Gawker, Peter Thiel, Trump, the Brittle Grip and the Case of the Century
Apple CEO Tim Cook, right, and PayPal founder Peter Thiel, center, listen as President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with technology industry leaders at Trump Tower in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

I just started reading this Buzzfeed article about Facebook board member and Trump backer Peter Thiel’s relationship with racist fringe groups. Thiel seems like an outlier in Silicon Valley because of his high profile support for Trump. But he is actually part of a rising tide of neo-authoritarian thought in the tech world which argues that democracy has failed and must be replaced. This reminded me of something I’ve been coming back to again and again with greater clarity and understanding its greater significance as the years have gone by.

At some point in 2015 I was sitting at my desk in TPM’s New York office’s talking with a good friend who worked at Gawker. The Hulk Hogan lawsuit had been on the horizon for a long time before it actually came to trial. In preparation Gawker founder and owner Nick Denton had recently cut some deal with a Russian oligarch to give Gawker deep enough pockets to withstand an adverse judgment which they anticipated and hoped could be reversed on appeal. My friend was walking me through all of these developments. He was very much preaching the Hulk Hogan lawsuit gospel. The future of freedom of the press, he told me, was on the line with Gawker’s fate.

I nodded in agreement with each point. As a publisher and strong supporter of press freedom, I supported Gawker’s position publicly and privately. And yet tucked away in my head part of me was saying, “C’mon. You published a sex tape.” Publishers see every libel suit and think there but for the grace of God. In this case, I knew to a certainty that this particular libel situation was not one TPM ever would have found itself in.

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The NRA’s Brittle Grip Prime Badge
Revisiting the “Brittle Grip”

We see reported today that a number of elite golf courses in the New York area rejected the White House’s requests to allow the President to play on their courses when he was in the area over the Labor Day weekend. Let’s start by stipulating that of the various kinds of respect or derision aimed at the first black president, his ‘golfing rights’, for lack of a better word, rate low on the list – certainly not ones the White House press office will want to focus on. Let’s further stipulate that if you pay a lot of money to belong to a country club/golf course you’d probably be a bit annoyed that the place had been taken over by the Secret Service when you were looking forward to playing on Labor Day weekend – the rest of us get a little bummed when whole urban centers are locked down because of Presidential visits.

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A Must-Read from the ‘Brittle Grip’ Series

I’ve been whittling away at this “brittle grip” series for a while now. And I confess it’s the first contemporary or public issue that I’ve felt any urge to write about at length in many years. But since I’m not able to do that I’ve had to content myself with observation, anecdote and hypotheses. Social psychology, economics, extensive interviews and much more would be necessary to really grasp the issue in all its dimensions. That’s why I was so charged to receive this reader email on the brittle grip theme from TPM Reader ML. It’s really, really worth your time to read.

I am an MBA and, after working in the “private sector” for a good while am back in the public policy world. I am also a fellow Brown grad (and long time reader – since early 2000s).

Anyway, I was, at one point, a real free market believer. I did some Jeff Sachs goes to Bolivia type of stuff. It was a heady time – the 90s. The market could bring prosperity to peasants in Bolivia (if only they let us privatize retirement and force them to become investors somehow). The market was good for you and everyone.

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Thoughts on the ‘Brittle Grip’

TPM Reader JL has some thoughts on the ‘brittle grip.’ This is a point I’ve given a good deal of thought to this point but more from the perspective of what the whipsaw effect of looking into the financial abyss and then getting all your money back and more. But JL looks at 2008 and Randian ideology …

Josh, love the Brittle Grip stuff. You’re definitely getting at something really important and the way Roberts is going, it’s getting more important, not less.

I just have one small thing to add. Maybe just another lens—one among many–through which to view all of this.

I’ve developed a rule of thumb over the last four or five years, maybe dating back to the Santelli rant that ignited the tea party. Maybe it was a bit before that, maybe a bit after. In any case, the rule of thumb is this: when it comes to the outer fringes of conservative thought–or at least what would have been outer fringes ten, twenty years ago, and now looks more like orthodoxy–never underestimate the influence of Ayn Rand. And that influence seems to run particularly deep on Wall Street and maybe even deeper in places like Greenwich and Menlo Park that are home to so many in the 0.01%.

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My Brittle Grip Series

I don’t think I’ve ever done this before. But I’ve had a number of readers write in today asking that I link to each post from the “brittle grip” series I’ve been doing – the most recent of which was this morning. If you’re new to this: it’s a series of posts (going back a couple years) about the seemingly growing insecurity of vast wealth, even as the power of the wealthiest Americans – judged by most conceivable metrics – has risen dramatically over recent years and certain over the last few decades. What’s behind a Tom Perkins Kristallnacht outburst? The antipathy of Wall Street toward President Obama? The widespread belief among the very wealthiest Americans (let’s say centimillionaires) that wealth is under siege.

The Brittle Grip … May 21st, 2012

The Brittle Grip, Part 2 … January 25th, 2014

The Brittle Grip, Part 3 … April 3rd, 2014

The Brittle Grip, Part 3

There is a level of vilification that is not appropriate in politics. Having someone make fun of your name does not reach that high threshold.

We can have some fun with billionaire Charles Koch’s Perkinsesque cri de coeur about attacks on him, his political giving and his “vision for a free society” as he puts it. But it is in line with, part of, the Perkinsonian vision of contemporary American political economy in which the extremely powerful nonetheless feel embattled and threatened. I see it as part of the larger story I wrote about here as the “brittle grip.”

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The Brittle Grip, Part 2

If you’ve been in the media slipstream today you know the outrage and mockery directed at Tom Perkins, one of the world’s wealthiest and most successful Silicon Valley venture capitalists, for an oped he wrote in the Wall Street Journal comparing the rising critique of income inequality and “the 1%” to Kristallnacht. Just so we’re all on the same page, Kristallnacht (“the night of shattered glass”) was essentially the opening act of Hitler’s Final Solution. It took place on November 9th and 10th, 1938. This claim manages simultaneously to be so logically ridiculous and morally hideous that Perkins deserves every bit of abuse he’s already receiving.

But I think we’re missing the point if we see this as the gaffe of one aging, coddled jerk. Because it’s only a more extreme and preposterous version of beliefs that have become increasingly widespread in the wealthiest sectors of American society, especially since 2008 and the twin events of the global financial crisis and the election of Barack Obama.

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The Brittle Grip

Republicans often say that the business community feels threatened by President Obama — that he’s hostile to money, hostile to business, etc. You’ve heard this before. And much of it is campaign chatter. But not all. I don’t think we can understand the dynamics of this campaign without getting that a lot of it is actually true — not the reality necessarily (in my mind not the reality at all) but the perception of it in key parts of the financial sector like Wall Street, venture capital and the dread world of private equity. Read More

Notes, Part 2 Prime Badge

TPM Reader JEB follows up with some thoughts on Trumpism, strongman rule and extreme wealth …

As it’s a slow Thanksgiving weekend Friday I re-read your “Brittle Grip” series of posts. You spoke today about the global rise of extreme wealth and strongman rule, though you had previously written mostly about the United States only. This prompts a few thoughts.

The first is the most obvious. Strongman rule has been around for a long time. In one form or another it long characterized the government of nations in several regions of the world. Most of those nations were not especially wealthy; your typical local strongman held political power but not a great deal of economic power, certainly not compared to the United States or the European countries. This has changed somewhat in recent years, more in some countries than in others.

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Notes

A bit uncharacteristically and somewhat uncomfortably I’ve been mulling over a series of issues and commonalities connecting the global rise of strongman rule, Trumpism and extreme wealth but without feeling I’d pulled my thoughts together sufficiently to write about it. So absent any new posts, I thought I’d share the list of earlier posts I’ve been reading through to focus my thoughts.

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A Huge, Huge Deal

Here and there we’ve reported on the Hulk Hogan lawsuit against Gawker. As you probably know, Hogan won the case and won a massive judgment of $115 million dollars and an additional $25 million in punitive damages. While it is widely believed that the verdict is likely to be reversed on appeal or at least the judgment dramatically reduced, Gawker had to immediately place $50 million into escrow. The anticipated need to produce that sum forced Gawker to sell an undisclosed amount of the company to a Russian oligarch named Viktor Vekselberg. Simple fact: It’s hard to feel too much sympathy when a publication gets sued for publishing excerpts of someone’s sex tape. But some new information emerged this morning that, in my mind, significantly changes the picture.

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The Oligarchs’ World

When I first saw the news the some anonymous buyer had purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the largest paper in the state, it occurred to me that we might be seeing the next big step in the oligarchification of public life in America. To be clear, rich people have been buying newspapers for a mix of vanity and political influence for generations. There’s absolutely nothing new about it, though in the past there was usually a deeper rootedness in the communities in question. The Chandler family and The Los Angeles Times is a good example of that history. But you always knew who they were.

Now we know that Sheldon Adelson is the purchaser of the Review-Journal, and given his demonstrated willingness to buy power and influence on a massive scale, one can only imagine what a joke the paper will soon become. But here’s where things connect up, where this connects up to other strains of the oligarchification of America.

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Another Angle Entirely

TPM Reader RD has a totally different take on ‘the brittle grip‘. I don’t think most of it is this. But perhaps some of it does have to do with the changing nature of how we communicate. Of course, these two categories of explanation are perhaps more porous than we imagine …

I have been (re) reading these articles and was trying to get my head around of “why now” are they (the .01 percent) becoming demonstrative about basically being “called out” in the media. I think Josh is hearing the issue but has not yet offered a reason. After thinking back over 65 + years I can offer one idea: They have not really changed at all with their outrage.

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He’s Sorry, Or Not

It sounds like Tom Perkins got a talking to by the ADL (“pleasant discussion with Abe Foxman”, in his words) and now he’s apologizing for his “Kristallnacht” usage. I have the video of Perkins comments after the jump. What’s interesting, though, is what he’s apologizing for. It’s sort of narrowly about offending Jews or just being awful in comparing anything happening in the US to what happened under the Third Reich and the Holocaust.

But basically, he still thinks his message was right. Just poorly worded. Just that one word. “As a messenger I’ve been shot, but read the message.” Watch it. It’s slightly endearing, kind of weird and awkward at times. Clearly, this is a guy who’s not used to being at the center of a media firestorm. There’s much less of the shock of the horrible comparison but no less of the cluelessness, and self-awareness gap that made his letter to the editor so memorable.

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The Examples Come Fast and Furious

Only a few days I mentioned a dark new trend that went big with the Gawker lawsuit, backed by Peter Thiel and then was further empowered by President Trump himself, who essentially adopted the lead lawyer, Charles Harder, as his and the White House’s house lawyer threatening new publications with ruin over criticism of the President. Here’s another part of the same broad story.

Tired of the advice he was getting from his actual public health advisors President Trump recently brought in a rightwing radiologist with no experience in epidemiology to advise him on COVID. Scott Atlas is generally held to be an advocate of ‘herd immunity’ strategies for COVID. A group of 78 of his colleagues at Stanford Medical School wrote an open letter accusing him of hawking “falsehoods and misrepresentations of science” in his advice to the President.

Atlas has now gotten another Trump house lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, to send a threat letter to the group threatening a defamation lawsuit.

Wanted: Better Defenses of Peter Thiel

I’ve gotten a flood of responses to my post on the news that tech billionaire Peter Thiel was bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker and now a raft of unrelated lawsuits against the same website. Most agreed with my take; some didn’t. But the critiques seemed to be typified by this response in The American Interest which a number of people sent me. So I thought I’d depart from form and respond directly.

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Bill Moyers: This Is The Speech President Obama Should Give Next
Will Trump Rebrand GOP As White Nationalist Party?

Is Donald Trump a ‘populist’, the candidate of resentment and privilege or simply the final embodiment of the Crazy, the Crazy made flesh and coming amongst us, the Jesus who was foretold by Michele Bachmann’s John the Baptist. One of the great injuries Trump has already done to America and our collective dignity is that we are now forced to take him seriously in terms of understanding what he represents in political terms since he’s not going anywhere and only appears to be gaining strength.

Much of what has driven the GOP in the Obama era has been anxiety and resentment about losing out to rising forces in the American political-economy and culture – the decreasing white share of the national electorate (embodied by but also partly connected to Barack Obama’s election), changing social and cultural mores (support for LGBT rights) driven by Americans under the age of 35, a renascent and assertive women’s movement and the increasing defensiveness or even paranoia of organized wealth.

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He’s Doubling Down!

Tom Perkins, the venture capitalist who said critiques of the 1% could lead to a Holocaust against wealthy people is doubling down in new comments to Bloomberg. “In the Nazi era it was racial demonization, now it is class demonization,” says Perkins.

In case you missed it, here’s my take on where this kind of insanity is coming from.

Let me have your

Let me have your attention for a moment.

There’s a brutal, astonishing and final dispatch today from Lawrence Kaplan at the New Republic blog, The Plank. Let me reprint it in full …

Even by the degraded standards of everyday life in Baghdad, this report from CNN’s Nic Robertson comes as a shock:

One international official told me of reports among his staff that a 15-year-old girl had been beheaded and a dog’s head sewn on her body in its place; and of a young child who had had his hands drilled and bolted together before being killed.

From its gruesome particulars, the report goes on to describe the fear that has gripped even the most hardened Iraqis during this latest round of sectarian bloodletting. Robertson’s dispatch points to a revolting truth about the war in Iraq–one that American officers discovered long ago, but which has yet to penetrate fully the imaginations of theoreticians writing from a distant remove. The fact is, there is very little that we can do to dampen the sectarian rage and pathologies tearing Iraq apart at the seams. Did the Army make a mistake when it banished “counterinsurgency” from the lexicon of military affairs? Absolutely. Does it matter in Iraq? Probably not. How can you win over the heart and mind of someone who sews a dog’s head on a girl? Would more U.S. troops alter Iraq’s homicidal dynamic? Not really, given that, on the question of sectarian rage, America is now largely beside the point. True, U.S. troops can be–and have been–a vital buffer between Iraq’s warring sects. But they cannot reprogram their coarsened and brittle cultures. Even if America had arrived in Iraq with a detailed post-war plan, twice the number of troops, and all the counterinsurgency expertise in the world, my guess is that we would have found ourselves in exactly the same spot. The Iraqis, after all, still would have had the final say.

The brutality described here is difficult to move past. But I want to try. As we walk around the carnage, it’s worth noting too that there’s a good measure of excuse-making Kaplan has bundled into this post. In those rhetorical questions toward the end, he is reviewing a series of debates which his side of the debate (the regime-change, Chalabi, transformation of the Middle East side) was now clearly on the wrong side of.

He raises them to dismiss them. Did we have a crappy post-war plan, Kaplan asks. Yes, he answers, but in the end it didn’t matter one way or another.

My point here isn’t to pile on. To a degree at least, on these points, he’s clearly right.

What I want to focus on is the final, totalizing message — one that’s worth taking note of. You could summarize what Kaplan is saying as, Our guns and our money and ideas are no match for their history and their hate.

And that — phrased different ways or from different perspectives — was the conservative realist line of opposition to the whole enterprise — the arguments Kaplan and his compatriots villified and slurred for literally years. Kaplan’s one of the smartest and most candid of the neocons (not much of a compliment in itself, I grant you, but deserved in a fuller sense in his case). But here you have the final come-down. Not an admission of error here or there or in execution, but total — that the whole idea and concept and program was upside-down-wrong in its essence.

Mark the moment — that’s the ghost given up.

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