The hottest ticket in town in Los Angeles these days isn’t what you’d imagine. It’s not an invite to the opening of Christian Marclay’s Snapchat-driven art installation at LACMA. Or an opportunity to walk the red carpet with Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro at the premiere of Joker. And it certainly isn’t a fortuity to attend one of the countless fundraising soirees by presidential nominees in Beverly Hills or Hancock Park, where, for the cost of a down payment on a car, you can take a selfie with Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, or Pete Buttigieg. Counterintuitively, in this way-beyond-liberal city, the hottest ticket is an invite to a dinner hosted by one of the people who helped get Donald J. Trump elected in 2016: Peter Thiel.
When Thiel very publicly renounced Silicon Valley a year and a half ago, his central complaint was that it had become a monoculture, which, even given the movie business, Los Angeles definitely isn’t. Not everyone is eligible for a meal with Thiel. He doesn’t entertain fools at these dinners (with the exception of one recent supper with one very big fool, which we’ll get to in a bit). The dinners don’t just take place in L.A., though, as of late, most have. (Thiel owns homes in L.A. and New York, and a hideout in New Zealand.) But Hollywood has recently become his hub of choice, where he has drawn-out dinner parties with an eclectic variety of guests, from WWE wrestlers to authors, investors, entrepreneurs, celebrities, podcasters, and tech titans. The dinners are almost always catered by Thiel’s chef, who regularly travels with him to his homes, and the meals are often a paleo-themed affair. The food, said one person I spoke with who attended a dinner, is “quite delicious, actually.” Where things get interesting is in the conversation.
In many quarters, especially liberal ones, Thiel is seen as a right-wing super-villain, rich and smart and evil—mostly evil, starting with his role in helping Trump get elected. Then there was the secret backing of Hulk Hogan’s devastating lawsuit against Gawker Media, nearly 10 years after the outlet wrote an article about Thiel’s sexual orientation that he seems to have taken slightly personally. (Although by no means does everyone mourn the fall of Nick Denton’s mean media empire.) Others decry him for cofounding Palantir, a big data behemoth with government contracts, which has been labeled by some journalists as one of the most terrifying companies in Silicon Valley. And then there’s the compendium of politically paleo ideas Thiel has vocalized in the past, like his belief that allowing women to vote was bad for democracy (he later added that it would be “absurd to suggest that women’s votes will be taken away”), or, shortly after Trump won, that people should take Trump “seriously, but not literally”.
But there are also attributes about Thiel that people genuinely like and respect—often people who resent him for one, or all, of the above. He’s an undeniably curious person. He’s obsessively interested in deep discussions about an array of topics, from global issues to economic, technological to societal. Unlike some liberals of his stature and influence and wealth, who only want to talk to people with like-minded viewpoints so they can understand how to destroy their opponents, Thiel seems to have a genuine interest in contrarian conversations, and not just for the sake of argument. He really wants to engage people in hearing differing viewpoints about everything affecting society today and in the future, from foreign affairs to China–U.S. relations and the role A.I. will play in modern medicine and on the battlefield—pretty much any topic you’d find discussed in a Washington think tank. One person who has been his dinner guest said Thiel requires that people use what he calls “steel-man arguments versus straw-man arguments,” and, this person noted, the meal discussions “are never gossip about other people.” Which leads us to that one dinner with that one fool.