Sam Altman, the 31-year-old president of the wildly successful startup accelerator Y Combinator, published an essay on Monday in which he attempted to address the mounting concerns over his company's ties to Silicon Valley billionaire and Donald Trump delegate Peter Thiel. The company's relationship with Thiel, who serves as an unpaid part-time partner and recently donated $US1.25 ($2) million in support of Trump, has already led the pro-diversity group Project Include to disavow Y Combinator. Yet Altman insists that any action against Thiel (such as firing him from the company) would be "a dangerous path to start down."
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Altman is not under any illusions about the danger of a Trump presidency. "His racist, isolationist policies would divide our country," he wrote on Monday. The Republican nominee, he continued, "represents a real threat to the safety of women, minorities, and immigrants" and "shows little respect for the Constitution, the Republic, or for human decency." Earlier this year, he even compared Trump to Hitler. By contrast, Altman regards Thiel's support of Trump as a baffling puzzle that he has not yet solved:
The only two vocal Trump supporters I am close to are Peter Thiel and my grandma. ... This has been a strain on my relationship with both of them — I think they are completely wrong in their support of this man. Though I don't ascribe all positions of a politician to his or her supporters, I do not understand how one continues to support someone who brags about sexual assault, calls for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the US, or any number or other disqualifying statements. I will continue to try to change both of their minds.
In the essay and on Twitter, Altman seems equally baffled by what, if anything, he should do about Thiel — or how to placate the growing number of Y Combinator's critics, many of whom have called upon Altman to terminate the company's relationship with the billionaire. "Thiel is a high profile supporter of Trump," he tweeted over the weekend. "I disagree with this. YC is not going to fire someone for supporting a major party nominee."
According to a 2015 blog post welcoming him aboard, Thiel's role at Y Combinator is mostly advisory in nature: "He already works with a number of YC companies, and we're very happy he'll be working with more." This raises the question, of course, of whether Thiel's public support for a candidate like Trump could adversely impact his ability to advise Y Combinator startups. In his Monday essay, Altman suggested Thiel would be a pariah if he ever vocally endorsed Trump's most noxious proposals: "If Peter said some of the things Trump says himself, he would no longer be part of Y Combinator." In other words, a middle-class voter who openly embraces Trump's ban on Muslim immigration would not be fit for Altman's company. A billionaire who donates $US1.25 ($2) million to the same candidate, however, can be a part-time partner.
The rest of Altman's tweets on the subject — there are a lot — are suffused by a generic optimism about bipartisan dialogue. For example: "The isolation and polarization of the past couple decades is what got us the extremism we have today." And: "We need to rebuild not further separate." (Thiel is also bankrolling a series of active lawsuits against Gizmodo's former owner, Gawker Media, which declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in June.) In any case, it's clear that the entire situation has frustrated Altman, who obviously wishes that Thiel had never supported Trump, and the larger community of Silicon Valley, where Y Combinator exerts a tremendous amount of influence.
Part of this frustration likely stems from the fact that Altman and Thiel are extremely close friends. "Peter is one of the most amazing people I've ever met," Altman tweeted earlier this year. A recent New Yorker profile of Altman revealed that, should Altman's preparations for the coming global apocalypse prove to be inadequate, Thiel would provide a safe harbour: "If the pandemic does come, Altman's backup plan is to fly with his friend Peter Thiel [to] Thiel's house in New Zealand." In a very literal sense, Altman believes his survival depends, in part, on Thiel's largesse. And it's inherently painful to disavow someone you call your friend.
At the same time, most of Altman's frustration is self-imposed. True, there is a compelling argument to be made that a person should not be fired over their support of a particular political candidate; in the most abstract terms, nobody wants to live in a world where a person's employment is threatened by their political beliefs, so long as those beliefs do not bear on their job performance. Whether or not this argument holds water for someone of Thiel's stature and power is open for debate. But the larger problem is that Altman has intentionally rejected one course of action — firing Peter Thiel — while deliberately ignoring the remaining options available to him.
He could, for example, more forcefully condemn Thiel's support of Trump. (He hasn't.) He could hire a third-party auditing firm to investigate whether any Y Combinator startups or their employees have felt threatened by Thiel. (He hasn't.) At a bare minimum, he could address the extent to which he and Thiel remain friends and business partners, and how that pertains to the daily operations of the company. (He hasn't.) Indeed, it is unlikely Altman will ever do any of these things — precisely because he and Thiel are friends. (When we reached out to him earlier today, he didn't respond.)
That leaves one last meaningful option: resignation. After all, Altman appears to subscribe to two important postulates:
- Donald Trump is a planetary, world-historical threat to civilisation in general and its most vulnerable members in particular.
- Politically motivated firings are an unacceptable violation of the social compact.
These beliefs place Altman in the uncomfortable position of forcefully rejecting Thiel's pro-Trump ideology while remaining unable, or unwilling, to directly terminate Y Combinator's relationship with a billionaire who has funded Trump's campaign. Nothing about this conundrum, however, prevents Altman from asking Thiel to voluntarily resign. Nor does it prevent Altman from tendering his own resignation from Y Combinator if Thiel refuses to resign.
Altman's criticisms of Trump are, by all appearances, genuine. It would be hard to believe that, deep down, he doesn't really care who wins on November 8. But the nature of those criticisms, which present Trump and his ideology as existential threats to the future of the human race, demands a much more pronounced course of action.
"I always freely admit I may be wrong, and particularly in this case," Altman wrote on Twitter yesterday. "This is a very difficult issue, unprecedented in many directions."
It is, in many ways, unprecedented. But the difficult part doesn't have much to do with Peter Thiel. The difficult part is that Altman is still navigating the process by which individuals, and societies, devise political principles and the best means of upholding them.
The choice before Altman is not a complicated one, though. He can continue to lead Y Combinator with Thiel as a part-time partner, thereby giving Thiel, and thus Trump, the imprimatur of the company's reputation. He can ask Thiel to resign. Or he can resign from Y Combinator.