We need to be as skeptical of Silicon Valley billionaires as we are of any other billionaire

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Elon Musk meeting with President Obama, courtesy wikimedia.org

We all know billionaires have a disproportionately weighted amount of power and influence in our society. That’s no secret. Billionaires like the Koch brothers and the Adelson family have bought and influenced elections across the country for years. While I’d argue this influence needs to regulated and reigned in, it’s not new.

Some billionaires however – particularly the new class of Silicon Valley billionaires – seem to feel their wealth lays upon them a responsibility to change the world. Jeff Bezos bought the most influential political newspaper in the country, the Washington Post. Mark Zuckerberg has been mysteriously touring Iowa, which just so happens to be the most important state in the Democratic primary. Mark Cuban has also not ruled out a run for president.

Elon Musk is the perfect example. One of the founders of Paypal, and the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, he feels that since he has earned tremendous wealth, that he should do his part to fix the world’s problems. Musk is typically well loved among members of the public, and has used his wealth to take on a number of challenges from global warming, to the colonization of other planets, to traffic congestion in California. He feels that he should be using his wealth to make the world a better place.

Then we come to Peter Thiel. Another cofounder of PayPal with Musk, Peter Thiel feels that it is also his responsibility to use his billions to fix the world’s problems. Thing is, Thiel has a totally different worldview than Musk, and along with it, a totally different set of “the world’s problems” which need “fixing.”

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Peter Thiel, courtesy flickr.com

Thiel is notoriously a neoreactionary – which means that he believes our democracy and institutions have failed us, and that humanity needs an authoritarian strongman to lead it towards greatness. Thus it should be no surprise that he has supported Trump, and holds some of the same views against a free press that Trump holds. Thiel is largely responsible for taking down the website Gawker, either out of vindictiveness for stories published about him or out of motivations to curtail the perceived “bullies” of the free press, by funding the Hulk Hogan lawsuit against the company.

Can we not see how dangerous this thinking is? Believing that it is your responsibility to fix the perceived problems in the world is all well and good if your perceived “problems” align with the rest of our perceived problems. But what if they don’t? What if you perceive the “problems” in the world to be the first amendment and the people’s right to assemble and petition their government?

Being a billionaire does not give you authority – given that this was the fuel behind Trump’s candidacy for president, we see how flawed that argument can be. All it does is give you wealth and power. We the public need to be much more skeptical of these Silicon Valley billionaires. It is easy to want to see the founders of the devices and websites we love as leaders and heroes, but they don’t know any better about how to run society than you or me. And the more skeptical we are of Silicon Valley billionaires, just like any other billionaire, the better off we’ll be, and the less likely the left will get caught up in an all too familiar populist wave behind an incompetent leader.

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The Rise of American Authoritarianism

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Steve Bannon, White House Chief Strategist, source: Time Magazine

Think of your average super villain. Dr. Doom, Lex Luthor, Magneto, Loki, Darth Vader. Typically they share a common motivation: autocratic power. They are villains in our stories because they don’t believe in liberty and democracy, and instead try to “take over the world” and consolidate global power under their own rule.

Before I lose you because you think I’m going to call Donald Trump or Steve Bannon a comic book villain, I’m not. But there’s a very good reason this type of power is considered villainy in our culture. Modern democratic societies, since their inception in the 18th century enlightenment and the American Revolution, have for the most part shattered all other power structures in a very short period of time and spread like wildfire throughout the world. Critics will tell you that democracy is not morally superior to other forms of government (democracy is just as capable of genocide as fascism), but it is a superior power dynamic due to its most critical aspect – peaceful transition of power, which allows for a new party or movement to take power of the government without revolution or civil war.

There is a growing movement in our country and around the world right now that is opposed to democracy. There is a body of authoritarian movements – movements with a unifying theme of placing a strongman in power who will “set us straight again” and ignore or outright defy the systems meant to check his power – that are not just gathering momentum, but have already steamrolled their way into our government. The rest of us who believe in the tenets of representative democracy, in checks and balances and equal branches of government, in civil and inalienable rights, have been behind the 8 ball because we have not taken this seriously enough.

This might sound like hyperbole, but if you don’t believe me, look into neoreaction. Abbreviated “NRx,” neoreaction teaches that democracy is inefficient, ineffective, and has outlasted its welcome on Earth. They believe that this system must be replaced by a power structure based on autocracy, with power held in a single leader, and with clear ownership and chains of command. They believe the government must be run much like a private company, where the owner or CEO makes decisions independent of any other bodies, that are then executed unquestioned by his staff.

This might just sound like a bunch of edgy teenagers on the internet just beginning to develop their politics… that is, until you take a look at the White House inner circle. Particularly Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart editor, now White House Chief Strategist, who has inserted himself into the National Security Council and inserted his worldview into government policy. Bannon is reportedly a reader of neoreactionary thought, and his former outlet Breitbart is considered “alt-right.” We’ve all heard of the alt-right by now, which is a loose far right political ideology that questions or rejects egalitarianism, and roughly believes that all races, genders, and national identities have the right to compete independently for dominance in society.

We can’t be 100% certain what Bannon’s worldview is, but we can deduce. And being a key adviser in the Trump Administration, we can see that play out in the anti-democratic hands all over their policy and political strategy. Any entity that acts as a check on the power of the Executive Branch is treated as an enemy – the press, the courts, the popular vote, the opposition party, facts. We can argue all day whether or not the President truly believes in this, or whether he “gets it,” but it is clear that the people surrounding him do. And they’re not stupid.

This administration is quickly showing one of the following to be true: it either doesn’t know about the tenets of democracy, it doesn’t care, or it is actively opposed to it. And unfortunately, the most likely explanation so far seems that they are actively opposed. Anybody who is hoping for change through the traditional democratic means – voting, elections, free expression and assembly, petitioning their government – should have their eyelids shooting open. There is a powerful threat to democracy right now, one that usurped immense power before our very eyes, and we need to catch up. This is not a joke.

If you believe that your positions are right and true, that they truly benefit the most people on Earth, then why be opposed to democracy? Democracy has proven itself to allow for change in government philosophy, over time – through dialog and critical thought, through spreading your ideas and getting as many people as possible on board with your version of change. Democracy allows for the strongest ideas to filter to the top. If your philosophy is strong, if it can survive the tests and strains put on it by questioning and political challenge, then it can cause change in government rather easily compared to other power structures.

There is only one reason that you would be against democracy, and that is to force your worldview onto everybody else, regardless of whether it hurts them or not. Authoritarianism does not account for the minority, for the marginalized, for the smallest voices in our society to have their issues recognized and attended to. It does not account for issues that affect groups large enough to assemble and petition their government. Most of all, it does not account for the ability of a country’s people to cause change, because throughout history the only way change occurs in these autocratic societies is through bloodshed and war. And that is where anti-democratic thought fails.

However, the anti-democracy movement itself will not fail unless it is resisted, powerfully. The traditional means of petitioning our government have not failed yet. The checks on the Executive Branch have flexed their muscle – namely the courts and the press. Congress is under immense pressure from their constituents to investigate ties to foreign dictators (though they are also under immense pressure to pass conservative legislation, which is holding them back from doing so).

The first step to fixing a problem is acceptance. We have not yet accepted, collectively, that this is no longer a fringe meme constrained to internet forums. We must collectively accept that we not only have an anti-democracy problem in this country, but that this movement has infiltrated our government like never before. Regardless of how you feel about Donald Trump, please recognize that at the very least, the people around him and in his ear are pushing him to authoritarian, autocratic tendencies. The resistance to this is not just “the corrupt establishment fighting back against the man of the people,” or the Democrats whining about their election loss. Many were willing to work with Trump on areas where their beliefs coincide. Instead, the resistance is to these authoritarian tendencies that threaten to undermine our democracy. These are dangerous precedents to set, and in a lot of ways the damage has already been done. Going forward it is up to us to collectively, and firmly, say “no.”


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