Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus VR who sold the company to Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion, has been confirmed as the major financial backer behind a pro-Donald Trump group called Nimble America. Nimble America, in its own words, is a “social welfare 501(c)4 non-profit dedicated to shitposting in real life.” The DailyBeast broke the story and confirmed with Luckey that he was the near-billionaire NimbleRichMan associated with Nimble America.
The story came after a controversy on the pro-Trump reddit board r/The_Donald, often itself a haven for the white supremacist and racist imagery that has been repeatedly tweeted and boosted by the Trump campaign itself. In a now-deleted reddit post, Nimble America declared that NimbleRichMan would match all donations made to the group, after he had been vetted by both mods within r/The_Donald and by Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right author affiliated with Breitbart.com. (The term ‘alt-right’ refers to the political positions of a wide number of white supremacist groups.)
So far, Nimble America’s known activity consists of sponsoring one real-life digital billboard with a distorted photo of Hillary Clinton and a “Too big to jail,” but Luckey’s personal involvement is somewhat unusual in Silicon Valley. His personal comments as NimbleRichMan are likely to raise some significant eyebrows relative to his actual level of accomplishment and much of the frustration around the Oculus Rift‘s pre-launch and launch.
NimbleRichMan also wrote: “The American Revolution was funded by wealthy individuals. The same has been true of many movements for freedom in history. You can’t fight the American elite without serious firepower. They will outspend you and destroy you by any and all means.” Many have drawn comparisons between Luckey’s comments and billionaire Peter Thiel’s quest to destroy Gawker Media by funding a series of lawsuits against the company. Actions like this have illustrated how much power a handful of elites can increasingly wield to influence public opinion and discourse, and you don’t have to be pro-Clinton (or pro-Gawker, for that matter) to be disquieted by these events.
At the same time, however, one could argue that what sets Thiel and possibly Palmer (the full degree of his financial support for Nimble America is still unclear) apart from their counterparts in other industries is that they are Silicon Valley darlings. One of the greatest myths of the computing age is the idea that the Internet is just a platform, that algorithms are neutral tools used to aggregate data without attaching an intrinsic value to it, and that technology companies are meritocratic institutions that promote “the best” without regard for race, ethnicity, gender, or age.
People have grown accustomed to the idea that wealthy magnates in other businesses or fields may push political opinions or found powerful interest groups that advance specific agendas, whether that means Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety, or the Koch brothers’ extensive funding for pro-libertarian think-tanks, political legislation, and the Tea Party.
Early reports suggest some developers and VR fans are rethinking support for Oculus based on Luckey’s decision to support Trump via self-described “shitposting,” rather than any attempt to support more serious political opinions. The general argument here is that while Luckey is absolutely free to support any candidate and political organization (or to found one), actively using his wealth to drive political discourse to the level Luckey and Nimble America claim to champion is an act beyond the pale. Whether this will have any practical impact on Oculus or VR development remains to be seen. But it’s a headache Facebook almost certainly isn’t happy to have.