In the spring of 2012, Blake Masters, who was in his final year at Stanford Law, sat in on a computer science class taught by Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal. During a lecture titled “Founder as Victim, Founder as God,” Thiel argued a kinglike leader was essential to innovation. “A startup is basically structured as a monarchy,” he explained. “We don’t call it that, of course. That would seem weirdly outdated, and anything that’s not democracy makes people uncomfortable.”
Afterward, Masters tweeted that the lecture was the best 90 minutes he’d ever spent in a classroom and linked to the exhaustive notes he’d been taking on Thiel’s course. For months, everyone from tech bros to New York Times columnist David Brooks headed to Masters’ Tumblr to read them. It was heady stuff for a CrossFit-obsessed libertarian described by a law school classmate as being “notable for not being notable.”
Masters was the perfect Thiel protégé. Both men attended Stanford and Stanford Law as proud iconoclasts who chafed at limits on their freedom. But while Thiel alienated dormmates by performatively downing vitamins as they nursed hangovers, Masters had the social skills to make friends in environments as ideologically hostile as the vegetarian co-op he lived in at Stanford. He had the ideal résumé to help a famously awkward billionaire popularize his unorthodox views.
Masters would never leave Thiel’s orbit. After finishing law school in 2012, Masters worked on a legal research startup with funding from his former teacher, co-authored a bestseller with Thiel based on the notes he’d taken from that class, and served as Thiel’s chief of staff and the president of his charitable foundation. Now, Masters is running for US Senate in Arizona with more than $13 million from Thiel behind him. If Masters wins his August primary, he will face Mark Kelly, the former astronaut and husband of former Congress member Gabby Giffords, in one of several races expected to decide which party controls the Senate.
Years ago, the two men’s focus on electoral politics would have seemed unlikely. Earlier in his career, Thiel wrote about creating floating colonies in the ocean, while Masters told people not to vote. Since then, both have had changes of heart about means, not ends. Instead of escaping state control, Masters and Thiel now hope to use its power to solidify the dominance of the founder class and end the technological stagnation they believe could lead to humanity’s extinction. To do so, they are willing to move fast and break things. But instead of disrupting taxi companies or hotels, American democracy is in their sights. A decade after his startup lectures, there should no longer be any doubt that Thiel’s sympathy for authoritarianism extends well beyond the private sector.
So he’s spending big to bend the American right to his will. He has also put at least $15 million behind Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance—another former employee, best known for his memoir Hillbilly Elegy—and helped arrange the Trump endorsement that secured Vance’s primary victory. In total, Thiel is supporting more than a dozen Republican candidates, most of whom have disputed the results of the 2020 election. And while he may soon have three senators whose rise he has helped fund—Vance, Masters, and Sen. Josh Hawley, another right-wing Stanford grad—it is Masters who would allow Thiel to effectively have a seat of his own.
Beginning in March, I sent repeated interview requests to Masters, who never replied. Last week, I sent him an extensive list of 24 fact-checking questions, which he also ignored. Thiel also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Arizona voters who want to comprehend just how unusual Masters is must understand the full pantheon of his influences. They include Curtis Yarvin, who describes himself as America’s foremost absolute monarchist blogger; Murray Rothbard, the reactionary economist who suggested libertarians use right-wing populism to push their agenda; and Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, whom Masters has praised (with caveats). Another favorite is Lee Kuan Yew, the late dictator of Singapore who oversaw a miraculous economic transformation while crushing the civil liberties of those who stood in the way.
But no one is as influential as Thiel, who confessed in a 2009 essay, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” He went on to warn that the “fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.”
Thiel is setting himself up to be that builder. Masters is one of his tools.
In late April, Masters attended a candidate forum in the ballroom of Scottsdale’s Gainey Ranch Golf Club, a 27-hole oasis located on what was once an Arabian horse farm. Wearing a slim-cut navy suit, the 6-foot-3 former basketball player could have passed for a wealthy son visiting any of the prim seniors attending the event. The event’s emcee was a bald man whose LinkedIn profile mentions service in an “anti-terrorism” unit in Rhodesia’s white nationalist regime. To win, Masters would have to convince a primary electorate that skews white and geriatric that a thirtysomething who’d spent most of his adult life in California was the voice of Arizona Trumpism.
After dispensing with the requisite autobiography—raised in Tucson, married to his high school sweetheart, the father of three young boys—he pivoted to the doomsaying that has become his signature campaign spiel. “Conservatism can’t beat progressivism going the speed limit. You got to get people in there who know what time it is, who are going to play offense, because then and only then will we have a chance to save this, the greatest country in the history of the world,” Masters can be heard saying in a recording of the event. “Put me in in August and I guarantee you I will beat Mark Kelly by five points. Imagine me debating him as you’re listening to us tonight.” With that, it was time for the audience’s questions.
Asked about Kelly, Masters responded sarcastically. “‘Oh, I’m an astronaut. Have you heard I’m an astronaut?’” Masters said, imitating the senator. “‘You know, when I’m on the space station and I look at that big blue ball I realize we’re all in it together.’ And it’s like, ‘Shut up, Mark.’” The punchline had the crowd laughing. Such swaggering contempt is typical Masters, who speaks with the self-confidence of a man who has always considered himself to be exceptional and is unsurprised that the world agreed.
Over the course of the Q&A, Masters said he backed impeaching Joe Biden over his border policy, attacked generals for being too woke, and warned that Social Security and Medicare would disappear before his fellow millennials became eligible. “Sorry,” he said. “But plan for that now.” (According to the financial disclosure Masters submitted last year, much of his own substantial wealth was held in cryptocurrencies.)
Many of the more than a dozen friends and acquaintances of Masters I’ve spoken with, including the best man at his wedding, have been shocked to see the transformation of someone who used to consider himself an open-borders libertarian turn into an America First nationalist whom Tucker Carlson calls “the future of the Republican Party.” “He was not a shitty, hateful person,” says a former college roommate. “He was a misinformed libertarian white 20-year-old. But honestly, they were a dime a dozen at Stanford.” But even as a young man, there were signs that Masters would be almost uniquely suited to fall under the sway of an icon like Peter Thiel.
When Masters was 4 years old, his family moved to Tucson and settled in a gated community alongside one of Arizona’s best golf courses. His dad, Scott, had attended the Air Force Academy before joining the nascent software industry. His mom, Marilyn, would go on to run a Kumon tutoring center.
Masters got an early introduction to the progressive pedagogy he now loathes as a second grader in public school. Masters wrote a letter to a local paper stating his opposition to clearing desert land for new houses. His conservative parents saw it as evidence that their son was being indoctrinated with left-wing environmentalism. A couple of years later, they were frustrated when Blake was taught that Christopher Columbus was a racist who murdered Indigenous people.
For sixth grade, they enrolled young Blake in Green Fields Country Day School. At its founding in the 1930s, the school sought to merge East Coast elitism with West Coast frontier individualism: Boys lived in cabins, practiced on the shooting range, and were provided their own horses as they prepared for schools like Exeter and Choate. By the time Masters started in the late ’90s, Green Fields was co-ed with about two dozen kids per grade.
As an eighth grader, Masters experienced love at first sight when he met a girl named Catherine Chewning. The feeling was not mutual for a young feminist whose poetry in the Green Fields archives included lines like:
But you stayed hidden
Under a layer of your manhood
And refuse to agree
So I’m done trying to help
I’m leaving you to rot in your conceited mind
There’s no evidence that Catherine was writing about Masters, who she came around to in high school and married in 2012. Catherine now homeschools their three boys, and her family shares a backyard with her mother and stepfather, whose Facebook page is filled with liberal posts. One of the articles he shared last year was headlined “Elite Universities Have Promoted Destructive Republican Leaders.”
Masters and the best man at their wedding, Collin Wedel, also met in middle school, and others considered them the best students at a school full of bright kids. Masters was a popular three-sport athlete; Wedel was a sweet nerd. “You can find people who went to preschool with [Ted Cruz], who are like, ‘Oh, yeah, that guy was always an asshole,’” Wedel says, only slightly exaggerating. “That is not Blake.”
Wedel, a partner at a corporate law firm in California, says that when it came to politics, Masters was mostly interested in libertarian monetary policy, although he also wrote an op-ed for the school paper in favor of the Iraq War. In their senior yearbook, Green Fields faculty made tongue-in-cheek predictions about where the class of 2004 would end up. Wedel, they wrote, was going to be the Democratic nominee for president. “Unfortunately for Collin,” they added, “he will be defeated by Blake Masters, America’s first Libertarian President.”
In his first year at Stanford, Masters made friends with many progressive students, including two women I’ll call Rebecca and Christina. (Both requested anonymity.) As sophomores, the three of them ended up sharing a room in Columbae, a left-wing vegetarian co-op where decisions were made by consensus. As the year progressed, Rebecca remembers Masters getting more and more militant about his libertarianism. “It became difficult to have meaningful conversations with him,” she says. “We were like, ‘Dude, Ayn Rand is supposed to be a phase.’”
Masters’ years in Palo Alto were in some ways comparable to Thiel’s. After coming to the United States from Germany as an infant, Thiel spent part of his childhood in apartheid-era South Africa, where his father oversaw engineers working on a uranium mine that was part of the regime’s secretive nuclear weapons program. The Thiels then settled in California, and Peter—a chess prodigy who was bullied by his classmates—went on to Stanford.
While there, he co-founded the conservative newspaper the Stanford Review, which was known for its “virulent” homophobia, as Max Chafkin reports in his Thiel biography, The Contrarian. One column argued that homophobia should be rebranded “miso-sodomy”—hatred of anal sex—to foreground “deviant sexual practices.” The author of the column, Nathan Linn, would go on to work for Thiel, who spent much of his life as a semi-closeted gay man. Several years after finishing Stanford Law, Thiel co-wrote a book, The Diversity Myth, that railed against progressivism at his alma mater, including its decision to provide benefits to LGBTQ employees’ domestic partners.
Like Thiel, Masters fought back against his peers with a mix of provocation, political purism, and disdain. In the one article he wrote for the Stanford Daily, Masters argued that voting is usually immoral because it leads to others being forced to pay taxes: “People who support what we euphemistically call ‘democracy’ or ‘representative government’ support stealing certain kinds of goods and redistributing them as they see fit.” He urged his fellow students not to participate in the 2006 midterms.
Masters moved off campus junior year but remained active in the Columbae community. For a co-op talent show that Masters was unable to attend during his senior year, he sent a video in which he rapped while wearing what was meant to resemble Native American war paint. “I’ve got the war paint on, as you can see,” he rhymed over a beat in the video, which was shared with Mother Jones. “Who said what about cultural insensitivity?”
After graduating, Masters kept emailing the Columbae listserv. The numerous messages shared with Mother Jones reveal a man largely unsympathetic to those who would lose out if his version of libertarianism prevailed. In a 2008 email, he fumed, “If you force someone to do something against their will, that is to say, if you initiate aggression against another human being (and subsequently attempt to justify it), not only are you a political enemy, but you’re a monster.” His frustrations extended across party lines. “When will someone start a group that’s pro-gun (pro-freedom) AND pro-choice (pro-freedom)?” he asked in one email. “I would join.” (Holding such a progressive view of abortion was not new; Masters had persuaded Wedel, who grew up in a conservative household, to support women’s right to have abortions nearly a decade before.)
At the time, Masters was working in sales at a cloud storage startup, while also pursuing interests that included “gold mining and other outdoor instances of throwback rugged individualism,” according to an archived version of his LinkedIn. Masters quickly dropped sales for Duke Law—a rare setback, by his high standards—then transferred back to Stanford in 2010. Masters remembers his best friend, Wedel, who was a year ahead of him at Stanford Law, suggesting they take a seminar called “Sovereignty, Technology, and Globalization.” Masters knew little about his new teacher other than that he was the tech giant who’d helped start PayPal.
Compared with the young libertarian and self-identified “aspiring rationalist” about to attend his lecture series, Thiel was already more amenable to using the state’s power to further his own interests. After co-founding PayPal and becoming Facebook’s first major outside investor, in 2004 Thiel started the surveillance company Palantir with Joe Lonsdale, whose future wife was also in the co-op with Masters. Thiel and Lonsdale set out to win federal contracts to help defense and immigration agencies mine massive government databases in the name of protecting national security. Thiel later wrote an essay suggesting that he saw a strongman leader as the way to survive a post-9/11 world.
It was in another essay, in 2009, “The Education of a Libertarian,” that Thiel declared he no longer believed that democracy and freedom were compatible. “Since 1920,” he argued, “the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women—two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians—have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.” (Thiel, known for playing things close to the vest, would later say about that essay, “Writing is always such a dangerous thing.”) Thiel stressed that he still considered himself a libertarian because he opposed “confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual.”
Thiel’s views reflected the influence of a jumble of thinkers well outside the American mainstream, including German reactionaries like Oswald Spengler, who spent the Weimar era undermining the democracy that Adolf Hitler eventually destroyed. A dictatorship that championed industry, they believed, was essential to eliminating Weimar decadence. This combination—antidemocratic reaction on the one hand, an embrace of technology on the other—is key to Thiel’s thinking.
But unlike these German conservative revolutionaries, Thiel does not fetishize nationalism, even though he clearly understands its electoral potency. He has called The Sovereign Individual—written by the self-styled investment guru James Dale Davidson and the late British journalist William Rees-Mogg—the most influential book he’s ever read. Its main argument is that a new cosmopolitan elite will destroy countries’ ability to redistribute money by fleeing to whichever tiny jurisdictions offer them the best investment terms. (It helps explain why Thiel would later go to great lengths to acquire New Zealand citizenship.) These Sovereign Individuals will get to “interact on terms that echo the relation among the gods in Greek myth.” The “losers,” meanwhile, will be stuck in crumbling nations until they realize they “suffer for being saddled with mass democracy” and embrace privatized government. Along with this Sovereign Individualism, Thiel is a Christian who believes that heaven could potentially be realized on Earth through breakthroughs that allow humans to live forever.
Sitting in on Thiel’s “Sovereignty, Technology, and Globalization,” Masters quickly realized he was in the presence of a “next-level genius,” he said. For him, Thiel’s takes on subjects ranging from China to Leo Strauss—the political philosopher who argued that great thinkers embed secret meanings in their texts to avoid the sometimes fatal consequences of heterodoxy—became “holy shit” moments. While other students tried to impress Thiel after class, Masters waited until halfway through the seminar before emailing questions he’d find compelling. Thiel responded by suggesting they have dinner and quickly became an informal mentor to Masters, who was soon interning at Founders Fund, a VC firm that Thiel co-founded.
The next school year, Thiel let Masters know he’d be teaching an undergrad computer science course. Masters started attending and posting essays built off his class notes on Tumblr. The posts, which detailed Thiel’s ideas on how to run a successful startup, went viral within days and resulted in Masters writing a guest blog for Forbes on the 10 lessons he’d drawn from Thiel’s class. In the New York Times, columnist David Brooks praised the posts as “outstanding notes.”
It was quite the leap for someone who a year earlier had been blogging about the challenge of maintaining “clean, paleo eating” as a summer law associate. On his Tumblr, Masters had adopted a new tagline so Thielian that it is still sometimes misattributed to the billionaire: “Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.” The actual source, Masters has explained, is a science fiction role-playing game in which bioengineered humans in a postapocalyptic universe try to save transhumanity from extinction by joining a “secretive conspiracy.”
The most revealing of Thiel’s 19 lectures, though, was Masters’ favorite, “Founder as Victim, Founder as God.” Thiel told students that ancient societies resolved internal tensions by scapegoating founderlike figures who were often worshipped before being sacrificed, a circumstance that startup leaders also risked. Monarchy, Thiel speculated, might have arisen when scapegoats figured out how to become kings and avoid the sacrificial altar. “Wearing the crown is obviously an attractive thing,” Thiel said. “The question is whether you can decouple it with getting executed.” He concluded with a plea on behalf of the would-be techno-kings willing to break the rules. “Maybe they are, in some key way, the most important,” Thiel said. “Maybe we should let them off the hook.”
By the time Trump announced he was running for president in 2015, Masters had lost faith in Republicans’ ability to win elections. He found it hard to believe that Mitt Romney, a successful businessman, had been defeated by Barack Obama, whose first term he considered a disaster. Masters was convinced that Romney had played too nice. “If Republicans just aren’t gonna be serious about winning,” he later explained in a podcast interview, “maybe it’s just a controlled opposition and we’re just gonna have a managed decline politically.” Masters was in a dark place when it came to the future of American politics, and America itself. “I basically thought it was all over,” he said.
Having soured on government, he turned to the private sector, pouring his energy into his legal research startup and working with Thiel to turn the Stanford lectures into a book. Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future became an instant bestseller in 2014; it also reflected their pessimism about politics. The title referred to the “zero to one” moments when someone did something that had never been done before. For Thiel and Masters, such breakthroughs were key to humanity’s survival, and they concluded with an existential warning: “Without new technology to relieve competitive pressures, stagnation is likely to erupt into conflict. In case of conflict on a global scale, stagnation collapses into extinction.”
Initially, Thiel backed Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, in the 2016 Republican primary. After Fiorina dropped out, Thiel signed up as a Trump delegate, spoke at the Republican National Convention, and donated $1.25 million to super-PACs still supporting Trump in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape. Thiel’s status as progressives’ Silicon Valley villain was further cemented by the news that he’d been secretly bankrolling a lawsuit by Terry Bollea, better known as the wrestler Hulk Hogan, that led to Gawker Media declaring bankruptcy in 2016. Funding the case was Thiel’s revenge for articles the company had written about him, including one titled “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.” (While Thiel had come out to friends, it had not been reported that he was gay.)
For Masters, Trump’s rise became a zero-to-one moment that revealed new things were possible in politics. Trump could break with Republican orthodoxy, attack John McCain for being captured in Vietnam, and brag that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue—all while winning primary after primary. He was the scapegoat figuring out how to become king.
After the election, Thiel, Masters, and other members of the billionaire’s entourage headed to Trump Tower to try to push the new administration in an extreme direction. Thiel’s choice to be Trump’s science adviser, William Happer, was a climate change denier who believed the world was suffering from a “carbon dioxide famine,” Chafkin reported in his biography of Thiel. Happer, like most of Thiel’s picks, didn’t get the job. Masters believed Trump’s agenda was being hijacked by establishment Republicans and hangers-on. He started thinking about a world in which he was more than a supplicant.
In 2018, Masters and his family settled back in Tucson around the same time Thiel promoted him to chief of staff. Thiel was known for recruiting young, ambitious Stanford grads; Masters had emerged at the top of the heap. A year later, he considered, then decided against, launching a primary challenge against Sen. Martha McSally. When McSally lost a special election to Mark Kelly in November 2020, Masters became convinced that he was the only person who could unseat the freshman Democrat. Less than six months later, Thiel put $10 million into a super-PAC backing Masters.
Masters launched his campaign with a sepia-toned video he said was inspired by the work of director Terrence Malick. “I grew up here,” Masters intoned before staring off into the distance. He pledged to finish the wall, create an economy where families could thrive on one income, and end foreign interventionism. It was all delivered in an unusually deep voice. “Just not the guy I knew,” his prep school friend Noah Gustafson texted Wedel. “He even sounds different!”
Masters’ main primary opponents were Jim Lamon, a wealthy solar energy entrepreneur, and Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, whose name recognition positioned him as the early frontrunner. But Brnovich had one big weakness that Masters was prepared to exploit: He’d admitted that Trump had lost to Biden. Like Trump, Masters weaponized Twitter to criticize Brnovich for not doing enough to investigate election fraud conspiracies. He also tweeted multiple times that “not everything has to be gay,” and, in a departure from his early pro-choice stance, began a campaign video about abortion by declaring, “There’s a genocide happening in America.” (Masters has come out in favor of a federal personhood law.) Gustafson was struck by the total lack of empathy he saw from his old friend. “It makes me ache when I see what he writes and says,” he says. “It puts me in a state of depression.”
Wedel, who’d taken a hiatus from social media, received texts from his brothers with screenshots of Masters’ tweets. On November 4, he saw a Masters tweet calling vaccine mandates evil. “Shame on you,” Wedel replied, after re-downloading Twitter. “I’m so utterly disappointed in what you’ve done with yourself. People will get sick, and die, because of your reckless rhetoric. As someone who loves and used to respect you: What happened to you?”
Only Masters and a few dozen people close to Wedel could see the message from his private account. Instead of talking to Wedel, or just ignoring it, Masters responded by screenshotting the reply and sharing it with tens of thousands of followers. “Collin was a best friend growing up. He told me about the famous class where I met Peter Thiel, and he was best man at my wedding,” Masters wrote. “The most deadly virus we face is progressivism, it rots both brains and nations. I wish Collin well—but freedom is worth losing friends over.” Wedel received harassing calls at work and home, and had to call the police after threatening materials were placed in his mailbox.
Wedel stresses that he will always love Masters as a brother, but the two have not spoken since. “I don’t know what’s worse,” he adds, “if he actually is aware that he’s selling snake oil to people, or if he truly believes” what he’s saying.
Masters, who says he stopped considering himself a libertarian years ago, is no longer the open-border purist of his youth. Like Lee Kuan Yew, the late Singaporean dictator whom Masters has called one of his two favorite historical figures (alongside George Washington), he has come around to the appeal of a government that takes sides, promotes conservative values, and has the capacity to build new things. Masters also isn’t the middle-class champion he sometimes sells himself as. He says he wants families to be able to thrive on one income, but hasn’t put forward a coherent plan for making that happen.
Intentionally or not, Masters is following a strategy championed decades ago by one of his old favorites, Murray Rothbard, who died in 1995. A libertarian economist and philosopher, Rothbard appreciated the potential of yoking libertarianism to right-wing populism, as the writer John Ganz has explained. In a 1992 essay that began by expressing sympathy for David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who had recently lost his bid for governor in Louisiana, Rothbard laid out an eight-plank platform for advancing libertarianism: cutting taxes, slashing welfare, abolishing racial privileges, crushing criminals (“I mean, of course, not ‘white collar criminals’”), getting rid of “bums,” eliminating the Federal Reserve, being “America First,” and defending family values.
Rothbard called this “paleolibertarianism,” and Masters has brought it up to date. The Masters incarnation favors the Trump tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefited the wealthiest Americans; sees the end of entitlement programs as an inevitability; labels critical race theory “anti-white racism”; shot a campaign video in which he walks through a San Francisco homeless encampment; courts anti-Fed crypto bros; describes the situation at the US-Mexico border as an “invasion”; and says marriage is between “a man and a woman” after spending most of the past decade working for a man who is now married to another man.
Extremists have taken notice and approved. VDare, a white nationalist site named after the first English child born in the Americas, has called Masters “the America First contender” in Arizona. Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, is another fan, although Masters has rejected his support. “Masters is better than Vance,” Anglin explained. “Masters is woke on Uncle Ted”—a reference to the Unabomber—“he’s married to a white women [sic]…and now he’s dropping the red pills we all wanted to hear.” (Vance’s wife is Indian American.)
Anglin is right that Masters’ campaign is filled with nods to the red-pilled members of the online right. At one campaign stop, the crowd cheered after Masters talked up a plan that a “friend” of his has to “RAGE,” or Retire All Government Employees. What he didn’t say was that friend is Curtis Yarvin, the absolute-monarchist blogger who believes Americans need to get over their “dictator-phobia.” Yarvin, who has known Thiel for years, recently gave Masters his first campaign contribution on record: the legal maximum of $5,800. (Two of his other biggest backers are the Winklevoss twins, the Harvard rowers turned crypto moguls who claim Mark Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from them.)
Masters has been reading Yarvin’s work for at least a decade. In 2012, his former college roommate Christina asked for a suggestion for a book club focused on sustainability and overconsumption. Masters recommended they read a series of articles in which Yarvin made the case for why the United States should become a monarchy headed by a CEO. He thought focusing on overconsumption was a distraction from deeper issues like the “sustainability of sovereignty” and government spending. “The pushback to this is that my views are very idiosyncratic and very few people agree with me,” Masters wrote in the email. “To the extent there’s validation in numbers, I don’t have any.”
Like Yarvin, Masters paints the United States as an oligarchy whose members span the public and private sectors. He believes the current oligarchy is destroying the country as Americans distract themselves by watching Netflix on ever-larger televisions or ordering delivery on the apps. He is an elitist who fears that a rival faction of the upper crust will usher in a global state where anyone who does not subscribe to progressive orthodoxy—an ideology he sees as a “pretty good candidate for the Antichrist”—will be persecuted. As he explained in an interview with the right-wing site IM—1776: “The younger left is different, more Machiavellian, more ruthless, just obsessed with wielding power and wiping out the opposition. The things we were raised to respect—the rule of law, stable families, our faith, having a functional, self-respecting country—the modern left sees as intrinsically evil. They want to destroy everything that’s good.”
The best analog for Masters’ anti-leftism is another favorite of the online right: Kaczynski, the Unabomber, whose 35,000-word manifesto Masters has recommended (with the qualification that he does not support terrorism). Leftists are plagued by “low self-esteem, feelings of powerlessness, depressive tendencies, defeatism, guilt, self-hatred, etc.,” Kaczynski wrote. It didn’t matter that many of them were potentially decent individuals; they would inevitably be overpowered by “more ruthless and Machiavellian” fellow travelers who would stop at nothing less than totalitarianism.
These views have proved too extreme for even one of Masters’ own donors. In late December, Masters announced that he was offering Zero to One–themed NFTs to the first 99 people who donated $5,800. Masters also promised other benefits, including access to a private chat server and “exclusive access to parties” with him and Thiel. A person in the tech industry who was a fan of the book made a snap decision to contribute.
The donor’s initial cause for concern was noticing that many of the people on the Discord server were “Curtis Yarvin/Moldbug sorts,” a reference to Yarvin’s old pen name, Mencius Moldbug. In the months since, his view of Masters has continued to decline. “This is the first time where I will regularly wake up and feel just a sense of dread about who it is that I have backed,” the donor says.
Masters has not been active on the Discord server recently, but screenshots shared with Mother Jones provide a window into how some of his biggest backers talk about their candidate in private. In June, a person using the name of a pseudonymous Substack writer who has appeared on some of the same right-wing podcasts as Masters shared an article headlined “Blake Masters Blames Gun Violence on ‘Black People, Frankly.’” Using internet slang, the writer asked approvingly, “How can one man be so [b]ased?” Another user, whose avatar was an NFT valued at roughly $100,000 replied, “I love it when a candidate says what we’re all thinking.”
A few months after entering the race, with his polling at just 9 percent—nearly 20 points behind Arizona AG Brnovich—Masters posted a carefully worded video in which he claimed that Trump won the 2020 election. Rather than accusing Democrats of outright fraud, he blamed expanded mail-in voting, Big Tech censorship, and media bias. The timing was savvy since Masters was holding a fundraiser with Trump at Mar-a-Lago the next night.
A couple of days after the fundraiser, Masters released a video in which he held an assault rifle. “It wasn’t designed for hunting,” Masters said straight to the camera. “This is designed to kill people. But if you’re not a bad guy, I support your right to own one.” Gustafson, the old Green Fields friend, has gone shooting with Masters before, and even bought a weapon with him at a gun show. “Instead of going out with buddies and having a good time shooting targets, it’s more reminiscent of a creepy teenage boy in his basement,” he says about Masters’ campaign gun play.
By April, Masters had resigned from his Thiel chief-of-staff job to campaign full time, but he still hadn’t cracked double digits in the polls. Lamon, meanwhile, had sold his solar business to the Kochs and has spent at least $13 million on his own campaign. Brnovich was no longer the obvious frontrunner, especially after Trump released a statement attacking him for not prosecuting people for (nonexistent) election fraud. “The good news is Arizona has some very good people running for election to the U.S. Senate,” Trump said. “I will be making an Endorsement in the not too distant future!” (In Ohio, Trump had just backed Vance, who jumped from never leading any poll to leading in every one of them.) On April 30, Masters was set to appear in Chandler, a middle-class Phoenix suburb, where he challenged Brnovich to meet and debate him on “election integrity.” He teased the possibility of a “special guest” calling in.
Appearing before a seated crowd, Masters held his baby boy, Rex Alexander, in his arms. After criticizing Brnovich for not showing up, he launched into his usual stump speech—Mark Kelly was the “single-worst” worst senator, and the 1619 Project curriculum was “the hate-your-country curriculum.” The event was moderated by Christina Bobb, the former One America News Network anchor who worked with Rudy Giuliani to try to overturn the 2020 election. About halfway through, Bobb interrupted the Q&A to take a phone call. “This is Christina,” she answered. “Hi, Mr. President!”
The crowd erupted in cheers as Trump’s voice came through. As Masters beamed, Trump told the crowd he’d informed guests at a Mar-a-Lago wedding that he was stepping out for a moment to talk to some “incredible patriots.” Like Masters, he saw chaos. “You see what’s happening to our country, which is frankly going to hell. We’ve never experienced anything like it. It’s also the most dangerous time in the history of our country, because the n-word—that’s the ‘nuclear’ word—is being used all over the place.”
“I heard Blake was the person that showed up,” Trump said. “And I want to thank Blake.” He stopped just short of an endorsement. That would come a month later, in early June, when Trump called Masters “a great modern-day thinker” who believed the “Crime of the Century” had taken place. Trump endorsement in hand, Masters immediately shot to the top of the polls.
Lamon responded by setting up a website that portrays Masters as a phony conservative and Big Tech stooge, citing old posts uncovered by Jewish Insider, including one in which Masters called US service members and law enforcement officials arrested for smuggling cocaine “heroes.” Daniel Scarpinato, who served as Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s chief of staff before joining an advertising and political consulting firm last year, says any effort to tie Masters to Thiel might require voters to connect too many dots, particularly this late in the race. Immigration and border security, not a California billionaire, is issue “one, two, and three” in this race, explains Scarpinato, who has remained neutral for the primary. “It’s not even close.”
While Brnovich or Lamon could still win, Scarpinato says that, right now, he’d want to be Masters, who opened up a seven-point lead on Lamon as of early July. If Masters prevails in August, he’ll face one of the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrats. And if he makes it to Washington, he will owe his rise to a billionaire who is leveraging his relationship with an even more powerful billionaire. Crypto evangelists would rejoice. Venture capitalists would breathe easy. And internet monarchists would be one step closer to a reboot. Somehow, this would get called populism.
It would be a triumph for two men who have long been comfortable with deception. “Unless you have perfectly conventional beliefs, it’s rarely a good idea to tell everybody everything that you know,” Thiel and Masters warned in Zero to One. “So who do you tell? Whoever you need to, and no more.”
Corrections, July 20: A photo caption has been changed to correctly identify Noah Gustafson and Collin Wedel. Also, an earlier version of this story misidentified the type of game from which the quote on Masters’ Tumblr originated.