Future Tense

How a Trump-Loving Cryptocurrency Fan Is Taking the President’s Diss of Bitcoin

A bitcoin symbol submerged in water.
Trump tweeted that he’s “not a fan” of Bitcoin. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

On Thursday evening, President Donald Trump sent out a three-tweet thread declaring that he is “not a fan” of bitcoin, skeptical of Facebook’s forthcoming Libra cryptocurrency, and committed to ensuring that the dollar is “the most dominant currency anywhere in the world.” This was the first time that the president has mentioned a disdain for cryptocurrency—and it surely arrived as a disappointment to a particular slice of his supporters. Over the past few years, some of them have tried creating pro-Trump cryptocurrencies, such as USACoin and TrumpCoin, and Ohio Rep. Warren Davidson even suggested to NPR in December that the government could set up a “wall coin” to fund the border wall before backtracking on the statement. One Trump-voting cryptocurrency enthusiast, Preston Byrne, even replied to the president in the hopes of making a personal appeal:

To get a sense of how the pro-Trump crypto scene is taking Trump’s statement, I interviewed Byrne, who is a lawyer at the cryptocurrency-focused firm Byrne & Storm P.C. We discussed why he thinks Trump is wrong about bitcoin, why well-meaning patriots can support something that arguably competes with the dollar, and why the world of crypto has so few Trump supporters.

Aaron Mak: Why did you vote for Trump?

Preston Byrne: I’m a lifelong Republican. I believe in conservative values and, in particular, conservative economics. And like [63] million other people in the United States, I felt that he was a better choice to lead the country. So far, given the performance of the economy and the fact that he hasn’t started any wars, I think we were correct in our assessments.

What was your general reaction to the thread?

I don’t think the president wrote it. This is more likely coming from the Treasury Department— that’d be Secretary Mnuchin—and at the behest in particular of the banks.

So you think that the tweets don’t reflect Trump’s actual opinions on cryptocurrency?

The president of the United States is not going to have an opinion about everything that happens under his administration, right? I don’t think this is a personal view of the president having gone and dug in and really gotten to know his crypto backward and forward. I think his advisers are saying, “Mr. President, this is something we need to say.” And he went and said it. With regard to bitcoin and the rest of it, I think that’s a reflection of the understanding of the existing Treasury secretary. You’re dealing with really early–Gen X or later-Boomer guys who are running the government and don’t really understand what bitcoin is. That’s a very normal attitude—the kind that your grandfather might have about bitcoin.

What are your thoughts on the first tweet in the thread?

I just think that was the segue to talk about Facebook, to be honest with you. Those aren’t the noises that we’re hearing from places like the [U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission] and the [Securities and Exchange Commission], which have been really close to the ground in terms of regulating these assets. Generally speaking as an attorney in the space, committing crimes is a bad idea. Doing it with cryptocurrency is even worse because you have this very traceable log of evidence that is readily subjected to analytics. It’s really not smart because blockchain and cryptocurrencies are immutable, right? Transactions, once they’re there, they’re there forever. And that is really just the best that a prosecutor could possibly want.

Thoughts on the second tweet, which deals with Facebook?

[Libra] allows people to send money seamlessly back-and-forth between, you know, a small craftsman in Kenya and a purchaser of those goods in California. It sounds really nice, but the fact is that to do the proper compliance work—to make sure that the U.S. and Kenya are satisfied that there’s no money laundering going on—is actually really difficult. Which is why most banking business is conducted within one jurisdiction. All of this was getting at that second tweet … to express the regulatory anxiety that certain people, particularly in the banking sector, may have about the Libra projects.

I think there’s anxiety on both the right and left side of the aisle. Everybody has some anxiety that these big tech companies are acquiring power and more influence and basically are able to squeeze out smaller businesses, and it’s developing these monopolies over large sectors of the economy. Then also stepping out and saying, “Well, now we want to be involved in banking as well.” Not only that, you also want to be the gatekeeper that is between us and our merchants and decides what we can and can’t buy?

If you look at, for example, deplatforming—they’re kicking people off for having unpopular or controversial political views. What happens if you want to go buy a rifle with this stuff and they say, “Well, actually we don’t approve of guns in Silicon Valley, so you can’t use this money to buy that. And if you’re a merchant, we’re not going to allow you to plug in to our system.” It’s certainly an interesting point for the administration to say, “Listen, we have concerns about how they’re interfering in speech. We should also have concerns about how they’re interfering with money or could potentially in the future interfere with money.”

And the third tweet?

As a Republican, when I wake up every morning, the first thing I do is put on an American flag cape and then I go hug another American flag. We’ve seen the president hugging American flags—this is quite common behavior.* And I say the Pledge of Allegiance over breakfast [laughs].

In that context, it’s a feel-good tweet for the party rank and file. It fills my heart with the warm glow of patriotism when I read it, but I’m not sure it’s particularly relevant for a cryptocurrency discussion, which really is not about replacing. If you talk to someone about replacing the dollar with something like bitcoin, they’ll laugh at the idea simply because bitcoin is not built to serve that function. It cannot scale to those sorts of levels of transactions. Even if it could, you probably wouldn’t want it to because what you’re saying is: “We’re going to load all of the world’s financial data onto one single database.” Bitcoin strikes me as more of a precious metals substitute.

In your response, you suggested that you were one of the few people in the cryptocurrency industry who voted for Trump, or at least admits it. Do you think the crypto community is pretty liberal?

When the 2016 election occurred, I was in London. I wore my MAGA hat to the office on a reasonably regular basis. I got a lot of stink for it, because in London, of course, everyone assumed that I’m some kind of barbarian for being a Republican. Back then, there weren’t a lot of us who were speaking about it openly.

You tend to have two types [in the cryptocurrency industry]. You have the anarchists or libertarians, and they just generally are dissatisfied with two-party politics. They look at the situation on the right and left and say, “The kind of structural change that we want to see is not likely to be enacted by either party.” They’re pretty disillusioned. I bet a lot of them voted for Trump, but they aren’t proud to admit it.

Then you have the Silicon Valley bros. Their sole function in life is to raise money from VCs, conform, wear sweater vests and Allbirds, and fit the cookie-cutter mold. Being a Republican is nonconformist in the Silicon Valley set. So you don’t get a lot of people who are coming out and saying, “Well actually I voted for him,” because that will constrain their professional opportunities in those circles.

Correction, July 12, 2019: This interview originally misquoted Byrne as saying that the president’s flag-hugging is “dominant” behavior. He actually said it was “common” behavior.