Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Meet the man of 2016 - Peter Thiel

Peter Thiel, the man on the year, 2016. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Peter Thiel, the man on the year, 2016. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Say what you like about Donald Trump, but never has anyone running for president scaled such heights of cry-babiness.

Year after year he complained only politics prevented The Apprentice from scooping Emmy awards, "even though it should have, many times over!"

As if to confirm that reality is a subset of reality television, he recently tried a similar line on his electoral aspirations. The whole system was rigged against him, though he would of course accept the outcome - "if I win!"

No surprise, therefore, that the response to Time's announcement last December that its "person of the year" was Angela Merkel was to squawk like a spoilt 12-year-old.

"I told you Time Magazine would never pick me as person of the year despite being the big favourite," Trump mewed.

"They picked a person who is ruining Germany."

It is not impossible that Trump could actually, really, truly be the first ever man-baby president-elect by this time next week, so he may yet take the 2016 Time honour next month.

On the other hand, in this most topsy turvy of years - as confirmed this week when Glamour magazine named warbler Bono as one of its "women of the year" - the most appropriate choice for person of the year might be a pack of Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys.

For me, however, as we teeter on the edge of the terrifying candyfloss abyss that is 2016, the person that best captures the mind-boggle of it all is neither Trump, nor Ms Bono, nor novelty shrimps, but Peter Thiel.

Billionaire, co-founder of PayPal, Facebook lynchpin, active Trump supporter, contrarian, libertarian, tech-utopian and New-Zealand-phile, Thiel has been mostly made headlines this year after secretly bankrolling a lawsuit by Hulk Hogan - whose pretend-wrestling declamations in those golden Summer Slam days are uncannily similar to a Donald Trump stump speech - against the website Gawker, which Thiel has loathed since it outed him as gay in 2007.

The lawsuit, which centred on the release of a sex tape, was settled yesterday with a US $31 million payout to the man who gave us Hulkamania. But the site had already closed under the weight of the ruling.

Thiel, appearing before the US National Press Club this week, defended his actions. As intense as ever, jaw clenched and eyes that look like they might ping from their sockets any moment, Thiel cast Hogan as a David confronting the Goliath of Gawker, a "singularly sociopathic bully".

After all, said Thiel, if you are merely "a single-digit millionaire like Hulk Hogan, you have no effective access to our legal system. It costs too much."

The lawsuit was settled yesterday with a US$31 million payout to the man who gave us Hulkamania.

Let it not be said that Thiel is blind to the wealth gap, or not at least not to the gap between a billionaire such as himself (according to Forbes, he's worth US $2.7 billion) and mere workaday millionaires. Just as frighteningly, however, there is doubtless something in what he says. The instruments of justice in the US may now be largely the preserve of the super-rich. A cheering parable for our times.

Thiel spoke this week, too, about his decision to donate to Trump. While he repudiated Trump's sexual assault boasts, and a whole heap of other things he's said and pledged, Thiel said he supported Trump because he was "an outsider". Government was almost irrevocably broken; someone from the fringe was the only hope.

Thiel shares something of Trump's penchant for hyperbole, too. He once described Valleywag, the Gawker offshoot which outed him in 2007, as the "Silicon Valley equivalent of al-Qaeda".

In 2004, he said there is a "sense in which government is an almost literally demonic entity in the world we're living in today", a sentiment echoed last month in Trump's chirpy description of Hillary Clinton as "the devil".

Thiel doesn't appear to like democracy much at all. In 2009, he wrote: "I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible."

Why not? "Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women-two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians-have rendered the notion of 'capitalist democracy' into an oxymoron."

And: "Because there are no truly free places left in our world, I suspect that the mode for escape must involve some sort of new and hitherto untried process that leads us to some undiscovered country."

In this regard, Thiel's motivations may not be all that different to many of Trump's supporters: the system is stuffed, corrupted, rigged - burn it down, raze it to the ground: a kind of electoral scorched-earth policy.

Another place for an undiscovered country: the ocean. Thiel is a longstanding investor in seasteading, which hopes to establish new micro-states out in the ocean, like giant oil-rig nation states, libertarian utopias.

"When you start a company, true freedom is at the beginning of things," he has said, explaining his seasteading passion.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Photo / AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Photo / AP

"The US Constitution had things you could do at the beginning that you couldn't do later. So the question is, can you go back to the beginning of things? How do you start over?"

Perhaps Trump, too, is seen to represent a mechanism to reboot the US, whatever it entails.

The story of Thiel encompasses, too, the story of modern media. He was smart enough to make an early investment in Facebook, becoming one of its major shareholders and remains on the board of directors. Facebook, of course, has grown into the most powerful media publisher the world has ever known - although it continues to insist it's just a technology company - as confirmed by yesterday's announcement of a quarterly profit of US$2.38 billion, thanks to an increasingly dominant share of online advertising, revenue which would once have gone into funding newspaper journalism.

While Mark Zuckerberg is not everyone's cup of tea, we can count our blessings that he is the boss and not a guy who thinks it cool for a billionaire to secretly fund lawsuits to eradicate publishers they don't like and who actively supports a presidential candidate who, apart from everything else, wants to make it much easier to sue the press.

And, just quickly, Thiel also gives us a local angle, as a major investor in various New Zealand tech companies, and owner of homes in Auckland and Queenstown. Here too he is ahead of the curve: a Bloomberg article yesterday reported wealthy foreigners are flocking to buy NZ bolt holes, under the headline "Mega Rich Have Found an Unlikely New Refuge".

Thank goodness the likes of Thiel, who calls New Zealand "utopia" have an Anglophone getaway should a Brexit-Trump bonfire engulf both sides of the Atlantic.

Peter Thiel sums a lot up: in his orbit, witness everything from the colossal solipsism of Silicon Valley tech-utopianism, inequality and the insurgent super-rich, the subordination of traditional media to the might of Facebook, the "outsider" Trump with all its anti-establishment pitchforks and demons, even the New Zealand lifeboat cliché, in one fascinating, enervating, unclassifiable package. He fills my hopes, my dreams, my fears, though not so much the hopes, and only the really scary dreams.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the person, or let's just say the personification, of 2016: Peter Thiel.

- NZ Herald

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