The Rich Are Crazier Than You and Me

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a crank. His views are a mishmash of right-wing fantasies mixed with remnants of the progressive he once was: Bitcoin boosterism, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, assertions that Prozac causes mass shootings, opposition to U.S. support for Ukraine, but also favorable mention for single-payer health care. But for his last name, nobody would be paying him any attention — and despite that last name, he has zero chance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination.

Yet now that Ron DeSantis’s campaign (slogan: “woke woke immigrants woke woke”) seems to be on the skids, Kennedy is suddenly getting support from some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley. Jack Dorsey, who founded Twitter, has endorsed him, while some other prominent tech figures have been holding fund-raisers on his behalf. Elon Musk, who is in the process of destroying what Dorsey built, hosted him for a Twitter spaces event.

So what does all this tell us about the role of technology billionaires in modern American political life? The other day I wrote about how a number of tech bros have become recession and inflation truthers, insisting that the improving economic news is fake. (I neglected to mention Dorsey’s 2021 declaration that hyperinflation was “happening.” How’s that going?) What the Silicon Valley Kennedy boomlet shows is that this is actually part of a broader phenomenon.

What seems to attract some technology types to R.F.K. Jr. is his contrarianism — his disregard for conventional wisdom and expert opinion. So before I get into the tech-bro specific aspects of this weird political moment, let me say a few things about being contrarian.

One sad but true fact of life is that most of the time conventional wisdom and expert opinion are right; yet there can be big personal and social payoffs to finding the places where they’re wrong. The trick to achieving these payoffs is to balance on the knife edge between excessive skepticism of unorthodoxy and excessive credulity.

It’s all too easy to fall off that knife’s edge in either direction. When I was a young, ambitious academic I used to make fun of stodgy older economists whose reaction to any new idea was “It’s trivial, it’s wrong and I said it in 1962.” These days I sometimes worry that I’ve turned into that guy.

On the other hand, reflexive contrarianism is, as the economist Adam Ozimek puts it, a “brain rotting drug.” Those who succumb to that drug “lose the ability to judge others they consider contrarian, become unable to tell good evidence from bad, a total unanchoring of belief that leads them to cling to low quality contrarian fads.”

Tech bros appear to be especially susceptible to brain-rotting contrarianism. As I wrote in my newsletter, their financial success all too often convinces them that they’re uniquely brilliant, able to instantly master any subject, without any need to consult people who’ve actually worked hard to understand the issues. And in many cases they became wealthy by defying conventional wisdom, which predisposes them to believe that such defiance is justified across the board.

Add to this the fact that great wealth makes it all too easy to surround yourself with people who tell you what you want to hear, validating your belief in your own brilliance — a sort of intellectual version of the emperor’s new clothes.

And to the extent that contrarian tech bros talk to anyone else, it’s to one another. The tech entrepreneur and writer Anil Dash tells us that “it’s impossible to overstate the degree to which many big tech C.E.O.s and venture capitalists are being radicalized by living within their own cultural and social bubble.” He calls this phenomenon of venture capitalism “VC QAnon,” a concept that I find helps explain many of the strange positions taken by tech billionaires lately.

Let me add a personal speculation. It may seem odd to see men of vast wealth and influence buying into conspiracy theories about elites running the world. Aren’t they the elites? But I suspect that famous, wealthy men may be especially frustrated by their inability to control events, or even stop people from ridiculing them on the internet. So rather than accepting that the world is a complicated place nobody can control, they’re susceptible to the idea that there are secret cabals out to get them.

There’s historical precedent here. Watching Elon Musk’s descent, I know that I’m not alone in thinking of Henry Ford, who remains in many ways the ultimate example of a famous, influential entrepreneur, and who also became a rabid, conspiracy-theorizing anti-Semite. He even paid for a reprinting of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery that was probably promoted by the Russian secret police. (Time is a flat circle.)

In any case, what we’re seeing now is something remarkable. Arguably, the craziest faction in U.S. politics right now isn’t red-hatted blue-collar guys in diners, it’s technology billionaires living in huge mansions and flying around on private jets. At one level it’s quite funny. Unfortunately, however, these people have enough money to do serious damage.

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