Opinion

The Violent Fantasies of Blake Masters

Blake Masters’s first campaign ad opens with a shot of the Sonoran Desert. A plaintive piano theme tinkles as Mr. Masters, a 35-year-old venture capitalist and, as of early Wednesday morning, the Republican nominee for Senate in Arizona, delivers a monologue in voice-over. “The truth is, we can’t take America for granted,” he says. “And if we want to keep it, we’ve got to fight for it.”

The angles are wide, and the focus is deep. The camera floats above the ground, drifting after a boy’s legs running over the dunes and peering upward at Mr. Masters and his family hiking at the golden hour. In another video, from November, Mr. Masters stands in the desert cradling a gun. “This is a short-barreled rifle,” he says. “It wasn’t designed for hunting. This is designed to kill people.”

Mr. Masters has saidthat his ads, which mingle scenes of wistful domesticity with bellicose rhetoric and stark vistas of Arizona wilderness, were inspired by the films of Terrence Malick, the enigmatic American director. Mr. Malick once told an interviewer that in filming “Badlands” — a movie set in 1958 about young lovers on a killing spree — he tried to minimize ’50s-era visual cues. “Nostalgia,” he said, “is a powerful feeling; it can drown out anything.” Instead, he wanted the film to feel like “a fairy tale, outside time.” This, he hoped, would “take a little of the sharpness out of the violence but still keep its dreamy quality.”

Perhaps Mr. Masters is trying to strike a similar balance. Juxtaposing pastoral serenity with masculine violence, his ads conjure a latent darkness — an eagerness to subdue through coercion and threat — undergirding the American dream.

In his victory speech in Chandler, Ariz., on Tuesday night, Mr. Masters — who was endorsed by Donald Trump in June — echoed the themes of his campaign: America is in trouble, riddled with crime and disorder; illegal immigration is an invasion; Big Tech is censoring conservatives and colonizing young people’s minds, while globalist corporations outsource jobs and make American life all but unlivable for middle-class families. In his speech, Mr. Masters attacked “a small minority of hard-core Democratic Party activists” who, he said, “control newspapers and television and schools and universities — and you better believe they control Big Tech, too,” framing the race as a battle against “the cartels,” “giant global corporations” and “a system that’s actively trying to destroy families.”

Where Donald Trump was merely a vehicle for disruption, Mr. Masters sees himself and his allies as midwives of transformation.Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

To close followers of conservative politics, this message may sound familiar. Mr. Masters is unmistakably a figure of the New Right: militant, internet-savvy culture warriors who position themselves as insurgent challengers of the sclerotic establishment in both parties. No longer doctrinaire libertarians, they see coercive state power as an indispensable tool for achieving conservative ends: mandating patriotic curriculums in schools, supporting the formation of “native-born” families, banning abortion and pornography, and turning back the rights revolution for L.G.B.T.Q. Americans.

“If you’re not using any political power to shore up a good society that follows the rule of law,” Mr. Masters warned recently, “you’ll get rolled.” Locked in civilizational battle with the radical left — the “enemy of true progress, the enemy of everything that is good” — conservatives who insist on libertarian orthodoxy are, for Mr. Masters, like pacifists in wartime: “You can recite an eloquent poem about pacifism right before they line you up against the wall and shoot you.”

For many young Trumpists, Mr. Masters is a dream candidate: a true believer who — as a ubiquitous New Right shibboleth has it — knows what time it is. He wants to ban “critical race theory” from schools and defund “gender ideology.” His campaign distributes yard signs that read, “Blake Masters won’t ask your pronouns in the U.S. Senate.” And he recently told the conservative talk show host Charlie Kirk that Dr. Anthony Fauci “will see the inside of a prison cell this decade.”

Likewise, his Twitter account is an endless stream of insular right-wing watchwords. In April, he called the Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson a “pedophile apologist.” In November, he tweeted, “When a society celebrates Antifa looters, arsonists, and pedophiles as heroes, while turning brave people like Kyle Rittenhouse into villains, it is a society that is not long for this world.” He frequently amplifies Mr. Trump’s 2020 election lies and he recently suggested that Democrats will “cheat” in the midterms.

But Mr. Masters also represents a distinctive innovation upon the swaggering MAGA message of other Republican hopefuls. A quintessential nerdy jock, he seems more Menlo Park than Capitol Hill; even in his pastoral campaign videos, he can sometimes be seen holding an iPad. He keeps a great deal of his wealth in cryptocurrencies. He is the well-groomed avatar of a hard-right Silicon Valley brain trust, including his former employer, the billionaire investor Peter Thiel, and an array of farseeing, anti-democratic titans of industry who see America as a stagnant and feeble empire in desperate need of vitalist reinvention.

Where Mr. Trump was merely a vehicle for disruption, Mr. Masters sees himself and his allies — including his fellow Thiel-backed Senate hopeful J.D. Vance of Ohio — as midwives of transformation.

A Masters campaign event in Lake Havasu City, Ariz. His nomination is a sign of a growing conservative appetite for radical solutions to American decline.Credit…Bridget Bennett for The New York Times

Their diagnoses of American malaise are not fantastical; everyone can see the country is in trouble. But their prescriptions for how to fix it, the means they are willing to entertain to do so, are far outside the American mainstream, drawing on an political vision that sees democracy as an obstacle to the urgent interventions of enlightened philosopher kings.

Most strikingly, Mr. Masters’s presentation — mannered and serious; boyish but grave — is utterly devoid of Trumpian camp; there is none of the irony and kitsch that clung to Mr. Trump even in his cruelest moments. What’s left is only bitterness, enmity and a histrionic vision of a world being torn apart by the globalist left.

Mr. Masters faces a vulnerable Democratic incumbent, Mark Kelly, in November, but even if he doesn’t prevail, his nomination is a clear sign of a growing conservative appetite for radical solutions to American decline. If Mr. Masters does win, however, it may well be his bizarre and menacing vision of American politics — not the rosy amnesia of Mike Pence or the truculent populism of Ron DeSantis — that defines the future of the Republican Party.

Like many conservatives of his generation, Mr. Masters started out a libertarian.

At 19, he blogged on LiveJournal under the username kinggps in support of drug legalization, unfettered immigration and the elimination of the Supreme Court, which, he wrote, is “little more than a coercive microcosm of democracy.” As for national borders, Mr. Masters wrote, “Are we really supposed to believe that a government can draw a line in the sand, and that the people living on one side are somehow inherently different or deserving of more or less rights” than “those on the other?”

Mr. Masters shared his political musings in forums for body builders, CrossFit and gun enthusiasts, his online presence exuding the overconfidence, haughty logic-chopping, and occasional paranoia typical of late-aughts libertarianism. “I don’t mean any disrespect — but it takes years to understand where I’m coming from, let alone agree or disagree,” a beleaguered Mr. Masters posted on a CrossFit message board in 2007. He then signed off, recommending a workout for their minds: “taking 30 min. of your day” to read antiwar.com, the libertarian Mises Institute website, LewRockwell.com and CounterPunch.

A handful of dorm mates from Mr. Masters’s undergraduate years at Stanford told me he once recorded a liberty-themed rap, which, to my great regret, is no longer available online — though Mother Jones did uncover one 2008 video in which Mr. Masters wears Native American war paint and freestyles, “I’ve got the war paint on, as you can see/Who said what about cultural insensitivity?”

Mannered and serious, boyish but grave, Mr. Masters has none of the irony and kitsch that clung to Mr. Trump even in his cruelest moments.Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

Mr. Masters’s life and political trajectory changed in 2012, when, as a law student at Stanford, he took a class taught by Mr. Thiel, the early Facebook investor who co-founded PayPal and Palantir.

When they met, Mr. Thiel was on his own journey away from hard-core libertarianism toward a more traditionalist and muscular nationalism. Like Mr. Masters, he had backed Ron Paul for president in 2008. And in a programmatic essay published the following year, Mr. Thiel declared that he no longer believed democracy and freedom were compatible: “The great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms.”

Lamenting that there were “no truly free places left in our world,” Mr. Thiel placed his hopes in “some sort of new and hitherto untried process that leads us to some undiscovered country.” That country, he wagered, would be found in cyberspace, outer space or in the open ocean. (At the time, Mr. Thiel had begun investing in “seasteading,” which entails building libertarian communes on seaborne platforms in international waters.)

This worldview, pervasive in Silicon Valley at the time, can be summarized as a libertarianism of “exit.” In 1970, the economist Albert O. Hirschman identified the choices for dissatisfied constituents of a troubled organization, business or nation: They can “exit,” leaving the organization behind and building something new, or they can use their “voice” to improve it from within. (“Loyalty,” a third choice, mediates between the other two.)

“The fate of our world,” Mr. Thiel wrote in his 2009 essay, “may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.”

By the time Mr. Masters was his student, however, Mr. Thiel was losing confidence that unfettered capitalism, alone, would lead to a better future. He was preoccupied with stagnation and a sense that the motor of technological change had stalled out. (“We wanted flying cars — instead we got 140 characters,” he complained in 2011.) In his Stanford class, Mr. Thiel — seeming to draw as much from the writings of French philosopher and literary critic René Girard as from business economics — described the impulse to imitate competitors as the death knell of true innovation, which requires visionaries to zig while everyone else zags.

Enthralled by these lectures, Mr. Masters began posting his meticulous class notes, in essay form, on a blog. The notes became a sensation, leading Mr. Thiel and Mr. Masters to collaborate on a 2014 book, “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.” (The book is attributed to “Peter Thiel with Blake Masters.”) Since then, the two men’s lives have been entangled. Mr. Thiel invested in Mr. Masters’s start-up in 2012. And after he graduated from law school, he began working for Mr. Thiel, eventually becoming chief operating officer of Thiel Capital and president of the Thiel Foundation.

Mr. Masters is unmistakably a figure of the New Right: militant, internet-savvy culture warriors who position themselves as insurgent challengers of the establishment in both parties.Credit…Bridget Bennett for The New York Times

In “Zero to One,” Mr. Thiel and Mr. Masters describe the ideal founder as a sort of trollish uber-mensch: undaunted by censure, eager to offend, and constantly asking himself “the contrarian question”: What important truth do few people agree with me on? True innovation, they imply, requires heresy. Leaders must be willing to scandalize.

It was this philosophy that helped them see promise in Donald Trump. Where most conservative elites saw Mr. Trump’s offensiveness and vulgarity as a liability, Mr. Thiel and Mr. Masters saw it as an asset, a sign that he could disrupt establishment politics and break things open. As Mr. Masters said in an interview last year, “You can think of his administration as a start-up of sorts.”

But by investing in Mr. Trump, Mr. Thiel was also subtly reorienting his political posture. Once a leading advocate for “exit,” Mr. Thiel has since found his “voice,”using his wealth and power to shape American governance to his liking. In just a few years, he went from pining for off-world colonies and funding anarchist barges, to a prominent role on a presidential transition team.

Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder, was moving away from libertarianism toward a more traditionalist, muscular nationalism when Mr. Masters encountered him in 2012. Credit…Andrew White for The New York Times

In 2016, Mr. Thiel and Mr. Masters were charged with recommending appointees to populate the administrative state — a dream job for reformed libertarians convinced that their brilliant colleagues should be running the government. But their list of 150 names, Max Chafkin reported in his biography of Mr. Thiel, included people who were “too extreme even for the most extreme members of Trump’s inner circle.” The person they proposed for the F.D.A., for instance, was a tech mogul and bitcoin investor who had suggested replacing the agency with a “Yelp for drugs.”

“It was too much,” Steve Bannon told Mr. Chafkin. “People thought Trump was a disrupter. They had no earthly idea.”

For Mr. Thiel and Mr. Masters, the transition was a sign of greater disappointments to come. Despite all his bluster and chaos, Mr. Trump barely got anything done. Mr. Masters told National Review in November that an America First agenda “can’t just be doing tax cuts and deregulation and assuming that everything will work out.” But that’s basically all Mr. Trump accomplished.

Curtis Yarvin, an influential neo-reactionary blogger who is close to both Mr. Thiel and Mr. Masters, has furnished an explanation for this failure: Even a more dedicated nationalist than Mr. Trump would be thwarted in accomplishing his goals because he doesn’t actually control the state. Nothing happens without the consent of an unelected oligarchy of status-obsessed elites: the journalists and professors who shape the nation’s political reality, the corporate leaders who set its economic priorities, and the tenured agency bureaucrats empowered to decide, ultimately, how and whether to carry out the president’s will. This cabal, which Mr. Yarvin calls “the Cathedral,” has no investment in America’s national interest, only in the perpetuation of its own cultural hegemony.

A creature of Silicon Valley, Mr. Yarvin sees American governance as a piece of old software larded with junk code: an accumulation of inefficient solutions to coding errors encountered in its long existence. The best way to radically improve its operation, Mr. Yarvin reasons, is to cease adding more workarounds and get rid of the junk code in one fell swoop. How? By replacing the president with a “Caesar” figure or “monarch” who would bypass the Constitution, shut down independent news outlets like CNN and The New York Times, and abolish many federal agencies.

That may sound nuts. And yet, a sense that the American state has become too weak to achieve its own aims is common among intellectuals across the political spectrum. The economist Tyler Cowen’s “state capacity libertarianism” and the Times columnist Ezra Klein’s “supply-side progressivism” are distinct flavors of the same plaint. All of them identify an accumulation of regulations and administrative procedures as a hindrance to delivering the things people need — energy, drugs, housing and infrastructure — in greater and cheaper abundance.

What’s distinctive about Mr. Yarvin is his hostility to democracy as such, which Mr. Masters and Mr. Thiel seem to share. As James Pogue reported in Vanity Fair, Mr. Masters has taken to citing Mr. Yarvin on the campaign trail. He has repeatedly referred to his own campaign — like Mr. Trump’s presidency — as a “start-up.” And according to Thielite doctrine, start-ups are not democratic. As Mr. Masters records in the notes from one of Mr. Thiel’s lectures that didn’t make it into “Zero to One,” “A start-up is basically structured as a monarchy. We don’t call it that, of course,” because “anything that’s not democracy makes people uncomfortable.”

Mr. Thiel at the 2016 Republican National Convention. He sees America as a stagnant and feeble empire in desperate need of reinvention.Credit…Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

Founders should not run an “absolute dictatorship,” Mr. Thiel said, according to Mr. Masters’s notes, but they do need to be “more tyrant than mob” to give their companies the nimbleness to execute a singular, revolutionary vision. “The best arrangement,” Mr. Thiel said, “is a quasi-mythological structure where you have a kinglike founder” who can “do more” than a democratic ruler. Many members of the New Right have called for a “refounding,” a moment when the rules are suspended and rewritten from above.

In a rambling conversation with a former Trump administration official, Michael Anton, on a podcast last summer, Mr. Yarvin described in detail how a future Trump-figure (or Mr. Trump himself) could seize dictatorial power, even elaborating a blueprint for a more organized and successful version of Jan. 6. It would require federalizing the National Guard, the participation of sympathetic law enforcement, and a mass mobilization many orders of magnitude bigger than Jan. 6.

Of course, Mr. Masters and Mr. Thiel have never endorsed such a plan. And Mr. Anton is careful to emphasize repeatedly that he and Mr. Yarvin are having a merely “theoretical” discussion.

But given how catastrophic Mr. Masters believes America has become — a “dystopian hell-world” he has called it — one wonders what exactly is justified and when. “The usual narrative is that society should be organized to cater to and reward the people who play by the rules,” Mr. Masters wrote on his blog in 2012, once again summarizing Mr. Thiel’s lecture. “But perhaps we should focus more on the people who don’t play by the rules. Maybe they are, in some key way, the most important. Maybe we should let them off the hook.”

The Masters campaign declined to comment for this article. Mr. Masters’s adviser, Katie Miller, grew impatient when I told her I was hoping to trace his intellectual journey from libertarianism to Trumpism, telling me she didn’t want another hit job trying to link Mr. Masters to the “alt-right.” No doubt Ms. Miller and Mr. Masters will dismiss the analysis above as guilt by association, too. Sure, Mr. Thiel and Mr. Yarvin are Mr. Masters’s friends and donors; that doesn’t mean he shares all their beliefs.

Mr. Masters, for his part, has insisted that if elected, he won’t be Mr. Thiel’s puppet. “I’ll hear him out because he’s smart,” he told Politico. “And I’ll take some votes that piss him off.” (It’s not clear which votes those might be. But Mr. Masters has said, despite having teared up at Mr. Thiel and his husband’s wedding in 2017, that he believes the Supreme Court erred in its Obergefell decision and that marriage ought to be “between a man and a woman.”)

In any case, it may not matter if Mr. Masters has some bonkers ideas; one senator with monarchist sympathies does not a counterrevolution make.

Just as socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were elected on transformative platforms only to find themselves bogged down in the daily muck of legislating, surrounded by adherents to status quo policy and norms, this new crop of right-wing militants may likewise resign themselves to largely symbolic dissenting votes, Twitter provocation and media spectacle. (I, for one, would happily watch Blake Masters read from the Unabomber manifesto while preparing a casserole on Instagram Live.)

Then again, unlike the Democrats, who hastily sidelined Ms. Ocasio-Cortez as soon as she entered Congress, the Republican Party — belligerent, on the march, but deprived of an undisputed standard-bearer — may be more inclined to take leadership cues from young ideologues like Mr. Masters, who will enter office with a governing vision more coherent and radical than anything Mr. Trump espoused.

Already, Mr. Masters’s campaign is more embedded and on better terms with his party elite than left-wing insurgents were with the Democrats. His campaign manager, Amalia Halikias, was a press assistant for Jeb Bush in 2016. Despite the populist noises he occasionally makes on the trail, Mr. Masters is endorsed by the anti-tax billionaires of the Club for Growth PAC. Ms. Miller was Mike Pence’s press secretary and, later, communications director; she’s married to the senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller.

Most important, Mr. Masters’s vision, idiosyncratic as it may sound, comports with the basic governing impulses of the modern Republican Party. That vision might be summarized as “exit from within” — an escape from the inefficient obligations of democracy: oversight, dialogue, compromise, humility. It may be impossible to free the next Republican president from the tyranny of “the Cathedral,” but he will enjoy the fruits of the long conservative war on democratic institutions: a rubber-stamp Supreme Court, a geographically disenfranchised opposition, and state officials who sow doubt about election integrity.

The Thielites want to see the government hollowed out — to eject the administrative state and erase its memory — not to enhance liberty, but to make our nation’s current operating system more suitable for coercion. They wish to unseat the liberal technocratic elite only so they can install their own: a more competent, compliant and unfettered one.

Mr. Masters’s vision resonates in a Republican Party that longs for escape from the inefficient obligations of democracy: oversight, dialogue, compromise, humility.Credit…Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

What this vision is not, is a conservatism of limits. Rather, it is Promethean, progressive, in the most basic sense: It deplores any constraint on its power to govern, shape the future, despoil the planet, innovate, and expand the American economy. All limits — pluralism, democracy, ecology, human frailty — must be overcome in pursuit of winning the world game, reasserting American dominance and dispelling our decadent malaise. (At one time, Mr. Thiel and Mr. Masters were both interested in overcoming the ultimate limit: death itself.)

“The future is coming, whether or not we try to ignore it,” Mr. Masters wrote on Facebook in November 2020, endorsing Mr. Trump. “We can act to shape that future,” or wait “until it crashes down upon us. That vital impulse — of action over surrender — is what Trump represents.”

Mr. Malick’s films take a more ambivalent stance on the martial virtues. The man who fights is rarely morally superior to the man who stands completely still — though, often, they are the same man. “The Thin Red Line” (1998) depicts a proud moment for American empire, a pivotal battle on the Pacific front in World War II, from the standpoint of a dozen indistinct and alienated Army grunts. “This great evil, where does it come from?” a voice-over wonders, as our somnambulant soldiers kill the remaining Japanese. “How’d it steal into the world?” Mr. Malick, meditating on theodicy, not history, has no interest in worldly answers.

What Mr. Malick reveals about war, however — that it rewards bravery no more than cowardice, love no more than hate, and pity least of all — is perhaps a lesson Blake Masters has internalized. Mr. Masters treats politics as a game of moral and physical carnage in which nothing is precious, and rules are for losers and marks. Great nations are those that allow great men to rise above the law, while binding the rest of us ever tighter to its dictates. And Blake Masters wants to make America great again.

Sam Adler-Bell (@SamAdlerBell) is the co-host of the podcast “Know Your Enemy.”

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