his own money to fund the Hulk Hogan lawsuit that drove Gawker out of business, killing what surely would have been a critical source of Trump corruption coverage.
To make matters worse, Thiel this year contributed nearly a million big ones to Senate hopeful Kris Kobach, a prototype for Donald Trump before Trump ever ran for president. The Republican made his reputation as the Kansas Secretary of State by crusading against immigrants and (imaginary) voter fraud, but he also trafficked in virulent homophobia. At one point, he compared homosexuality to drug use and polygamy. A few weeks after the donation, Kobach, deemed too extreme even for the GOP, was trounced in the primary by a more moderate Republican.
Thiel managed quite the feat: bankrolling the four horsemen of the democracy apocalypse, Trump, Hawley, Cruz, and Kobach.
To his credit, Thiel did give up on Trump in the 2020 campaign cycle, not contributing to the re-election campaign. Apparently, the administration’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic was too much for Thiel to swallow. reportedly calling the Trump reelection campaign, in a nice turn of phrase, the SS Minnow, a reference to the shipwrecked boat from Gilligan’s Island.
But even there, Thiel has a connection. Palantir, the data-mining firm that he founded, was awarded a contract by the Trump administration to track the virus. (That’s better than the awkward hand fondle Trump gave him for his support.)
Thiel is said to be focused on raising two kids with his husband; let’s hope that family leads to a “kinder, gentler” kind of political philanthropy in the post-Trump era. The world could use his help.
Extra! Extra! is back! It’s been a wild three weeks and sometimes the news becomes more than we can bear. But we’re back, and we’ll be moving to a biweekly schedule moving forward.
So much has happened, and in many ways it feels impossible for me to not look at everything through the lens of the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol. This is just one of those times where it’s as much as I can do to look at all the many ways America is, quite simply, falling apart right now. So this week’s Extra! Extra! is pretty much limited to American news: several angles of breaking down everything that’s horrifying about the insurrection, the Trump administration’s parting shots and how COVID continues to rage amid American incompetence. If there’s pressing international news we’ve missed please do share in the comments.
Rachel: I agree with the overall thrust of this article, which is that the Republican party is beyond the point of no return in terms of its ability to publicly denounce the actions of its leaders that are objectionable even to their own stated values of country & party. I do, however, differ on the details of their analysis, which is that the failure of the GOP to join the Democrats en masse in impeaching Trump is “confirmation of how in thrall to Trump the Republican Party remains.” I don’t think the party or at this point almost any individual members of it are ‘in thrall to Trump;’ I don’t think Trump as an individual has had any real internal power for quite some time, even since before the election. All the internal sources say that Trump’s own staff has been avoiding him; now that he doesn’t have the carrot of future staffing in a second term to dangle, he has no leverage. The GOP is certainly in thrall, but it’s not to Trump; it’s to his base, and the critical mass of agitated white nationalists that he’s allied himself with. Multiple GOP members of congress said they received death threats related to their voting to impeach, something many progressive members of congress, especially representatives of color, are very familiar with. The GOP made a pretty literal deal with the devil to get the level of unchecked power they’ve had for so long, and the violent, ruthless groups they’ve made it with are open to turning on them at any time.
Natalie: It’s unsurprising to me that the Squad — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib — have been as clear-eyed about the danger the insurrectionists — and those who enabled them — posed to the members of Congress. Since being labeled enemies of the far right, they have had to hire additional security and work under constant threat. They know danger when they see it.
What’s increasingly distressing — aside from the simple fact that these women are subjected to this treatment in the first place — is that the threat is coming from inside the House (literally). It’s not just the insurrectionists climbing through shattered windows that these members have to be scared of, it’s their fellow members of Congress. Frightening.
Himani: I knew a woman in college, once, who would talk idyllically of joining the army, going to Iraq and shooting up a lot of people (this was the final years of W. Bush, for context). As the only brown Asian person in our department, I was always extremely disturbed by this sentiment expressed by one of the few people who actually talked to me and otherwise treated me decently (which is really more than I can say for most of the other students or my professors in my department, but I digress). I think I’m going to upset a lot of people when I say that I’ve always felt it takes a certain amount of dehumanizing of other people to be part of military operations knowing that your job will entail going to a different part of the world you don’t actually know anything about and then coming up with justifications for murdering them. And then the leaks started coming out about a fraction of the atrocities committed by U.S. military personnel in Iraq, and another fellow student in my department who was formerly part of the military very much took the attitude of “yea, that’s not great that this was leaked” as opposed to “it is horrifying that U.S. committed these acts of torture and debasement.” So imagine my surprise at reading that there’s a problem of extremism within the U.S. military and among veterans and that it’s been largely ignored and dismissed.
And as for the police, well — there really isn’t any more to say about that. The problem of white supremacy having a stronghold over police organizations is so well-established and has been reported on so, so many times that really I think it came as a surprise to no one when a video was posted showing Capitol police officers practically holding the door open for the heavily armed and violent mob.
In an interview linked further down, a Sri Lankan writer says “And, the violence of your culture, which has always been projected outward, is now falling in.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot because he is completely correct. See, this is the slippery slope of justifying all those civilian deaths abroad and all those Black lives cut short at the hands of law enforcement and their accomplices. The definition of who can hold power, who is human, — simply who is allowed to live, becomes infinitely narrower, and it’s only a matter of time before you, too, end up on that list of people it’s better to just kill rather than to reason through disagreements with. Which, as the insurrectionists are being prosecuted, it’s become undeniable that is exactly what they were there to do.
Natalie: So, I come to the table with a bit of a different perspective on military service than Himani…in part because so much of my family’s served and my existence literally would not have been possible without it…but we’ll save that conversation for another day.
I understand the concern about a “digital oligarchy” and, certainly, that’s something I’d want to guard against…but the thing with Trump and other right-wing users that have seen their accounts banned in the last week: TWITTER AND FACEBOOK ARE PRIVATE ENTITIES — THERE’S NO FREE SPEECH GUARANTEE HERE — AND THEY’VE ALLOWED TRUMP TO VIOLATE THEIR TERMS OF SERVICE FOR YEARS.
Per Natalie’s comments above about the response from European leaders, a lot of people want to act like this is going to herald in a new era of censorship on the internet. But the internet is already censored. It’s just not censored for straight, white, cis people who hold jobs we haven’t demonized.
Natalie: In my home state of North Carolina, the governor has mobilized 350 National Guard members to assist law enforcement in Raleigh, where Inauguration Day protests are expected, and sent another 200 headed to Washington, D.C. to support the federal efforts. These are 550 national guardsmen that could be spending their time helping the state effectively distribute the COVID vaccine to North Carolinians who qualify for it.
The lies and incompetence of this current administration continues to negatively impact us all.
Himani: And in his final sweep, Pompeo is hard at work to do as much irrevocable damage to non-white people around the world as he can. These actions would be egregious in any context, but they’re particularly hard to bear witness to right now, given that terrorists raided the U.S. Capitol last week with the intent of killing countless numbers of people but hey they aren’t really “terrorists” because they’re not brown, right?
Himani: Patrick Gathara spares no words for how badly American democracy has failed and he is absolutely, undeniably correct. As he writes: “[America’s] election system was an anachronistic mess long before the storming of the Capitol. Its imperial presidency is still the stuff of third world nightmares and its sycophantic legislature is reminiscent of our daytime realities. It may have more stuff and bigger guns, but at heart the west is simply a richer version of the rest.”
Himani: This is probably the best perspective I have read on the events that unfolded at the U.S. Capitol last week. For me, as I was in some amount of denial and numbness to the news that was coming in, reading this interview with Sri Lankan writer and podcaster Indi Samarajiva really communicated the severity of the situation in the U.S. right now, and his palpable frustration with American exceptionalism is something I can deeply relate to. But perhaps the most poignant part of the interview, for me, was this observation:
“You guys have been inflicting all of this trauma on the world and now the chickens have, to a large degree, come home to roost. … I don’t mean that the rancor is coming home to roost. I mean, that’s sort of the militarization of your society, the violence of your society. A lot of the people who would have attacked your Congress, they might have been serving in Afghanistan or Iraq, causing God knows what problems to the people there. The militarization has come to your borders. Your militarization at the edges of your society has come home to roost. And the violence of your culture, which has always been projected outward, is now falling in.”
Nevertheless, They’re STILL Contesting Election Results…
Rachel: This lawsuit is an unprecedented step, the first time in history a state AG has sued a police department; AG James’ statement is pretty scathing: “There was ample ability and opportunity for the city and N.Y.P.D. leadership to make important changes to the way that officers interact with peaceful protesters, but time and time again, they did not… They did not train, they did not supervise, they did not stop officers who engaged in this misconduct. …And they did not discipline them either. Instead, they failed the people of the City of New York.”
However, at the same time, it’s hard not to feel like in material terms, this isn’t enough. From the NYT: “If Ms. James is successful, a monitor would join another already keeping watch over how the city implements changes to its stop-and-frisk policy. In 2013, a federal judge appointed a monitor after finding that officers targeted and stopped Black and Hispanic people without sufficient legal reason in violation of their civil rights.”
So, even if this lawsuit is granted, the outcome is… a monitor? In addition to the already existing monitor, which clearly hasn’t worked? In addition to being ineffectual, a new monitor would be one more avenue through which money and resources are actually being routed into policing, and another office that’s invested in the continued existence of police (and in fact, their misconduct) so it can keep funding. This isn’t a dig at AG James’s office; it’s just a reflection of how limited the options are in terms of ‘reforming’ this institution.
Things That Happened Before the Insurrection That Already Laid This Bare
“This is not normal,” I tell my son. At 17, he’s old enough to understand that logically, even if he barely remembers a time when our president wasn’t an egomaniacal, violence-enabling, reality-show host. Even though our leadership will change for the better on January 20th, though, I worry as he heads towards adulthood in a country still deeply divided. Can we adults give him, and all young people and children, the country they need to grow into happy, healthy adults? Will the ideals of freedom and equality for all ever be more than distant visions?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I do know that the violence at our nation’s capitol yesterday was more than just the work of the perpetrators on the spot. It was enabled by all of those who have turned a blind eye to Trump’s many immoral and likely illegal actions over the past four years, as Susan Ryan-Vollmar points out in this piece for WGBH. (Full disclosure: Susan is a friend and a former editor for work I’ve done elsewhere.) Goals like “building bridges” seem like limp platitudes when some are storming the gates of government.
I hope, though, that even as we bring the insurrectionists to justice, we remember that justice is not revenge, and that, as angered as we have been at the injustices of the past four years, we must now set an example of what real justice looks like. We must also each continue to examine ourselves and our actions, and the systems from which we benefit, in order to ensure we are not ourselves contributing to inequity and injustice—and are in fact working to stop them. We may not be able to change others’ hearts and minds directly, but we can lead by example, and work to change practices and policies that continue to oppress.
That won’t be easy when some continue to hurl blatant falsehoods and insults. When they go low, can we go high, as First Lady Michelle Obama urged us to do? That doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to what happened in D.C. yesterday, nor suppressing our anger about it, but rather to turning that anger into energy for positive change, guided by our morals and the vision of the country we’d like to see, starting with our own communities.
2021 may not be starting out as the fresh ray of hope that many of us envisioned. I do believe, though, that we have the power to make it so. Hug your kids today, and let’s move forward together.