Democratic enthusiasm has manifested in a lot of ways in recent months: in voter turnout, donations to candidates, in polling, and, somehow, in tens of thousands of dollars to former Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen. Welcome to 2018.
A growing number of #Resistance crowdfunding accounts on online platforms such as GoFundMe and CrowdJustice have popped up in recent months. They’ve racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations for figures who have been spurned by President Donald Trump — Stormy Daniels, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, and, most recently, Cohen.
Crowdfunding is a way to fund a project, product, or, in these cases, legal bills by taking in small-dollar donations from multiple people, usually online. It’s been used for legal defenses before (George Zimmerman raised half a million dollars after killing Trayvon Martin), but Daniels became the sort of pioneer of this latest group of flawed heroes for the anti-Trump crowd when she launched her campaign in March.
She has brought in almost $600,000 since then. Former FBI Deputy Director McCabe’s legal defense fund raised more than $500,000 before it was taken down, and former FBI official Peter Strzok’s fund is at more than $450,000.
Cohen, whose GoFundMe page launched the same day he pleaded guilty to eight federal crimes and implicated the president in his misdeeds, hasn’t had quite as much luck just yet. His crowdfunding push has brought in about $150,000 — about one-third of his $500,000 goal.
“Basically, anything that’s in the news right now is getting a tremendous response with social media and crowdfunding,” Jesse Thomas, acting CEO of political crowdfunding platform Crowdpac, told me. “And the attention is really being monetized.”
I reached out to multiple donors to Cohen and the others in this group of crowdfunders to understand what they’re thinking and why they’re giving money. Many of them are progressives who oppose Trump, and yet they’re donating to a man, in Cohen’s case, who said as recently as last year he would take a bullet for the president. What gives?
Some seemed to genuinely believe that Cohen was turning things around and saw their support as a way of showing him there’s a second chance, even forgiveness. Others saw it as entertainment, or even an investment — they think Cohen’s got more details to spill about Trump, and they want to hear it.
“I’m a very ardent anti-Trump person, and I’d like to see this thing come to a fucking end,” Erin Norris, a 46-year-old restaurant owner from Brooklyn who donated to Cohen’s campaign, told me.
A lifelong New Yorker, she referred to Trump as a “shyster” and said she was also reading Omarosa Manigault Newman’s book, Unhinged. “I look at this as a little entertainment. I’ve seen movies that sucked, and this is just starting to get interesting,” she said.
Another woman, a 66-year-old widow living in Philadelphia who asked not to be named, told me she felt sorry for Cohen. “You don’t say you’ll take a bullet for someone unless you love them, and I think that he was manipulated by a person who let him believe that they loved him back,” she said.
She also donated to Strzok, who she said was “treated unfairly.”
Cohen, who turned 52 on Sunday, thanked his friends for their birthday well-wishes — and his donors for their money.
It started with Stormy Daniels
Daniels, the porn actress whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, seems to have been the first to find success in harnessing anti-Trump enthusiasm in her legal endeavors.
Since launching her crowdfunding push on CrowdJustice in March, Daniels has brought in nearly $600,000. Daniels, who alleges she had an affair with Trump in 2006, has been involved in legal wrangling regarding whether she can speak out about her allegations for months. Cohen paid her $130,000 ahead of the 2016 election to keep her quiet — the payout is actually part of his, and potentially the president’s, legal woes now.
Julia Salasky, the founder of CrowdJustice, told me donors seem to see in the Daniels case a scenario where an everyday individual is “going up against a Goliath.”
“This is an individual who’s up against the most powerful man in the world, and she’s leveraging support from thousands of people to do that,” she said. “It’s extremely motivating to be someone who’s participating in that, no matter the outcome of the legal case.”
The comments on the campaign website reflect excitement that Daniels and her attorney, Michael Avenatti, are going after Trump, as well as gratitude, encouragement, and some snark.
“You’ll go down in history as having helped bring the lying orange traitor down!” one donor wrote. “You can spare us the details about his ‘junk,’ though.”
“Keep fighting the fight against the toxic patriarchy, Stephanie,” wrote another.
One commenter on Reddit who donated $25 to Daniels’s campaign soon after its launch said that at the age of 50, he had never donated to politics until now. “If current politics are opening my wallet, there will likely be a tsunami of opposition to all this Trump nonsense,” he said.
Mel S. Huston, a 49-year-old retired lawyer living in Charlotte, North Carolina, gave to both Daniels’s crowdfunding campaign and Cohen’s. He told me he considered Daniels to be a “truth underdog” and said he was giving to Cohen because he wanted to reward “reformed truth tellers.”
Cohen is one of the people Daniels is suing.
A 46-year-old business director from Brooklyn named Ezra, who asked that his last name not be used, also gave to both Cohen and Daniels. I asked whether he thought the donations might be contradictory, since they’re actually involved in legal battles against one another. He said he has increased his donations to a lot of people and institutions since Trump became president. “I was a little bit more complacent during the Obama years,” he said.
Michael Cohen isn’t the hero we need, but maybe he’s the hero we deserve?
These figures aren’t the most heroic individuals, some with sins bigger than others. McCabe, the former FBI deputy director who was fired hours before his formal retirement, was found to have lied to investigators at the Justice Department. Strzok was fired over anti-Trump texts he sent to a woman with whom he was having an affair. Cohen, beyond his recent legal troubles, has engaged in shady business practices for years.
The people who are donating to them are aware that they’re not perfect — and they’re giving anyway.
“I donated simply to support what appears to be a significant life-changing series of decisions by a person I don’t respect for his past but support [for] what seems to be a sincere change of heart and understanding,” said a 74-year-old woman living in Los Angeles who donated to Cohen’s campaign. She gave $500 and asked not to be named out of privacy concerns.
Frank Morales, a 37-year-old customer service director who lives in Santa Monica, California, said he gave to Cohen because “we all screw up in life at times, and we all deserve a second chance.” The father of four added, “I’m supporting Cohen in an effort to support truth.”
H. Yarborough, a 72-year-old retiree from Florida, told me he donated to Cohen because he believes the lawyer is protecting his family and, specifically, his wife. “I know he is not a saint, but I admire his possibly taking a plea deal to cut the legal costs of a trial and keep more funds for his family,” he said.
In some conversations, there was a sense that Trump had betrayed Cohen — not just recently, but that he’d done him wrong for years. The New York Times reported in April that Trump had a history of undercutting and mistreating Cohen with insults, dismissive statements, and threats to fire him. Longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone told the Times that Trump “goes out of his way to treat him like garbage.”
Reports such as those appear to have sunk in.
“I’m sure [Cohen] is going broke with all these legal costs after Trump left him high and dry, and I want to show my support to the cause of revealing Trump for what he is: a master liar and manipulator,” Morales said.
Norris, the Brooklyn restaurant owner, said that while she understood Cohen signed up for his job, “I’m sure financially he’s always gotten the short end of the stick.”
Felix Karafin, a doctor in New York, on his Facebook page blamed “biased media presentation” for a “twisted perception” of Cohen, whom he described as “the most amazing guy I know” who “so many people have taken advantage of.” He gave to Cohen and encouraged others to do so.
Donors to McCabe and Strzok also said they were driven by what they perceive as the president’s retaliatory nature and his attacks on individuals they don’t feel deserve it.
A 54-year-old woman from Wilmington, Delaware, told me she felt Trump, whom she calls “45,” was being “petty and vindictive in having Sessions fire McCabe mere hours before he was eligible to retire.”
J. Blackwell, 40, a business broker from Houston, said he was bothered by the “corrupt batch of politicians and their apologists” going after special counsel Robert Mueller, former FBI Director James Comey, and Strzok, to whom he gave $100.
“I donated and encourage others to because he was railroaded by the corrupt idiots in Washington,” Blackwell said. “To see [Rep.] Trey Goudy et al. get on a soapbox and try to ruin one of the best we have is sickening to me.”
Progressives are motivated, and the #Resistance GoFundMe phenomenon is a part of it
There are a lot of indicators out there that the left is pretty fired up right now. Small-dollar political fundraising platform ActBlue has brought in $1 billion in contributions to Democratic candidates and causes in the 2018 election cycle. Polls suggest that Democratic voters are engaged, and the electoral map is optimistic for Democrats in the House of Representatives. Democratic women are running and winning in record numbers in the primary season.
The success of crowdfunding campaigns for anti-Trump figures — even Cohen — seems to be yet another manifestation of the progressive enthusiasm that’s showing up elsewhere. People are angry, upset, and ready to go, and it’s an outlet for them to do something. After Sen. John McCain’s death, one person donated $20 to Cohen’s fund in his name.
“What it looks like to me is that progressives in particular are engaging in any way you can think of, money being a big one,” Thomas, from Crowdpac, said.
The left isn’t the only one crowdfunding legal defenses: Michael Caputo, political strategist and longtime Trump ally, has raised $300,000 for legal bills incurred “while defending the GOP and the President of the United States.” (Stone’s grandson hasn’t had as much luck with his fund: It’s received about $3,000 in donations.)
But progressive dollars are going toward a lot more than Daniels, Cohen, McCabe, and Strzok. On Crowdpac right now, for example, a campaign encouraging Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) to vote against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has raised $150,000. If she votes against him, the money goes back to donors. If she votes for him, it will go to her Democratic opponent when she is up for reelection in 2020.
On CrowdJustice, there are campaigns to support legal cases related to immigration, voting rights, and family separation, among others.
“In an age where politics is increasingly divisive and it feels to a lot of people like there’s not that much accountability, I think the courts are a place of trust and accountability, and it is a place where people can have a concrete impact in between elections,” Salasky said.
Progressive crowdfunding donors trying to shape political outcomes and donating to the causes they care about could potentially be a productive use of money. On the other hand, you can debate whether giving $50 to Michael Cohen is the best use of finite resources. But it’s a free country, and more than it just being their prerogative, the people donating say it’s an enjoyable way of engaging with politics — unlike some other platforms.
The Philadelphia woman who gave to Cohen and Strzok told me she just quit Twitter because of the toxicity of the conversation there: “You only talk to people who agree with you, and it’s a popularity contest.”
She tied that decision to her giving. “It’s just a crazy world now, and I just decided that I would do things that make me feel good,” she said, adding that she gives to charity as well. “This is my new form of Twitter.”