Why Silicon Valley billionaires like Peter Thiel turned against Trump

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A year ago, the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel received a pitch from a longtime associate, the right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, encouraging him to throw his weight behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an emerging contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

Thiel was torn. Coulter was one of many people urging the onetime political kingmaker — who supported Donald Trump in 2016 and bankrolled a roster of Trump-aligned contestants in the 2022 midterms — to back a candidate in the 2024 race, according to three people familiar with private conversations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe them.

The pressure campaign continued this April, when Trump himself called to ask Thiel for his support. In a contentious phone conversation, the tech mogul declined.

Just two months before Republican primary season kicks off in Iowa, Thiel is one of several powerful Silicon Valley conservatives reevaluating their participation in politics. Tech heavyweights who helped ignite Trump’s candidacy have told close associates they feel alienated from the GOP and are casting about for a candidate who more closely aligns with their extreme pro-business agenda.

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The right-wing venture capitalist David Sacks was a major DeSantis backer, hosting the launch of DeSantis’s presidential campaign on X, formerly Twitter, in the spring. But in recent months, Sacks has soured on DeSantis, according to two people familiar with his thinking, and has thrown fundraisers for rivals Vivek Ramaswamy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr, then running as a Democrat. (Kennedy has since launched a bid as an independent.)

Others, like Thiel, are so deflated by the tenor of GOP discourse that they appear to have decided to sit out the 2024 campaign entirely.

The ambivalence among tech leaders goes well beyond a distaste for the former president, who was scorned by several high-profile tech-world supporters in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Although the tech elite often have criticized the left and “wokeness,” some now say the GOP has overemphasized divisive social issues such as transgender rights and abortion at the expense of the tech titans’ primary political goal: radical deregulation.

Once enticed by the prospect that Trump would usher in a new, ultra-capitalist era in Republican politics, members of the right-leaning tech elite are now looking for allies to protect the industry from bruising attacks by both parties and champion its worth as the country’s most dynamic economic engine. These views have been calcified by government efforts to regulate artificial intelligence, which the Silicon Valley figures see as a transformative technology that would suffer from government meddling.

That disappointment mirrors the sentiment among Republican donors across the country. They are deflated by the prospect of another roller-coaster Trump presidency, citing the president’s erratic behavior and his many legal entanglements. But the ambivalence of right-wing Silicon Valley donors, along with a spate of GOP losses in Tuesday’s elections, deepens the unhappiness over Trump’s all but certain nomination.

“There’s such a massive disconnect right now between caucus-goers and primary voters and the people who write the big super PAC checks,” said a political adviser to major Silicon Valley donors on the right. “We don’t care about [transgender] kids going to bathrooms. We care about dismantling the regulatory state.”

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Faith in Trump’s ability to lessen government oversight of business has crumbled, leaving conservatives in the tech industry adrift, according to 10 people who are either close advisers or friends of major tech donors. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private talks.

Thiel and Coulter declined to comment. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

From rank-and-file engineers to ultrawealthy venture capitalists, the tech industry has long skewed liberal. During the Obama years, Democrats and Republicans saw the tech sector as a bright spot in an economy marred by recession and bad behavior on Wall Street. Well-known Silicon Valley figures, such as former Google chairman Eric Schmidt, cultivated deep ties to the Obama administration.

Then Trump ran for president, exciting a small but influential group. Thiel donated $1.25 million to Trump’s first campaign, announcing in a 2016 GOP convention speech that he was proud to be both Republican and gay. The venture capitalist Doug Leone — whose net worth is a reported $6.8 billion thanks to early bets on Apple, PayPal, Google, and WhatsApp — donated more than $200,000 to Trump and Trump-associated committees through 2019, and he sat on the former president’s post-pandemic economic recovery task force.

Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy and his wife, Susan, have given more than $500,000 to Trump, beginning with his 2016 presidential run, according to public records. They supported his reelection bid by hosting a $100,000-a-head fundraiser at their Silicon Valley home.

Oracle co-founder and executive chairman Larry Ellison lent Trump his Southern California property for a fundraiser ahead of the 2020 primaries, eventually launching a public-private partnership with the White House to combat the coronavirus. Shortly after Trump lost to Joe Biden, Ellison joined Trump’s advisers on a controversial call to plot strategies for contesting the vote.

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People who know Leone, a longtime Republican, said his support of Trump was tied to a belief that the former New York businessman would cut bureaucratic red tape and attack entrenched industries that blocked entrants from Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley leaders on the right, including Ellison, saw the Obama years as politically disastrous, and Trump represented a welcome departure. Thiel, in particular, viewed Trump as a fellow contrarian.

Trump’s son-in law, Jared Kushner, and Kushner’s brother, Josh, a Democrat, are investors and entrepreneurs with a robust network in Silicon Valley, including ties to Thiel’s Founders Fund and Leone’s Sequoia.

But Trump’s Silicon Valley supporters have largely been disappointed.

“The problem was Trump was very undisciplined, and his own character traits sabotaged the policy changes,” said Keith Rabois, a general partner at Thiel’s venture firm Founders Fund and a GOP donor who never supported Trump. “Instead of just executing relentlessly, he would cause turmoil and chaos, and that would interfere with his agenda.”

Today, Ellison is one of the largest donors to a group supporting Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), a Republican presidential candidate. Leone donated an eye-popping $2 million earlier this year to the super PAC supporting DeSantis’s bid. And McNealy’s only donation this year has been a $6,600 gift to North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a onetime Stanford classmate making a long-shot bid for the GOP nomination.

Thiel has said he is sitting out the 2024 election entirely. Three people familiar with his thinking said his decision was driven by the absence of a candidate who reflects his views and the erosion of his privacy that has accompanied his highly visible involvement in presidential politics.

But pressure from the billionaire’s friends and his husband — amid his alienation from a party that is leaning heavily into divisive cultural fights — also pushed him away from the GOP, according to the people.

Thiel continued to support GOP Senate candidate Blake Masters in 2022, even as Masters railed against the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage, despite attending Thiel’s wedding to a man.

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But Thiel’s inner circle of gay friends criticized him for backing Masters and for remaining a key GOP donor at a time when the party was taking increasingly anti-LGBTQ+ stances.

Ellison and Leone turned away from Trump after the 2020 election. While Leone renounced Trump publicly after the Jan. 6 attack, Ellison discontinued his relationship with Trump after the election-strategies phone call, said one of the people familiar with his thinking.

“Let’s put it this way: That was the last call [with Trump’s campaign] he was ever on,” said the person, who noted that Ellison participated in the call as a courtesy.

Sacks, Leone and the DeSantis campaign declined to comment. Ellison and McNealy did not respond to requests for comment.

Even Republicans in Silicon Valley who were never Trump enthusiasts are struggling to land the right allies in Washington. Sacks, who has donated to DeSantis, spent weeks working with former PayPal executive Elon Musk to secure a live-stream to launch DeSantis’s campaign on X, at the time known as Twitter.

But people familiar with Sacks’s thinking say he has grown increasingly disillusioned with DeSantis, who is lagging badly in national polls.

When Sacks and the investor Joe Lonsdale, a longtime Thiel protégé, hosted a fundraiser in California for DeSantis in September, Lonsdale didn’t show up. Sacks hosted a $50,000-a-head fundraiser for Ramaswamy the next day.

A person familiar with Sacks’s thinking said that the DeSantis fundraiser was long-planned but that the Ramaswamy event was added to the calendar last-minute — a sign of Sacks’s growing interest in Ramaswamy’s libertarian, tear-it-all-down agenda.

Sacks and other supporters tolerated some of DeSantis’s more polarizing positions, such as his fights with Disney over transgender issues and his six-week abortion ban. Some of those battles aligned with Silicon Valley leaders’ agendas: Like DeSantis, Sacks frequently used Twitter to criticize the news media and the “woke” left. Thiel, who also has criticized wokeness, praised DeSantis in a speech last year as a model for the GOP.

But Silicon Valley donors, including Sacks and Thiel, began to feel that DeSantis’s brawls were becoming a distraction — and that he never transitioned to a broader presidential message as he slid in the polls.

“Most Silicon Valley people are politically but not socially conservative,” said one of the people familiar with Sacks’s thinking. “All DeSantis needed to be was normal. Now he’s gone nuts on this woke thing.”

Rabois, who said he recently shifted his support to former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, said that he still believes DeSantis was an excellent governor with remarkable fortitude to stand up to both the media and Disney. But with the world “on the precipice of another serious world war,” he said, DeSantis hasn’t demonstrated sophisticated expertise in foreign policy and the economy.

Meanwhile, Ellison may be pulling back some support from Scott. The billionaire was expected to make a substantial contribution to the super PAC backing Scott’s presidential bid earlier this year, according to two people familiar with the group’s strategy. But the money does not appear to have come through, causing concern with the campaign, which cancelled $40 million in ad reservations that were slated to run starting in September.

Friends and advisers to Silicon Valley donors say that the underlying alienation from politics stems from what people perceive as Washington’s failure to serve the tech industry — a feeling that has only accelerated during the Trump and Biden years.

Trump ran on an agenda of promoting deregulation. In his first month in office, he issued an executive order saying that for every new regulation created, two would have to be slashed. But for the next four years, the Trump White House was engulfed in chaos, and people in Silicon Valley perceived that the pathways for start-ups did not materialize.

“Look at the major agencies. The FTC, the FDA. Did they have any less when Trump left office than when he started? The answer is no,” said one of the advisers to major Silicon Valley donors.

Trump also joined a chorus of politicians attacking the tech industry as becoming too powerful. He tried to break TikTok away from its Chinese owner, ByteDance, a major blow to a social media company that had received significant funding from Leone’s Sequoia Capital. The Trump administration ultimately named Ellison’s Oracle the U.S. technology partner for TikTok, a decision that some critics said looked like a reward for Ellison’s political support.

While some tech leaders, such as Thiel, supported Trump and the GOP’s attacks on Big Tech, today the tech elite across the political spectrum fear that Washington has become overly meddlesome in industries such as cryptocurrency and artificial intelligence.

“Some people here backed Trump, and he turned against Big Tech. Now tech is the boogeyman for both parties,” said another one of the advisers to influential Silicon Valley donors.

Jeff Giesea, a longtime friend of Thiel’s who is launching a nonpartisan think tank called the Boyd Institute, said the alliance between Silicon Valley titans and Trump’s GOP is an awkward one. Although the donors have leaned into polarizing attacks on the media and the left, he said they see themselves as builders trapped in a party not interested in creating strategically.

“Right now, the GOP is all clickbait,” Giesea said. “On one level, these guys are anti-woke. But there’s a recognition starting that you can choke on anti-woke — that it’s a distraction from solving real problems.”

Ence Morse and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.

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