True believers will tell you that the cryptocurrency movement—and the utopian digital economy it ostensibly envisions—transcends our current politics. Nobody looped in Josh Mandel. The MAGA diehard, who’s currently running for U.S. Senate in Ohio, praises Bitcoin as stridently as he flogs every dead horse of the culture wars. When he served as Ohio’s treasurer, Mandel made it the first state to accept tax payments in Bitcoin. (Ohio’s attorney general later found that Mandel’s unapproved actions violated the law.) Nowadays, Mandel is trying, somewhat jarringly, to shoehorn the technology into a nationalist vision of the heartland.
Conservatives already in office have joined the Bitcoin bandwagon as well. Freshman Republican Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming is arguably the staunchest supporter of cryptocurrency in Congress; she bought somewhere between $50,001 and $100,000 worth of Bitcoin in August and accepts the cryptocurrency for campaign donations. She is set to introduce sweeping cryptocurrency regulations in a bill this year that would help integrate the technology into the existing financial system. Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has suggested the government should use blockchain technology and advocated for the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department to take a friendlier stance toward Bitcoin so that China doesn’t get ahead in the sector. (China has since banned all cryptocurrency mining and transactions.) Sen. Ted Cruz also expressed his desire for Texas to “become the center of the universe for Bitcoin and crypto” while attending a blockchain summit in October. A week later, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted out that he aims the make the state “#1 for blockchain & cryptocurrency” after meeting with an industry group called the Texas Blockchain Council.
Crypto’s pitch as a decentralized currency free of state control would naturally resonate with those skeptical of government. But when, exactly, did it become an object of partisan—that is, Republican—obsession?
One of the promises of cryptocurrency is that it doesn’t require banks or government agencies to act as intermediaries for transactions, so users don’t have to put their trust into large entities. The appeal to libertarians is obvious, then (even if, in reality, cryptocurrency and the broader “web3” ecosystem involves plenty of centralization). Sen. Rand Paul, one of the staunchest libertarians in Congress, was the first presidential candidate ever to accept Bitcoin campaign donations when he ran in 2015. He’s even suggested that cryptocurrency could one day replace the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency.
But it isn’t just the increased prominence of libertarianism in the mainstream GOP that’s pushed it to embrace crypto. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman posits that right-wing politicians, particularly those of the MAGA variety, have an affinity for cryptocurrency due to the heightened distrust of major institutions that former President Donald Trump sowed among his supporters. “Bitcoin was supposed to create a monetary system that functions without trust — and the modern right is all about fostering distrust,” he writes. (For what it’s worth, Trump has consistently denounced Bitcoin as a “scam” that’s “competing against the dollar,” although his wife Melania has released her own NFT.)
Cryptocurrency’s appeal has reached the fringes of the right as well. According to David Golumbia, a digital studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who researches the politics of cryptocurrency, online posts from Bitcoin’s anonymous inventor Satoshi Nakamoto had certain identifiable ideological markers from the very beginning. “Whoever Satoshi Nakamoto is, there’s quite a bit of what I see as right-wing political tropes in the stuff he writes,” said Golumbia. While Nakamoto’s particular critiques of financial systems as controlled by shadowy elites are not inherently extremist, they do dovetail with a legacy of far-right thought that spans back to foundational anti-Semitic texts. “Especially in some of his forum contributions, there’s a lot of talk about the nature of fiat currency and sound money, which especially in the U.S. and the U.K. goes back to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the late 19th century.” It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that far-right extremists were among the earliest adopters of cryptocurrency and still enthusiastically embrace the technology as a way to fund their movements. “They really seem to believe governments exist to pretend to represent the interests of the people, but are actually all thieves and liars who steal from people through inflation,” said Golumbia.
With the exception of New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who is receiving his first three paychecks in Bitcoin to demonstrate his friendliness to crypto, prominent Democrats have generally been more skeptical of the consequences of the technology due to the lack of regulation and environmental impacts. Around 2017, when Bitcoin’s meteoric rise in price was making headlines, there was a push among Democrats and Republicans to regulate crypto. However, partisan fault lines have emerged since then. “As time has gone on, we’ve seen more and more that it’s been Republicans who have been against [regulation], and it’s been Democrats advancing it,” said Golumbia, who noted that lobbyists from the crypto industry seem to have found a more receptive audience with the GOP. A House Financial Services Committee hearing in December highlighted these divisions. Chairwoman Maxine Waters of California, who has long criticized the technology, expressed alarm during the hearing at the “rapid growth” of cryptocurrency with few regulations and the potential for fraud. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked the CEO of a digital currency payments company, “What do you say to the folks that say this doesn’t seem like a new financial system per se but an expansion of the old one?” Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, who is the ranking member on the Financial Services Committee, has in response attacked Democrats for not fully understanding cryptocurrency and for adopting a regulatory approach that will stifle innovation. He’s also asserted that there are already sufficient regulations in place. Overall, the Republicans seem intent on moving slowly when it comes to overhauling cryptocurrency laws, at least until after the midterm elections.
Among the broader populace, however, partisan divisions aren’t so stark on the issue of cryptocurrency. A recent Morning Consult poll found that 9 percent of Democrats and 9 percent of Republicans believe that there are too many cryptocurrency regulations. Conversely, 26 percent of Democrats and 19 percent of Republicans believe that there aren’t enough cryptocurrency regulations, a 7-point gap that Morning Consult characterizes as fairly narrow when it comes to opinions on financial laws. The more striking divisions were instead generational.
The cryptocurrency industry also seems to be trying to stay above the partisan fray and curry favor from both sides of the aisle. The digital currency exchange Coinbase has gone to great lengths to steer clear of broader political debates; CEO Brian Armstrong made headlines in 2020 when he penned a blog post in the wake of George Floyd’s murder dictating that the company wouldn’t “take on activism outside of our core mission at work,” unlike other tech giants like Google and Salesforce. The move nevertheless took on a political valence, as he appeared to be responding to progressive ideas permeating his workforce. When it comes to regulation, Coinbase and others have been calling on Congress to provide clearer guidelines and create a centralized agency to oversee the industry, instead of relying state-by-state enforcement. At the same time, crypto company spending on lobbying skyrocketed in 2021, suggesting that they want to have a healthy amount of influence on how these regulations are written.
Meanwhile, conservatives aren’t just promoting crypto; they’re minting it. There’s recently been a wave of new right-wing meme cryptocurrencies, from a “Let’s Go Brandon” coin to a slightly more forthright “FJB” coin. Making funny money has become yet another way to own the libs.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.