A strange feature of our current political climate is the significant overlap of philanthropy and partisan activism. That’s not so extraordinary, of course; charity has always been shaped by and contributed to shaping prevailing political trends. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that the all-important ‘buffer space’ called civil society—wherein citizens can participate in public ventures which are not themselves explicitly political—is shrinking.
This fact plays out in two ways. First, philanthropy becomes more political, as a recent study of charitable behavior found. In a shrinking civil society, the decision to give is increasingly determined by political factors, such as whether or not a potential donor perceives their political views to be in line with those of their neighbors.
Second, politics becomes more philanthropic, or, more accurately, comes to rely on philanthropy more and more. I’ve written about David Rubenstein, for instance, a billionaire investor who has donated large amounts to the federal government for repairs to the Washington Monument, Monticello, and Mount Vernon; Rubenstein explains his giving in part by noting how, “the government just isn’t going to fund these organizations [etc.] at the level they need.” When gridlock prevails, the mega-rich are increasingly looked to to help foot public costs.
Now another twist on this storyline comes in the person of Brian Kolfage, an Iraq War veteran who’s recently launched a GoFundMe page to raise funds for Trump’s proposed border wall. The webpage Kolfage set up explains that, “It’s up to Americans to help out and pitch in to get this project rolling” since “Democrats are going to stall this project by every means possible and play political games to ensure President Trump doesn’t get his victor [sic].” Kolfage explains his calculations, saying, “if the 63 million people who voted for Trump each pledge $80, we can build the wall” (current projections for the wall’s cost sit somewhere between $12 billion to $15 billion).
Remarkably, Kolfage’s page has already raised more than $17 million (as of today, though this number grows hourly)—a drop in the bucket of the overall costs for the wall, but easily one of the most lucrative GoFundMe campaigns ever (Canada’s National Post reported that as of April of 2018, the highest-earning GoFundMe belongs to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which had raised over $21 million for victims of workplace sexual harassment). Kolfage plans on donating whatever he raises directly to the federal government to cover the costs of constructing the wall.
Obviously, several concerns present themselves. First all among them is the issue of credibility—“How do you know this is not a scam?” as Kolfage himself writes on the page. As bona fides, he points to a verified Facebook page, a public website, and his “many” appearances on Fox News. And if these hardly seem like definitive pieces of evidence, there’s also the issue of how to ensure that the government will use any potential future donation towards a southern border wall. To allay such concerns, Kolfage mentions how he’s “working with a law firm” to draft a contract earmarking any future gift. Furthermore, the government’s ability to receive such a gift is an open question. The donation depends on HR 7207, introduced by Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH), which would direct the Treasury to set up an account known as the “Border Wall Trust Fund” that can receive the gift; but HR 7207 was meant to pass with the overall government funding bill, which failed to materialize before Congress broke for its December recess this week. When Democrats assume control of the House in January, they’re unlikely to include this particular provision in whatever draft budget they put forward. (Although—as Trump’s recent dispute with Congressional leaders has made clear—he considers money for the wall a non-negotiable requirement of any government funding bill; thus Kolfage’s unorthodox proposal might wind up having an outsized influence on budget battles in the weeks to come.)
Add to this list of concerns the fact, recently reported by the Daily Beast, that during the 2016 election Kolfage himself directed an online news forum that traded in conspiracy theories and fake bot accounts. Especially since Kolfage deliberately failed to mention his past activism when promoting the GoFundMe campaign, the revelations bring concerns about his personal credibility back to the fore.
More fundamentally—quite beyond these various provisional concerns—Kolfage’s effort raises the same troubling question as Rubenstein’s record of ‘patriotic philanthropy’. Namely, why is it necessary for private citizens to devote their energies to fundraising for causes that are essentially political in nature, and, strictly speaking, ought to be subject to the conventional budget process? Indeed, Kolfage cites Rubenstein’s example in his pitch, but it seems to me the dangers of coming to rely on private donors—whether partisan advocates like Kolfage or public-spirited plutocrats like Rubenstein—as significant sources of federal funding outweigh the advantages. Specifically, these efforts dilute the political process and further blur the lines between philanthropy and activism. Even if Kolfage succeeds in raising significant amounts of money for the wall, his ability to do so does nothing to answer the political question of whether or not the wall should be built. That’s a question, like many others related to it, which is unfortunately short-circuited by the guerrilla activism of Kolfage.
For now, however, Kolfage’s efforts continue apace. After an appearance on Laura Ingraham’s primetime Fox News show, donations to Kolfage’s page jumped and his initiative has generated a flurry of excitement among the conservative press. Whether Congress’ recess and the subsequent government shutdown derail his fledgling efforts is a question that remains to be seen.