The nearly $450,000 currently sitting in the GoFundMe account of Peter Strzok, the senior FBI official recently terminated for his textual indiscretions, is not a bad haul for one week’s work. Strzok rose to fame for his steamy phone exchanges with fellow FBI higher-up Lisa Page, and their love affair became the object of scornful scrutiny in conservative media; Strzok’s disdain for President Trump was seen to prove that the Russia investigation was launched on tainted pretenses. After a bizarre Congressional testimony and multiple semi-coherent Twitter broadsides by Trump, the FBI fired Strzok last week. But thanks to a quirk in the modern digital economy, rather than slink into obscurity, he immediately reaped a huge financial dividend.
The GoFundMe campaign appears to have been first promoted by Benjamin Wittes, head of the self-important website LawFare, who has come to function as a sort of conduit between Trump-antagonist security state officials and the wider anti-Trump population. His function is almost akin to a horse whisper; he drops regular cheeky hints about imminent bombshell developments vis-à-vis Russia for his fiendish Twitter following, who hang on his every word. Though the bombshells never seem to quite materialise, he always appears vaguely in the know, always gravely concerned about something, always on high alert.
So when Wittes circulates a GoFundMe link, it carries the moral imprimatur of ‘Resistance,’ and the types of people for whom ‘Resistance’ generally seems to entail watching certain cable news programs, buying certain topical nonfiction books that they will never read, and angrily retweeting certain prominent personalities — these are types who immediately flock to heed his call for funds. Within a mere 24 hours, Strzok had gotten approximately $230,000, enough to purchase a large house in many markets. And though the rate of inflow has since slowed, he can still expect to receive a steady stream of hundreds per day. What will be done with these monies? Who knows! The website offers no mechanisms for accountability to ensure that funds raised are used for any particular purpose. Strzok could just as easily be outstretched on some beach right now, paying for margaritas with those sweet, sweet GoFundMe dollars.
Never mind that this former high-ranking government official is virtually guaranteed lucrative private sector employment the moment he seeks it, not to mention the myriad consultant gigs and/or book deals undoubtedly in his future. No, giving him money became an urgent ethical imperative for this particular subset of idle online Resisters, because really, how else are they going to expend their pent-up frustrated energy. Refresh Twitter for the eight millionth time?
Strzok would hardly be the first to make use of this new innovation in digital chicanery. Online crowdfunding mechanisms, while often very valuable (I’ve used them!) also seem to reward useless and often sinister behaviour, so long as the sales pitch has some kind of suitably moralistic lure. You have to wonder what these schemes say about the maldistribution of societal resources enabled by the internet. Though the egalitarian wonders of digital economies once seemed inevitable, today the biggest beneficiaries seem to be a handful of high-profile hucksters.
Anguished middle-to-upper-class types with disposable income will seemingly shell out money on anything which has even the most tangential relationship to opposing Trump, even if it means elevating the dodgiest of characters, such as former federal bureaucrats with blemished records. Andrew McCabe, another ousted FBI official, raised at least $530,000 through GoFundMe earlier this year before at least having the decency to shut the thing down. If they had the gall, these people could probably become crowdfunded multi-millionaires.
It’s easy to rattle off all the many worthier recipients who could’ve made better use of such online generosity. The money handed off to Strzok and McCabe would probably be enough subsidise a small infrastructure project. Several dozen needy kids could go to college (although the administrative costs of inflated tuition are comparably wasteful). Salaries could be paid for a bureau’s worth of investigative journalists, who would certainly be more useful for ‘opposing Trump’ than enabling these former FBI guys to pay expensive lawyers (so long as the journalists steer clear of CNN).
Crowdfunding is in many ways a wonderful development, and many people with valuable projects who would’ve never otherwise received financial backing have used it to create a livelihood for themselves. Conversely, however, it has enabled tremendous grift. And not just typical grift: politically-exonerating grift. The kind which allows people to convert their censure and shame into a profit.
For the anti-Trump populations who feel perpetually agitated and unsure how to channel their anxieties, GoFundMe pages provide a satisfying outlet, albeit temporarily. By giving your small contribution, you also give yourself hope —however fleeting —that this particular Trump foe has the magic potion to finally take him down. Now even Michael Cohen, the former Trump lawyer and current convicted felon, has launched one, which may finally stretch the bounds of credulity about these things to a breaking point. Cohen is a multi-millionaire, and his lawyer-patron Lanny Davis has also become extremely wealthy for operating in the same sleazy political circles as the one Cohen worked in until approximately Tuesday. As of this writing, Cohen has over $136,000 in his account. Not the astronomical numbers enjoyed by McCabe and Strzok, but still $136,000 too much.
Perhaps that’s the ultimate offense of the GoFundMe craze: a tiny elite who get national media exposure make bank from it, despite their obvious cynicism, while one-in-three GoFundMe users set up pages to underwrite medical treatments. It’s become yet another grossly stratified social realm, where a small cohort of undeserving political stars have somehow figured out how to game the system while everyone else seems to have either gone insane, gotten sick, or simply given up.