Last October, Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel sat in the cavernous Dallas movie studio from which Glenn Beck broadcasts his radio show, and laid out for the listeners at home his vision of the coming economic apocalypse.
In keeping with his devout libertarianism, the Paypal cofounder argued that inflation and artificially low interest rates were combining to create a bubble that would soon burst to catastrophic effect, and he hung the blame squarely on a corrupt, politically motivated Federal Reserve.
"They're going to do everything they can to push easy money to help Hillary Clinton get elected in 2016," Thiel said. "But I would predict that if she wins, she will become a one-term president, because..."
"It will break," Beck interjected, ominously.
"It will break," Thiel agreed. "It will break."
"Will it break no matter who is president?" asked one of Beck's on-air sidekicks.
Thiel nodded. "I sort of think that, you know, you might not want to win in 2016, because I think they can't keep it going for six more years no matter what... The silver lining to a Clinton presidency will be that there will be clarity — that it will be because of their set of policies that have brought this about." Beck wanted to squeeze in a follow-up question before the commercial break, but time was short.
"We have 30 seconds," the host said. "I was going to ask you... if there's anybody on the horizon, politically, that you see that gives you any kind of hope out there."
Thiel grinned, and then coughed up a chuckle. "I'm glad we're out of time."
The question of Thiel's loyalties looms large in the Republicans' heated 2016 fundraising race. The gay, libertarian tech tycoon has funneled millions of dollars in recent years to a diverse array of causes and campaigns, from marriage equality advocacy groups to insurgent Tea Party candidates. In an era when a single motivated billionaire can prop up a presidential candidate all on his own, Thiel's endorsement would be a major coup for any campaign. But only two contenders in the emerging GOP field can claim an inside track to the billionaire's cash: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Thiel's ties to Paul, who is expected to announce his presidential campaign early next month, are well established. During the 2012 election, Thiel gave $2.6 million to a super PAC supporting Rand's father, Ron Paul — an eccentric libertarian protest candidate with a narrow but devoted grassroots following. And since then, he has reportedly been an ally and adviser to the younger Paul, opening doors for the senator in Silicon Valley, connecting him with donors and tech operatives, and meeting privately with him as recently as last summer.
Advisers and high-level supporters in Paul's orbit have often cited Thiel's presumed support as a counterpoint to those who question whether the prospective candidate can raise enough money to sustain a serious presidential campaign. Last year, when a New York Times story described Paul's political and fundraising infrastructure as feeble and unimpressive, his advisers fired back by giving the Washington Post an exclusive on its 50-state political network. The Post story described Thiel as a "looming figure in Paul's constellation of friends, advisers, and possible bundlers," and "one of his top West Coast allies."
Less well known, however, is Thiel's longtime support for Cruz, who announced his presidential candidacy this week. In 2009, Thiel contributed $251,000 to support the star litigator's bid for Texas attorney general. Cruz eventually aborted the campaign, but the billionaire's donations made up one-fifth of his entire campaign war chest. When he then ran for Senate in 2012, Thiel plowed $1 million into Club for Growth, the conservative pressure group that heavily funded Cruz's primary bid.
Asked about Cruz last September, Thiel told The Daily Caller, "Well I think he's very smart. I think one of the challenges we have in the Republican Party is… our representatives, our senators, are somewhat lower IQ than the people on the other side. So, I think there is something to be said for getting some really smart people in there."
Thiel's financial support would be a much-needed boon to Cruz, whose strident anti-establishment persona and high-profile role in the 2013 government shutdown has alienated much of the GOP's donor class. It would also deny a key backer to Paul, who is viewed as one of Cruz's main rivals in the fight for early-state conservative voters.
Thiel has not yet announced his support for any presidential candidate, and through a spokesman, he declined to comment for this article. Advisers to both Paul and Cruz also declined comment, but people in both camps said they are courting the billionaire.
One open question is how Thiel plans to approach his political giving in the 2016 cycle. In 2012, when he contributed millions to Paul's candidacy, he openly acknowledged that it was an act of defiance against the political establishment. In a speech to libertarian activists in February, 2012, he flatly said the current economic bubble formed by the state was "probably big enough to get Barack Obama re-elected."
Rand Paul and Cruz are both outspoken critics of political entrenchment and corruption in Washington, but they are much more mainstream than Ron Paul — and if the goal is to rage against the machine, Thiel might not get much satisfaction from writing checks to their super PACs.
And while Thiel expressed doubts to Beck that the outcome of the 2016 race could possibly stave off an impending economic crisis, he has sounded more broadly fatalistic about the political process as well.
"I'm sort of skeptical of how much voting actually works in the first place," Thiel said in 2012. "I used to think that it was really important to directly change the political system, to convince people of things. I still think it's intellectually very important. Occasionally, you get some converts that way. But it's really an inefficient way of doing things."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.