CHANDLER, Ariz. — Blake Masters steps in front of the hundred-person crowd at a barbecue here, two-year-old son balanced in one hand and microphone in the other, awaiting what could be the most important phone call of his life.
The event is billed as a “debate” with Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, one of the main rivals for the GOP’s Senate nomination. Two men loom over the proceedings unseen, but Brnovich isn’t one of them: He never accepted the invitation, and nobody expects him to show up. The whole thing, complete with a “moderator” formerly with the One America News Network is a piece of theater.
The guest Masters is hoping for is Donald Trump. The 35-year-old neophyte politician has teased a “possible telephone appearance from a very special guest,” and there’s no question who that VIP is. Trump has dangled his endorsement in the race, and Masters is counting on it. The former president’s endorsement has turned out to be a mixed bag in 2022, but for a politician like Masters, it offers an instant ticket to credibility with a big swath of voters.
But another figure — who won’t be mentioned much at all today — is an even more important benefactor for Masters. That would be Peter Thiel, the conservative Silicon Valley billionaire who has been increasingly wading into GOP politics. Thiel has pumped $13.5 million into Masters’ candidacy, but that understates his influence on the candidate. “Acolyte” may not even be enough. As a law student at Stanford, Masters was so gripped by Thiel that he literally blogged his own notes on a class Thiel taught on startups — and those notes helped form Thiel’s best-selling book, “Zero to One,” which is credited to the two men. Thiel hired Masters to be president of the Thiel Foundation in 2015 and then to be chief operating officer at his investment firm, Thiel Capital, from 2018 to 2022.
The last candidate Thiel backed, the populist author and financier J.D. Vance, came from behind in the polls to win his Ohio Senate primary, and is a favorite to win in November. Masters will be the next test of Thiel’s influence, and a new style of politics: candidates from elite schools and even more elite financial backgrounds embracing “the National Conservative” or New Right movement, a particularly populist, nationalist and even authoritarian strain of conservatism. The movement is certainly Trump-inflected, but also aligned with and increasingly bankrolled by Thiel.
Despite Trump’s four years in the White House and his enduring dominance over the GOP, Trumpism as an ideology is still largely inchoate. And this is where Thiel, Vance and Masters come in. The Masters and Vance candidacies offer an opportunity to flesh out Trumpism — or Thielism — and reshape the GOP.
Tucker Carlson, who brings Masters on his Fox News show regularly, calls him “the future of the Republican Party.” But first Masters has to get elected. And his campaign offers a test for whether the New Right can gain traction — both in the GOP and with a broader electorate in a key swing state.
Masters’ views, while hard right, are not quite fringe in today’s Republican Party. He’s a harsh critic of Big Tech and says Trump was robbed in 2020. He traffics in the “replacement theory” that Democrats want to change the electorate through a wave of undocumented immigrants. He opposes aid to Ukraine and the right to an abortion. (He recently faced controversy for criticizing Griswold v. Connecticut, which legalized contraceptives nationally, though he said he doesn’t want to outlaw contraception and, taking a page from Thiel, threatened to sue an Arizona news outlet for defamation.)
Masters also clearly likes to get a rise out of people. He counts Ted Kaczynski as among his intellectual influencers — pointing to the Unabomber’s manifesto as a source of inspiration for his own message of the dystopian techno-present. He told one conservative interviewer that left-wing ideology makes “a pretty good candidate for the Antichrist.”
For all that, though, Masters has struggled to break out in one of the Trumpiest state parties. Surveys show Arizona Republicans are still making up their minds on a candidate in the crowded GOP primary to take on moderate Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly. But polling usually puts Masters in a close third behind Brnovich and Jim Lamon, a wealthy solar executive whose self-funded campaign has offered unblushing homages to the former president, including with his first ad airing on Fox News in New Jersey in an attempt to catch Trump’s eye. Vance was also in third place until Trump’s endorsement lifted him to victory. Masters is hoping for a similar result — and Trump does eventually call, from a wedding party in Florida, but he never says the magic words.
Masters is running to win the Senate seat once held by Trump’s arch-nemesis, the late John McCain. Kelly won it when President Joe Biden was on the ballot in 2020, and returning it to Republican hands would be a major coup for the party as it looks to capture the Senate in November. Delivering the race to an America First candidate would be a particular triumph for Trump — but perhaps an even bigger one for Masters’ mentor, who is counting on a much longer future in American politics than the 75-year-old ex-president.
But first, Masters has to prove he’s not too far out there, even for Arizona.
Arizona tends to elect politicians with a certain physical swagger — cowboy hat-wearers, or hero veterans, or, as in the case of Kelly, a shaven-headed former astronaut. Another strain of politics here is more eccentric, going back to Barry Goldwater, a renegade intellectual, or Kyrsten Sinema, a bisexual triathlete whose not-very-liberal Democratic politics are perhaps most frustrating to her own party. But even by that standard, Masters is unusual: A thin, almost eerie presence who films dark campaign videos of himself, alone in the desert, staring into the camera lens as he delivers dystopian monologues about the “psychopaths” running the country. (Dystopian is a phrase that’s never far from his lips: He applies it to modern dating, urban crime, Big Tech censorship generally, and Apple’s optional “child safety” features on iPhones specifically, among other many things.)
Masters describes his campaign video aesthetic as “Terrence Malick-esque,” referencing the famed director of “Thin Red Line” and “Tree of Life,” who Masters calls “artsy but not pretentious.” The New York Times Magazine found different inspiration, declaring the ads Tucker Carlson-esque.
During an hour-and-a-half conversation at an In-N-Out Burger, Masters says the ads aren’t meant to imitate Carlson. But there’s a reason he’s the most popular cable host on television, Masters says: His shows tap into a mix of base Trumpian rage and conservative intellectualism — clearly the Senate hopeful’s own aspiration.
The campaign has no official logo and leans instead on Masters’ name written in big block font on T-shirts that he describes as inspired by “L.A. streetwear.” The campaign’s “swagger” is inspired by Kanye West, he says.
Masters knows he’s controversial — he just doesn’t know why. Or, more accurately, he vacillates between embracing his controversial “Dark MAGA” image and maintaining that there’s nothing contentious about it. Who would find a family-centric, pro-America agenda controversial, he asks slyly. He wants the attention of a contrarian without the blowback of an extremist. Indeed, for all of the extremists in public office in Arizona, and there have been many, the state’s U.S. senators have largely portrayed themselves as steadfastly centrist, regardless of their party. Masters is not that.
“I don’t think Arizonans want a moderate. I think they want someone who’s non-crazy,” he says. “Look, I’m bold. I’m running a bold campaign. I’m not gonna mince words: I think our country is in a lot of trouble. And I talk about problems and solutions.”
But he’s not crazy, he insists.
“I’m unique and differentiated and interesting. And maybe that correlates to new leadership that knows what time it is. Instead of just like, ‘Hi, I’m a narcissist with political ambitions. Let me hire a consultant, please tell me what to say so I can get this position of power.’ Like, fuck that, that’s what all these other people do.”
And despite his bluster, Masters can bring a level of nuance to the campaign rarely seen in the MAGA movement. He still declares the 2020 election rigged — but he stops short of blaming it on hacked machines. Instead, he blasts Facebook for burying the Hunter Biden laptop story and the states for changing their rules to allow mail-in voting (even in the middle of a pandemic).
Over burgers, I ask what drives Masters, who has found wealth and success in the laissez-faire venture capital and tech worlds, to join the restrained world of politics? It seems like a weird fit, I say.
“It’s not this, ‘Aw shucks, I have to give back to my community,’” he says.
He has a high opinion of himself and his capabilities, he acknowledges. He’s smarter and more substantive than the other candidates, he says, and he’s improving at retail politics. He’s always wanted to run for office, but when he met Thiel in law school, his goals changed.
“I had met Peter and the whole startup scene so that path made sense, and I’m glad I did that,” he says. “But honestly, Trump came along and like, broke stuff apart. He broke up the consensus, and he showed me something that was new and possible in conservative politics. And I think America, and our place in the world, is in a tailspin.”
His entire campaign is based on a premise that voters will find him jarringly different, yet mainstream enough to be electable. In one campaign ad, Masters introduces the audience to one of his short-barreled rifles, noting it’s not designed for hunting: “This is designed to kill people.” His armory also includes a grenade launcher (for which he does not have live rounds, though not for lack of trying) and his “ghost gun” a “very legal & very cool” automatic rifle that he 3D printed before it was illegal to do so. I suggested we do an interview while firing off some rounds. He was noncommittally into it and we made a tentative plan, but it never happened. He asks if I am going to make him look like a nutjob. Probably, I tell him with a chuckle.
“It’ll probably help me,” he shoots back with a big grin. In an Arizona Republican primary, he’s probably right.
Local politicos have a hard time knowing what to make of the upstart candidate.
Though he was rumored to be considering a run for the Senate two years ago, Masters has never really been involved in politics in the state. Many people in the Republican circle in his hometown of Tucson — it’s a Democratic town so it’s a small circle — haven’t even met him. Despite being raised in Arizona, he has better connections in Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., than at home.
Daniel Scarpinato, the former chief of staff to outgoing Gov. Doug Ducey and a partner at the Republican ad firm Ascent Media, has never met Masters, despite growing up around the same era and area. Scarpinato, who isn’t working for anyone in the race, says in many ways, Masters cuts a more “modern” look than the stereotypical Republican: a young intelligent tech guy who comes off as somewhat edgy, but also like a wholesome family man.
Scarpinato points to Masters’ introduction video, a sepia-toned series of shots of him dressed in denim and chambray with a backpack and his wife in a sunhat with baby strapped to her stomach hiking through the saguaro-studded desert with their two other boys as he narrates about how the country is changing for the worse, economically, socially, legally and culturally. “I believed that the roll-out video was him,” Scarpinato says. “I think that’s how he dresses. I think that’s how he lives. I think that he presented himself as who he is, and I do think voters can sniff that out.”
Scarpinato predicted a Trump endorsement would give Masters a boost, but cautioned against that being decisive in the Aug. 2 primary. Money will, as always, be a big factor. Arizona is one of the most expensive states for airtime in the country, and Lamon has been buying it up with some pretty memorable ads playing on Jeopardy and the evening news. (One ad hammers the phrase “Let’s go Brandon.” In another, aired during the Super Bowl, Lamon dresses in Old West garb and shoots at actors playing Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Kelly — the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who narrowly survived an assassination attempt in 2011 — and runs the Democrats out of town).
Masters’ TV presence has been mostly relegated to very generic ads from Thiel’s super PAC. Masters has a ground game and a strong online presence, but he still has to compete on the airwaves.
“I just don’t think you can run a whole campaign for U.S. Senate through a super PAC,” Scarpinato says. “He’s got to be up on TV with an ad from him. And that is the advantage that Lamon is gonna have in these last couple of months.” Lamon has also bought influence in the party, paying millions to the state GOP and other Republican candidates down the ballot.
Nearly a month after Trump called in to Masters’ “debate,” he still hasn’t made an endorsement in the race, and it’s not clear if he will, despite a promise to do so. After the Pennsylvania Senate GOP primary failed to net a decisive win for Trump-endorsed TV star Mehmet Oz, the former president is reportedly withholding his endorsement in Arizona “indefinitely.” Without that endorsement, Masters concedes he probably can’t win the primary.
Still, Democrats certainly take the notion of a Sen. Masters seriously, even as it makes them shudder.
Joe Wolf, a Democratic consultant in Phoenix, calls Masters a “fascinating” candidate, adding, “He talks about the same issues as everyone else, but he talks about them so vastly differently.” Wolf points to a campaign video where Masters argues families used to get by on a single income but no longer can because of the rising cost of health care, college and housing — with Masters denouncing both corporate greed and a government that’s abandoned its people. For the first generation expected to earn less than their parents, who are watching inflation and home prices spike, that message resonates. In a different world, Wolf says, Masters might have been the most dynamic candidate on the ballot. But with his effusive praise for Trump and all things Trumpian, Masters has closed the door to real crossover appeal: “The taint of MAGA is too much.” And that’s not to mention his shock-value videos, like the one in which he stares into the camera lens and explains his guns are made “to kill people.”
“He kind of freaks me out,” Wolf says.
Still, Wolf acknowledges that if Masters makes it through the primary, he’ll have a decent chance at beating Kelly in the November election. The political environment is so bad for Democrats, he notes, that even a flawed Republican candidate can win.
Masters knows his videos freak out his opponents. That’s part of the fun. For too long, Republicans have cowered to the “blue check” crowd on Twitter, he says. In Masters’ telling, Mitt Romney was “Mr. Nice Guy,” as accommodating as possible to the press and the left, and they still ate him alive. Trump fought the media and liberal institutions head-on, and he won. That’s the biggest lesson Republicans should take from Trump, and it’s one that Carlson preaches constantly: Don’t cower. Don’t be afraid of being called a racist for loving America and prioritizing this country over others. Don’t give the media an inch. Take the offensive and fight.
If he and candidates like Vance can win in November, they’ll work to “rebuild” the Republican Party into an “American-first, pro-family, pro-worker” party, Masters vows. They’d join at least one other conservative populist who’s received funding from Thiel: Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, who led the congressional challenge to Biden’s win on Jan. 6, and who has also endorsed Masters.
“It definitely looks more nationalistic, but I think it’s a healthy nationalism,” he says of the party he hopes to reshape. “There’s that N-word — nationalism — that you’re not supposed to say.”
I tell him I don’t think you’re supposed to refer to nationalism as the “N-word” either.
“I said that on purpose because it’s like this taboo: ‘You couldn’t possibly be a nationalist!’ But if you don’t think the job of an American official is to look out for America first, and Americans first, before the world or the international community or Botswana? Like what the fuck?”
Masters says a lot of things candidates aren’t supposed to say.
In addition to signal-boosting Ted Kaczynski, Masters has faced scrutiny for a 2006 essay he wrote for the libertarian site LewRockwell.com that was recently unearthed by Jewish Insider; it included a quote from the high-ranking Nazi official Hermann Goering and argued the U.S. hasn’t been involved in a just war in 140 years. In a statement to Jewish Insider, Masters said he didn’t endorse the Nazi leader’s views and that as an undergraduate anti-war activist, he went “too far” in denouncing so many American wars. But he also hit back at the “cheap journalist tactic” of “guilt by association.”
It would be easy for him to denounce the essay as misconstrued or the tone-deaf ravings of a dumb college kid. But that’s not his style. After the one-man debate, Masters brings up the Jewish Insider piece to me unbidden and defends his college writing. That he can’t quote a Nazi explaining how Nazis wrought the horror of war and genocide symbolizes everything that’s wrong with American politics right now, he says. That kind of cowering from thought-stifling cancel-culture warriors is what turned the right into a neutered force of blandness. Not to mention, he adds, that Adolf Hitler coined the phrase “the Big Lie.”
To get to Washington and help remake the GOP, Masters will have to sell his millennial New Right vision to a decidedly old right crowd: Arizona Republican primary voters.
Roughly 70 percent of the Republican primary electorate here is over the age of 55. Other than the campaign aide who drove him, Masters is the youngest person at the Quail Creek Republican Club, a required pit-stop in southern Arizona for any candidate hoping to capture GOP support. When he arrives, 20 minutes late, he sits in the back, thumb-punching his phone and occasionally stepping out as the other candidates deliver their stump speeches about border security, election fraud allegations, the rule of law.
His stump speech kicks off by denouncing his Democratic rival, Kelly, saying he’s worse than Bernie Sanders because Kelly has “the audacity to pretend to be a moderate.” It includes a few laugh lines, mostly about dating his wife, who he met in middle school. But there’s only one real applause line — when he pledges to vote to convict Biden at an impeachment trial for not defending the laws of the United States by allowing undocumented immigrants to cross the border.
He talks about how he and his wife homeschool their three boys, and how critical race theory is poisoning the minds of the youth to make them hate their country. He, on the other hand, grew up on Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman (that’s why it took him so long to convince his wife to date him) and has always remained “militantly anti-progressive” despite growing up in liberal Tucson, going to law school at liberal Stanford and starting his career in liberal Silicon Valley.
Through Thiel — the architect of, or at least the bank account for, the New Right movement — Masters got a job on the Trump 2016 transition team. He name-drops Steve Bannon, a close friend with whom he says he fought the “Deep State” and whose office was just down the hall. (In fact, Bannon is still close by, having purchased a $1.5 million home in Oro Valley, a Tucson suburb, earlier this year. He has long had ties to the area.)
Masters talks about the border and the “Angel Mom” who he met on the campaign trail whose son was murdered by an undocumented immigrant. He decries wokeness in the military and urges Republicans to fight the culture wars, warning the liberals are winning. They want to increase the Supreme Court to “30 justices” and centralize and federalize elections “so no Republican will ever win again.” They want to add states to the union — “these people would add Afghanistan to the union if they could.” He’ll stop them. It’s all pretty formulaic, and the crowd reacts in kind.
After the event, he asks me what I thought of his stump speech, and I say I’m surprised he cares what a reporter thinks. As the only “non-based Republican” in the room, I’d have an important perspective, he says. It’s a relatively startling exchange, considering his modus operandi of always hammering the press, but it may be part of his Silicon Valley approach to campaigning: seek out criticism and use it to perfect the product.
It’s hard to find voters here who have steadfastly settled on Masters. The crowd responded more enthusiastically to the previous speaker, Republican state Rep. Mark Finchem, the Trump-endorsed candidate to be Arizona’s next secretary of state — the top elections official — who spent his time at the podium claiming the 2020 election was stolen, implying it was still possible to decertify Biden’s win and trashing the reporter in the back of the room.
But Masters finds some fans. Kathy Kimbrell, a member of the club, says she likes his focus on Big Tech stifling freedom of speech. “I’m frankly scared to death about that, and I think more people should be,” she says. “But I don’t think most of the people who represent us understand technology.”
Her husband Randy Kimbrell doesn’t consider himself a MAGA Republican or huge fan of Trump — in fact, he’s only been officially a Republican for about six months. But he plans to vote for Masters in the primary because he believes Masters is smart enough to weigh each issue “not on what’s best for the Republican Party, but on what’s best for everyone.” Still, he still has some concerns about Thiel’s funding.
“He put his money behind J.D. Vance and Blake, and I wonder why,” he says.
Thiel’s motive for sponsoring Masters, according to Masters, is the same thing that drives him in life: Thiel views stagnation as the enemy. He’s backed lots of conservative candidates over the years but wants new energy in Congress. He knows Masters and Vance very well, knows Masters has smarts and integrity. It’s the same motive that drove him to become one of Trump’s first and most significant financial supporters: He wants to back candidates who he agrees with politically and ideologically and who are exciting. Thiel didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“I would get people from the White House telling me sort of back channel, ‘It’s been two years, when’s Peter going to ask for something?’” Masters says. “But that’s not why he backed Trump.”
Billionaires playing in politics is commonplace at this point. But two of Thiel’s very recently former employees are running for the U.S. Senate and are essentially only in the hunt because of his money. That level of entanglement is relatively new and raises all sorts of questions about a politician’s allegiance. Of course, Masters says he’ll be fully independent of Thiel’s sway.
“I’ll hear him out because he’s smart,” he tells me. “And I’ll take some votes that piss him off. I’m quite sure about that.”
At another campaign stop in Sun City West, a retirement suburb west of Phoenix, a man offers Masters the opportunity to “address the elephant in the room” — his tech billionaire backer.
Masters never shies away from embracing Thiel, calling him a visionary, conservative patriot and mentor and friend who was among Trump’s first and most loyal supporters. The Koch family is “basically open border Democrats,” he says, and the right needs its own George Soros.
“If you know any other America First billionaires, please come and introduce them to me,” he says. “Because I’ll take their support too.”
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