Members Only | June 29, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Anti-establishment profit-making

On Substackers, crypto and Trump.


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Donald Trump didn’t just conspire to overturn the election. He ripped off his own supporters while doing it.

Treason, it turns out, is a lucrative endeavor. 

Attacking the establishment can line one’s pockets. 

This has been a central insight of rightwing media — and not just of rightwing media. There’s a capitalist incentive to frame oneself as a brave dissenter against the existing power structure. 

Everyone is lying to you; I am the only one with the truth is a pitch that should provoke skepticism. But people like to think they have unique access to the truth. And once they’ve anointed you as truth teller and bought in fully, you can tell them just about anything. 

That’s not the only reason our public discourse is so divisive, incoherent, violent and useless. But it doesn’t help.

Paying for a coup
The J6 committee has shown how Trump was told repeatedly that there had been no fraud in the 2020 election. Nonetheless, he continued insisting in public that the election had been stolen. 

His deliberate lies directly inspired rioters to storm the capital in an attempted coup. Trump didn’t just call for violence, though. 

He also called for funds.

Trump claimed he needed money to mount a legal attack on election fraud — even though, again, he had been told there was no fraud. He said the money would go to an election defense fund.

But there was no fraud and no election defense fund. 

Trump lied to constituents to raise $250 million. Then he dumped that money into the Save America political action committee. The PAC funneled the money to organizations run by Trump cronies.

The most egregious example, the committee alleged, was a payment to Kimberly Guilfoyle, Donald Trump, Jr.’s girlfriend. 

Guilfoyle gave a two-and-a-half minute introduction to the president on J6. Trump went on to urge the crowd to march on the capital, which they did. The violent attack  led to nine deaths.  

For her brief contribution, Guilfoyle was paid $60,000

Why were Trump’s appeals so successful? Partially the answer is partisanship. Trump is the head of the Republican Party. His personal appeal to fight the evil Democrats carries a lot of weight. 

People trust their partisan leaders, and partisanship is strongly linked to belief in disinformation and lies about the opposition. 

But the narrative Trump is selling, of himself as the brave opponent of systemic corruption, is also very powerful.

The devil and the truth
In his 1945 novel That Hideous Strength, CS Lewis’ protagonist, Mark, is tempted by evil because he wants to be part of the inner circle that knows the truth hidden from everyone else.

For here, here surely at last (so his desire whispered to him) was the true inner circle of all, the circle whose center was outside the human race — the ultimate secret, the supreme power, the last initiation.

Mark is a college professor and in the novel, Satan has taken over the college administration. Mark’s rage to be the knower is a rage to be part of the establishment.

But (as Mark confusedly recognizes) the desire to be in can work even better when you start suggesting in is out and that only anti-establishment crusaders know what’s really happening.

Ponzi schemes to fight the man
You can see this dynamic with crypto. 

Cryptocurrencies sell themselves as a tech bro escape from social control. Buying crypto wasn’t just a canny investment. It was a way to fight the power, the hegemony of government fiat. Or as bitcoin’s pseudonymous creator Satoshi Nakamto wrote, crypto is “very attractive to the libertarian viewpoint if we can explain it correctly.”

In the event, crypto, like Stop the Steal, was less about fighting the power than about embracing the grift. In early June, the FTC released a report that said they had identified 46,000 people who collectively had lost over $1 billion in crypto scams since 2021.  

Worse, the entire market has revealed itself as a scam. Luna, an important currency, peaked at $116 in early 2021 before erasing essentially all of its value last month in a catastrophic plunge. 

As Robert Reich wrote, crypto is a Ponzi scheme — one driven, in this case, not just by greed, but by a dream of sticking it to the man.

Substack seers
The same dynamic powers the careers of Alex Jones, Joe Rogan, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Yglesias, Jimmy Dore and fleets of lesser and wannabe Substackers, not to mention Tucker Carlson. 

Everyone is lying to you; I am the only one with the truth is a pitch that should provoke skepticism. But people like to think they have unique access to the truth. And once they’ve anointed you as truth teller and bought in fully, you can tell them just about anything. 

You can: Sell them dietary supplements and skin care products. Promise them you’ll force an electoral recount if they funnel you money—as Jill Stein did. Get them to watch your dreadful movies.  

The honest anti-establishment
Not every anti-establishment appeal is deceptive or malevolent. People buy Sex Pistols T-shirts because the Sex Pistols seemed rebellious. And they wear the shirts and feel rebellious and cool. 

It’s a little silly, perhaps, but people spend money on somewhat silly things all the time. It’s not a scandal. 

Bernie Sanders created a fundraising juggernaut by promising to change Washington, arguing that Republicans and Democrats were blocking reforms. 

Love Sanders or hate him. Agree or disagree with his message. But he said that he’d make a serious run for president with the donations and he made a serious run (or two) for president. 

Sanders put out clear policy positions intended to improve the lives of marginalized people. He stumped for votes. When he lost, he stopped campaigning — not soon enough for some, but still. 

Sanders’ anti-establishment brand supercharged his campaign coffers. But when he got the money, he did what he said he’d do. 

The country pays
Anti-establishment appeals aren’t always deceitful or even bad. But the fact that they can be so lucrative can create ugly incentives.

Everyone knows about the incentive for people in institutions to defend them, or for those in power to defend the status quo.

But we also need to be aware of the potential rewards for people who adopt certain kinds of anti-establishment boilerplate. Telling people that they’ve been cheated of an electoral win, or that they can get rich quick, is a good way to part them from their money.

If people think you and only you have the truth, they’ll pay for it. 

As Trump understands, it’s an easy exchange of lies for cash.

Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.

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