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 Thiel’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 there, it risks getting lost in the incessant repositioning of oneself against a fickle discourse.
... sharp and disturbing ... Chafkin’s chronicle of Thiel’s wild abandon during the Obama years contains some of the most suspenseful passages in the book, as the narrative hurtles toward his acquisition of actual political power ... Chafkin is especially interested in the friction between Zuckerberg and Thiel, who drifted apart for a time as Thiel became more involved in conservative politics. The words spent on discord in this relationship — and on tension between Thiel and other tech titans — distract from the more urgent chronicle of Thiel’s rise as one of the pre-eminent authors of the contemporary far-right movement ... chilling — literally chilling. As I read it, I grew colder and colder, until I found myself curled up under a blanket on a sunny day, icy and anxious. Scared people are scary, and Chafkin’s masterly evocation of his subject’s galactic fear — of liberals, of the U.S. government, of death — turns Thiel himself into a threat. I tried to tell myself that Thiel is just another rapacious solipsist, in it for the money, but I used to tell myself that about another rapacious solipsist, and he became president.
... entertaining and disturbing ... In the end, the answer to the riddle of what Thiel truly believes is a disappointing one—not through any fault of Chafkin’s, but because his subject is less fascinating than he would have us believe. For all his intellectual horsepower, Thiel is a painfully recognizable type to anyone familiar with Tucker Carlson, Stephen Miller or Andrew Breitbart — all brainy conservatives who came of age in California, revolted by, and revolting against, its prevailing progressive mores ... Chafkin’s title has it exactly right: Thiel is a contrarian, a man who doesn’t truly stand for anything — only against. What could be more boring than that?