The federal government has partially shut down, and Donald Trump still doesn’t have money for a border wall. Earlier this week, the president rejected a funding bill that would keep nine federal departments operational, and Congress scrambled to find a fix by a deadline of midnight on Friday—but to no avail. The rejected bill didn’t include a desired $5 billion for Trump’s long-promised wall along America’s southern border.
With control of the House of Representatives set to switch to the Democrats in the new year, the odds that Trump will secure money for the wall in the near future have been dwindling. In an effort to fill that gap, several crowdfunding campaigns have popped up to collect money for the wall directly from Trump supporters online, with the purported intent of passing that money to the White House or the Department of Homeland Security. The most successful one, a GoFundMe started by an Iraq War veteran with a background in Facebook accounts that trafficked in conspiracy theories, has raised more than $14 million. It aims to raise at least $1 billion.
Even though 10 figures in raised funds would be a new frontier, it’s the logical extreme toward which online crowdfunding has been headed. What started less than a decade ago with Kickstarter campaigns to raise money for new businesses has become a way for people to pay down medical debt or avoid eviction. During the midterms, crowdfunding allowed people to find and directly support candidates in the most contentious races across the country.
Individuals start or contribute to crowdfunding campaigs for their own reasons, but on a collective scale, Americans’ willingness to pitch in 20 bucks to a stranger online is among the defining phenomena of 2018. Its popularity is made possible by two intersecting realizations: Some of the vital structural underpinnings of life in the U.S. don’t work very well, and the ideas that end up mattering most are often those with money behind them.
Medical debt in particular helped online crowdfunding turn the corner from being mainly a project of personal desire to something both darker and more political. Debilitating health-care costs manifest as an individual problem, but they’re generally the result of flawed systems far beyond the control of the people who receive those bills. Even for those with insurance, bills can be overwhelming. And many people’s savings are running dry in general: A 2017 Federal Reserve study found that 44 percent of American adults don’t have even $400 in cash on hand in case of an emergency. That exposes a growing number of people to the sort of precariousness that can make crowdfunding attractive.
People often think of the practical issues associated with medical problems as primarily affecting Americans who are older and, as a result, may be in worse health. But medical debt disproportionately impacts Millennials, at least in part because young people get kicked off their parents’ insurance at age 26. Young people are also more likely to be classified as independent contractors at work, and contractors rarely have access to employer-subsidized insurance. What Millennials do have, though, is a generally strong grasp of social media’s dynamics and uses, which means the best way for them to deal with the structural failures of American medical care may indeed be to leverage their online connections and cobble together the needed funds piece by piece.
Identifying who has money, who needs it, and how it can be redistributed to help the most people is also a primary project of socialism, a political ideology that has gained significant ground among young liberals in recent years. Crowdfunding, in a way, serves as a person-to-person shortcut to live those ideals in a time when structural power opposes them: People with a little extra money can give it directly to those who need a little extra, without the services of an unreliable third party.
But it isn’t just young people and the political left who have dwindling confidence in the structures that have long animated American life. The border wall, a central policy goal of Trump and his supporters, couldn’t get funded during the two years that Republicans controlled both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. To circumvent congressional gridlock, supporters have turned to nongovernment funding alternatives, a choice that gives them potential access to a privilege previously accessible only to the very wealthy: treating large-scale government projects that will affect millions of people like personal hobbies. That’s true even if raising a significant portion of Trump’s desired $5 billion seems unlikely. (The people running the two largest border-wall crowdfunding campaigns didn’t immediately return requests for comment.)
Whether or not raising money directly from Trump supporters can fund the entire wall misses the point, though. The goals of politically motivated crowdfunding go beyond practicality. Access to funding is access to power in America, and as that access becomes increasingly unequal, demonstrating an idea’s popularity via visible, public fund-raising can be a tool of consolidating that power.
The border wall is the most recent example of this idea writ large, but a few months ago, a GoFundMe to support Christine Blasey Ford’s personal-security needs in the lead-up to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings raised nearly $650,000, more than four times its goal. Money is one of the few ways to do or say anything with impact in America, and acknowledging that may be one of the most nonpartisan ideas we have left.
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