NEW YORK — Peter Thiel may have received applause from Republicans in Cleveland, but he didn’t win many fans from Silicon Valley.
Thiel, one of the most influential figures in tech, took the stage at the Republican National Convention on Thursday night and implied that Silicon Valley is out of touch — while advocating for a presidential candidate that much of his industry opposes.
“My industry has made a lot of progress in computers and in software — and of course it’s made a lot of money. But Silicon Valley is a small place,” Thiel said in his speech. “Drive out to Sacramento or even across the bridge to Oakland and you won’t see the same prosperity.”
The billionaire PayPal cofounder and longtime Facebook board member focused his remarks on explaining why Trump, a “builder,” is better prepared to “rebuild America” than Hillary Clinton, who he characterized as “incompetent.”
He received a standing ovation when he declared on stage that he is “proud to be gay,” becoming the first speaker in the Republican party’s history to do so. But that remark was immediately preceded by one that downplayed the significance of the battle waged over transgender people’s access to public bathrooms.
“The great debate is now who gets to use which bathroom,” Thiel said. “That is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?”
Apple CEO Tim Cook, the only openly gay leader of a Fortune 500 company, and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff threatened to pull business from Georgia and Indiana in response to bills discriminating against the LGBT community — and both loudly decried North Carolina’s bathroom law.
Cook has clashed with Trump over the candidate’s proposed Apple boycott and Benioff has endorsed Clinton for president.
Thiel’s high-profile speaking slot, shortly before Donald Trump gave his speech, highlighted a strange pairing that has perplexed tech industry watchers for months, ever since Thiel was first revealed to be a delegate for the candidate.
Thiel, a prominent Silicon Valley investor who made much of his fortune from an early investment in Facebook, very publicly endorsed a candidate who attacked many of the leading figures in Silicon Valley, including the CEO of Facebook.
“Peter doesn’t speak for me. Doesn’t speak for 150+ of my peers. And doesn’t speak for most of tech community,” Hunter Walk, a former YouTube exec and current investor, tweeted after the speech.
“If there’s any one principle Peter has, it’s going against the conventional grain,” serial entrepreneur Joe Green said. Thiel was the first investor in one of Green’s early companies.
“The universal consensus in Silicon Valley is Donald Trump is bad for the country in many ways,” Green said. “I didn’t hear him argue why that’s not true.”
Green said Thiel’s decision to call himself a proud gay Republican was “great” but contrasted the GOP nominee with the ethos of the Valley.
Silicon Valley is supportive of gay rights in a way that’s more public than almost any other issue, Green said, noting how the Valley was “socially liberal” and “tolerant.” A stark contrast, Green said, to Trump’s “race bating, anti-immigration and anti-Muslim ban.”
“Peter’s speech was inspiring and powerful, particularly the parts about needing to rediscover our innovation,” said Niv Dror, social editor at Product Hunt. “Hearing him endorse Trump as the nominee, though, feels disconnected from what Silicon Valley believes in.”
Last week, 145 tech employees penned an open letter warning that Trump “would be a disaster for innovation.” The list of supporters included the founders of several companies Thiel has invested in, including Zynga, Reddit and Asana — though they did not call out Thiel specifically in the letter.
Thiel is famous in Silicon Valley for holding extreme, counterintuitive views. He is a rabid libertarian who has invested money to make people immortal, develop floating cities away from the reach of governments and convince young people not to go to college, among other endeavors.
His speech also marks what is by far his most public appearance since admitting to secretly funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media years after the online outlet published articles he didn’t like.
Thiel described the legal campaign as “one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done.” Gawker later filed for bankruptcy and put itself up for sale.