Burning Man in the Rose Garden? This Millennial Crypto King Thinks He Can Win the White House

Brock Pierce threw his cowboy hat into the ring the day Kanye West did, and hardly anyone gave him a second look. Does he stand a chance on November 3? And how does he feel about military aid for Israel?

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Brock Pierce.
Brock Pierce.Credit: Nils Petter Nilsson / Ombrello
Nicolas Rouger
Nicolas Rouger
Nicolas Rouger
Nicolas Rouger

Charismatic and energetically underslept, Brock Pierce is the most famous person you’ve never heard of. A child actor turned internet mogul, and a regular fixture of everything bitcoin since it was little more than a nerdy gimmick, the 39-year-old serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist, who may or may not be a billionaire, has a devoted following among aficionados of the cryptocurrency technology.

He has a colorful and divisive personality. Those who love him adore him. The others move between indifference and irritation. On July 4, hours after fellow bitcoin enthusiast Kanye West did the same, Pierce announced he would be running for the presidency of the United States.

Two weeks later, he made his way to the nation’s capital, via New York, to kick off his campaign in earnest. Born in Minnesota, he currently lives between Puerto Rico – a territory of the United States and a tax haven that he hopes to turn into the Singapore of the Caribbean – and Los Angeles. On his trip to the East Coast, he flew in with one of his rabbis to New York.

“I have a number of rabbis that I spend time with,” says Pierce, smiling, in a video interview with Haaretz the next morning. “I spend time with spiritual advisers. I also confer with indigenous elders; I come from a family of ministers. I’m a faith-based guy.”

Pierce’s latest investment is the former Pierce School, apparently the largest penthouse in D.C., which he bought sight unseen from an NBA player for $2 million. For him, this acquisition is additional proof that he is serious, that he is in national politics for the long run, not just for 2020, but to build a proper movement.

“My intention is to build out the platform necessary to support independent candidates up and down the ticket. We only need a handful of people in Congress, even less so in the Senate, to be truly independent, and then we have the swing vote,” says Pierce.

Pierce thinks the two-party system is broken, and that the rise of partisan politics “is accelerating.” With his campaign team, he has designed a winning strategy. If he wins any three states, he says, then he can make sure that neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump can secure enough votes in the Electoral College, forcing Congress to decide the election. He thinks a small number of congressional seats in a very divided American polity can serve as a magnet for both sides of the spectrum to come together. And in order to do this, he banks on the youth.

Socratic learning

Politicians are out of touch with reality today, Pierce argues. He calls himself a millennial; and, at least in some shape or form, the former child actor is the closest a 39-year-old can be to a digital native. Public oversight and regulation of technology is a major issue in U.S. politics today, but one that neither Trump nor Biden look likely to approach with competence. And it’s not just them, as the latest congressional debates around regulation of the game-streaming platform Twitch show.

“We need leadership that understands technology and its impact on our lives,” Pierce says. “The government doesn’t really understand what’s happening in real time. They’re reactive, they’re kind of looking back in the rear-view mirror, and seeing what happened over the last five or 10 years. It’s very hard to be effective when you don’t see what the future looks like.”

On the walls of one of his new lair’s airy living rooms, interior designers have chosen to keep the former school’s blackboards, and for Pierce, who could coerce a narrative out of one piece of chalk and two pixels, this is the perfect space to showcase his method. “We come together here to learn Socratically by sharing, listening, to bring together a nation divided,” he says.

“We’re living in this sort of broadcast era, where government and media talk down to us, and tell us what to think and what to do,” he continues. “But, through the youth, we’re entering this collaborative era where some people – not everyone – feel as if they have a voice and feel like they can participate in the conversation. The goal is to nurture that, because that creates a much healthier future for all of us.

I have a number of rabbis that I spend time with. I spend time with spiritual advisers. I also confer with indigenous elders; I come from a family of ministers. I’m a faith-based guy.

Pierce

“I believe we’ll break the record of youth registering and then following through and actually voting” for him, Pierce boasts. How, you may ask? One thing he has in his favor is the power of social media. His achievement of the day is his apparent brokerage of a deal between a group of major influencers on the Chinese-owned social video app TikTok and its L.A.-based competitor Triller. These four young bright things (Triller’s new head of strategy is only 18) have an audience of tens of millions, and would facilitate the migration of users from TikTok, which faces the wrath of Donald Trump and might be banned altogether in the United States.

Apart from mentoring teenage influencers, Pierce wants to open his political platform so it is attractive and relevant to young voters and to crowdsource the knowledge necessary to make it as representative as possible of the nation’s needs and expectations. He doesn’t hesitate to admit that he’s not an expert on politics – “the presidency is an office, it is not a person,” he repeats often – and has not said much on the issues he’s not comfortable with. That does not prevent him from taking what some would consider to be radical views: for example, on military aid to Israel and U.S. interventionism in foreign countries.

“Do you think this practice of intervention is serving the United States and the world at large?” Pierce asks rhetorically. “We push ideas but do not evaluate their efficacy. We suffer from the law of unintended consequences, but do not change anything.”

“Sometimes it feels like we’re going through a forest with a machete, chopping away, chopping away, but at some point someone has to climb up a tree and make sure we’re going in the right direction,” he adds. “I believe that everything should always be on the table – although by no means am I saying we should be taking support away from Israel.”

Brock Pierce at the SingularityU The Netherlands Summit, September 2016.
Brock Pierce at the SingularityU The Netherlands Summit, September 2016.Credit: Sebastiaan ter Burg

The campaign goes to great lengths to tout a libertarian, but rather progressive agenda. While Pierce is unlikely to win a huge number of votes, there is a chance he could shave off a few percentage points from Biden in the eight states, plus Washington, D.C., where he’s managed to make it onto the ballot. His stances in support of the legalization of cannabis and universal basic income, and of the need to address climate change should appeal to left-wing voters, as will his campaign’s personnel.

His choice for vice president is tech entrepreneur Karla Ballard, a Black woman who also happens to be a descendant of Founding Father Aaron Burr. His campaign manager, Brittany Kaiser, became famous as a Cambridge Analytica executive-turned-whistleblower, turned data-privacy activist. His newly announced chief strategist is none other than the Senegalese-American, Grammy-winning singer Akon, famous for hits like “Smack That,” and for recently laying the first stone for his own futuristic smart city – a real-life Wakanda, he calls it – in Senegal.

And yet, all this contrasts heavily with Pierce’s attendance at an August 2019 fundraiser at the Southampton, Long Island, home of Stephen Ross, a friend of Donald Trump, where Pierce donated $100,000 directly to the president’s re-election campaign. A request for comment on this specific issue went unanswered.

Battle scars

“I have a pretty good track record of disrupting the systems that I focus on,” Pierce says. Disruption as a concept is a major part of the blockchain industry – or blockchain “space,” as those in the know call it – in which he plays a major role. Blockchain, often puzzling to the uninitiated, is fundamentally an immutable record of transactions, called “blocks.” Added to one another, they create a chain, which guarantees that the records cannot be modified.

We need leadership that understands technology and its impact on our lives. The government doesn’t really understand what’s happening in real time. It’s very hard to be effective when you don’t see what the future looks like.

Pierce

Blockchain has attracted much investment, with supporters saying that it has the potential to be the basis for a new, better internet and revolutionize everything, from banking to identity. There have been a few successes, including as a decentralized payment system for refugees who lack bank accounts. But despite the billions funneled into its development, venture capitalists have not as yet managed to find an appropriate solution to blockchain’s substantial energy footprint.

For now, blockchain remains a synonym for bitcoin and cryptocurrency, which some experts say is nothing but a scam. David Gerard, a cryptocurrency critic and author of “Attack of the 50-foot Blockchain,” calls it a “complicated game of bullshit.”

“The whole thing is based on the fact that if you keep repeating something, it’ll come true,” Gerard tells Haaretz.

Pierce is a mover and shaker in the blockchain world, and has been behind many of the major milestones that have taken it from nerdy pastime to a legitimate subject of serious conversation. Transplanting these talents to politics, he knows he has little chance of being elected – but is already looking forward to 2022, and 2024. Besides that, in an industry where everything is about hype, he has just given his brand a major boost, potentially distracting attention from the multiple controversies that he’s had to contend with over the years. “I’m not perfect – God knows I have the battle scars to prove it,” his online “Brock Pierce for President 2020” campaign spot says.

He could be referring to the many scandals that have plagued his career. His teenage association with digital-streaming pioneer and convicted pedophile Marc Collins-Rector in the late 1990s led to dismissals from companies he helped to found, including Block.one, which made headlines in 2018 for raising a whopping $4 billion dollars in order to build a cryptocurrency called EOS. (Pierce has never been convicted of any sexual abuse himself.) There are also ties to several cases of embezzlement and securities fraud related to the major cryptocurrency projects he was instrumental in establishing, some of which are ongoing.

A picture taken on February 6, 2018 shows a person holding a visual representation of the digital crypto-currency Bitcoin, at the "Bitcoin Change" shop in Tel Aviv.
A picture taken on February 6, 2018 shows a person holding a visual representation of the digital crypto-currency Bitcoin, at the "Bitcoin Change" shop in Tel Aviv.Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP

Steve Bannon, too

In 2001, with support from Collins-Rector, Pierce founded Internet Gaming Entertainment, a company that built on a discovery that money can be made from selling virtual goods inside video games. He relocated to Hong Kong, eventually employing thousands across China – in what The New York Times called “virtual sweatshops” – playing games like Everquest and World of Warcraft. He hired the employees to find potentially valuable goods, or artifacts, in the game, to later trade for actual currency.

According to a 2018 portrait in Rolling Stone, Pierce brought Bannon into the business in 2005, together with an investment of $60 million from Goldman Sachs. And whether this was Pierce’s aim or not, what Bannon found in IGE – later renamed Affinity Media – was another resource altogether: disaffected, young, male gamers, who would come to form the core of the alt-right movement that Bannon later spearheaded.

On the surface, Bannon’s political approach is far from what Brock Pierce preaches. Technology is neither good nor bad, in Pierce’s opinion. He embraces the kind of transhumanist, libertarian thinking that permeates the U.S. high-tech elite: Technology has the power to save us all, as long as we know how to use it. We only need more entrepreneurs, more innovators. In Puerto Rico, Pierce dreamed of creating a “nation of entrepreneurs.”

But it is more than that. He also swears by the radical thinking of the Burning Man 10 Principles of community – an ethos that unites the thousands of revelers who gather to live currency-free in a sort of post-apocalyptic desert setting every year (although not in 2020).

The 10 Principles, among them radical inclusion, decommodification and radical transparency, draw an attractive picture of a color-blind, inclusive future where only human potential informs success. They are the epitome of a brave new world in which all wounds will be healed and technology will serve the greater good of humanity, where progress rewards creativity, and everyone can get rich.

“Technology should really be embraced, not feared. It is here to enhance our institutions, and improve our lives,” Pierce says in his campaign ad, wearing relaxed formal wear and ascending an ivy-laden staircase.

He raises a cup of coffee to his lips. It’s 9 A.M. in Washington, and the August sun is shining brightly. His cup sports the inscription “Let the adventure begin.” It probably wasn’t chosen randomly. Like any other politician, Pierce is an actor. In fact, he’s already spent time in the White House: as a fictional “First Kid” in the 1996 film of that name, in which he starred alongside comedian Sinbad, who played his bodyguard.

Whatever happens on November 3, Pierce, who turns 40 ten days later, plans to be in Israel for his birthday. This time, unlike on past trips, he hopes to visit Jerusalem.

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