On July 4, former child actor turned Bitcoin entrepreneur Brock Pierce announced he was running for president as an independent. What might’ve made for a bigger news item was steamrolled by the media coverage surrounding Kanye West’s tweet on the same day that he, too, was launching an indie bid.
But to Pierce, it was all the same. He knows it’s virtually impossible for him to win this year. In his mind, the 2020 race is a “dry run” for his actual plan, which is just as ambitious, if not more so, than running for president again in 2024: Pierce wants to make third parties viable again.
“This country is divided. We’re not even taking a seat at the table to engage in civil discourse. And we have to find a path back to unity,” Pierce says. “I don’t think that’s going to come from the left or the right. Something new is going to emerge, something likely independent in nature.”
Third-party platforms have been derided for splitting votes in the last several decades, particularly in highly contentious elections. West himself even admitted that his goal for running was to siphon votes from Democratic candidate Joe Biden. Even though most independents do, in fact, lean more toward either Democrat or Republican, their outlook on each party and its candidates is more negative than that of partisan voters, according to Pew Research Center. As the world continues to grapple with the fourth industrial revolution, having a tech-minded candidate such as Pierce could be an attractive option for some. (Look no further than the continued hardiness of Andrew Yang’s Yang Gang.)
But is Pierce the right choice to lead this collective charge?
As unconventional a politician as Pierce is, his list of scandals is on par with the best of them, including ties to known pedophiles and a current lawsuit alleging cryptocurrency fraud. What’s more, his status as an independent candidate deserves a sharper look given that his past political contributions heavily skew Republican. As recently as August 2019, he donated $100,000 to both Trump’s reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee.
Pierce’s contribution history is eyebrow raising, but his candidacy is less a Trojan horse for a Trump reelection than one to promote cryptocurrency as the future of a global digital financial system. And in that, he and his message are harder to slough off than that of a vanity or profile-raising run.
The third-party blues
Pierce gained early fame as a child actor in commercials and major films including The Mighty Ducks and First Kid. But in his teens, he pivoted to digital media when he cofounded the proto-YouTube platform Digital Entertainment Network (DEN). Pierce’s jumpstart in the internet space laid the groundwork for his entrepreneurship in cryptocurrency. In 2013, Pierce cofounded crypto VC firm Blockchain Capital. A year later, he also cofounded the cryptocurrency Tether and was named the director of the Bitcoin Foundation. In Forbes‘s first-ever crypto rich list in 2018, Pierce’s crypto net worth was estimated between $700 million and $1 billion.
Now Pierce is making another pivot—into politics—and he has every intention of playing the long game.
“It’s been a calling most of my life, but why now? If you see what I see, if you feel what I feel, you know something isn’t right,” Pierce says. “I think we’re doomed if we don’t do something different. What served us in the past is no longer going to serve us. If ever there was a time to get involved, this certainly feels like that moment, and I’m prepared to risk it all.”
Ross Perot is considered the last presidential candidate who made a significant dent as an independent, in 1992’s race, when he secured 19% of the popular vote. In 2016’s election, third-party candidates garnered 4.9% of the popular vote, which seemed like a veritable landslide compared to 2012, when they eked out 1.7%, and 1.4% in 2008.
One could infer that the deepening division between parties may give an independent platform the momentum it needs to gain traction once again.
This year marked the first time in history that registered independents (29%) edged out Republicans (28%) in the 31 states that require voters to register by party, as The Washington Post reported. Couple that with the most recent Gallup poll that shows 38% of Americans identify as independents compared to 29% who identify as Republicans and 31% as Democrats, and a portrait of voters increasingly disillusioned by a two-party system comes into focus.
“It looks like there are a lot of potential people to attract to a third-party movement,” says John Aldrich, a political science professor at Duke University. “But a lot of people like to think of themselves as making up their own minds and not being slavishly bound by their party loyalties, even though in practice they end up always voting for a Democrat or a Republican.”
That’s in part because it’s been a notoriously steep climb for any third-party candidate even to become a viable contender.
“Republicans and Democrats may not agree on a lot of things,” Aldrich says. “But one of the things they can agree on is let’s not get third parties going.”
Independent presidential candidates are generally required to petition in all 50 states, with the number of signatures to get on the ballot varying from state to state—and that number is subject to change, sometimes by alarming degrees.
For example, in 2020, New York State raised the number of signatures needed for an independent candidate to appear on the ballot from 15,000 to 45,000. In Illinois, Pierce says that he and his team had their paperwork and petitions in order an hour before the deadline, but officials in the state still refused to accept it. “We could sue, but the problem with litigation is it bogs you down. It’s fighting Illinois versus getting on the next ballot,” Pierce says. “The system is rigged to prevent someone like me from running for office. But you can’t rig it well enough to prevent me from figuring it out.”
As Pierce is figuring it out, he wants to educate voters along the way with the help of his running mate, entrepreneur Karla Ballard.
“This has been civics 101 for me,” says Ballard, who is also the CEO of skill-sharing platform Ying. “Once more people know, then it’s up to us to do better. I had no idea it was such a hot mess.”
Ballard is developing a public curriculum alongside university professors breaking down a third party’s position in a two-party-leaning system. The goal is to shake voters free from the idea that the electoral process is forever stuck in a duopoly or that voting for a third-party candidate is stealing votes away from the ones who actually have a shot at winning.
“Some people have said, ‘You’re stealing votes away—we need to get Biden in office,’ or ‘we need to get Trump in office. We hear from both sides, and to me, that is acting out of fear,” Ballard says. “If we continue to act out of fear, we will never give birth to what we need, which is the vibration of love, acceptance, and opportunity for us to come together as a country. Even though that may sound like flowers and daisies jumping around in a little park, at the end of the day, in all scenarios where we’ve been able to get through some of the hardest things that we’ve had to face in our country, it has been off of a vibration of love.”
For Pierce, the 2020 race has mainly been about establishing love and unity and the pillars of his platform while working out the kinks of being a first-time politician.
“This is really more about 2024, but there is a strategy,” he says. “I’m someone that understands the rules of the game. And I study history. I don’t just look at what’s happened the last few years. I live so far outside of the box that I don’t live in reality as it’s currently defined. I view what’s possible.”
As a student of history, though, Pierce could read the room a little more carefully. Part of why Perot did so well in the 1992 race was due to the fact that he secured his place on the ballot in every state. And how he managed to do that and garner as many votes as he did was his appeal as a political outsider. But the narrative of the renegade billionaire storming Washington to bust up the status quo doesn’t quite have the same flavor after four years of Trump, who has averaged the lowest approval rating in presidential history. (Lest we forget, President George W. Bush also ran as an outsider “CEO President,” and his second term ended in a historic financial collapse.)
“A means to an end”: Unpacking Pierce’s political contributions
Pierce’s promise for something new may ring hollow after analyzing his political contributions. According to the Federal Election Commission, Pierce has contributed $102,635 to Republican candidates, including Trump, John McCain, Marco Rubio, and Rick Perry; the RNC; and anti-abortion organization National Right to Life Committee. On the other side of the aisle, he’s donated just over $10,000 to Democratic causes and candidates, including 2018 Congressional hopeful Brian Forde and liberal nonprofit ActBlue.
Pierce explains that his financial support for Forde was related to his support for cryptocurrencies. And the donations he gave to Trump’s campaign were to secure a meeting with Trump, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, and Donald Trump Jr. at hedge fund manager John Paulson’s home. The purpose of the meeting was to advocate on behalf of Puerto Rico, where Pierce moved and relocated his business operations in 2018. Paulson has pumped more than $1 billion in real estate development into the island and said he was considering moving there too, because, “It’s the only place a U.S. citizen can go and literally avoid, legally, all their taxes.”
Pierce says that shortly after their meeting, the Trump administration announced nearly $13 billion in aid for the country.
In terms of his other contributions to Republicans, Pierce says that he’s always identified as an Independent, and that he viewed major political parties “as means to an end, rather than sources of wisdom and good judgment.”
Even if Pierce is able to overcome his past political affiliations, he has scandals he’ll forever contend with in the public eye, one of which is ongoing and that could cast some doubt over what is arguably his platform’s strongest selling point.
A controversial past—and present
Pierce was well aware that stepping into the political sphere, let alone as a presidential hopeful, would put his life on display.
“This is the riskiest thing you can do, running for president,” Pierce says. “Every decision you’ve ever made in your life is going to be scrutinized. Every skeleton in the closet is going to be dragged out.”
The 12-foot Home Depot skeleton in his closet, especially in the #MeToo era, is Pierce’s well-documented connection to registered sex offenders Jeffrey Epstein and Marc Collins-Rector, the latter of whom was his former business partner in DEN.
Pierce was never charged with any crimes, and the allegations against him in the Collins-Rector lawsuit were recanted. “I feel like that narrative is now behind me,” Pierce says. “People are like, ‘This guy’s running for president, clearly he’s got nothing to hide.’ It’s giving me an opportunity to really present who I am. And it’s opened up the next chapter of my life.”
Unfortunately for Pierce, that next chapter includes another lawsuit, this time involving cryptocurrency along with the foundation on which he’s built his career and a large part of his campaign.
In 2018, Block.one, a publisher of blockchain software, launched its EOS.IO, an open-source platform meant to enable the creation of secure blockchain-based applications. To support transactions on the platform, Block.one also created the cryptocurrency EOS, and the company raised more than $4 billion in an ICO (initial coin offering). But now Block.one’s cofounders Daniel Larimer and Brendan Blumer and Pierce, who was the company’s chief strategy officer before stepping down in 2018, are facing allegations of cryptocurrency fraud. The class-action lawsuit claims that Block.one didn’t register its offering with the SEC, which gave its backers no insight into the company’s financial history, operations, budgets, or other critical details to assess its merits. The law firm representing the plaintiffs stated that Block.one basically “left investors with an unregulated asset that became virtually worthless.”
Pierce, who was actually served his subpoena in September while campaigning in New York, called the case “meritless” and a “publicity stunt.”
But instead of being dismissive of the allegations, Pierce may do better to find a way to leverage the moment as a broader conversation around cryptocurrency.
The case for a crypto-savvy chief executive
Lawsuits such as the one lobbed against Block.one certainly don’t help with cryptocurrency’s public image problem. The concept of digital tokens, decentralized ledgers, and so forth is inherently a complicated one for most people to grasp. Add to that allegations of get-rich-quick schemes and stories such as Silk Road or the alt-right using cryptocurrency as an alternative way to raise funds, and the narrative that we need a digital, decentralized, stateless financial system loses some of its sheen.
However, cryptocurrency is rapidly becoming a cornerstone of the global financial market, with world powers such as China taking significant steps in digitizing its currency. How the United States fits within that framework has yet to be seriously addressed on the political stage—and that’s where Pierce feels he comes in.
“The U.S. dollar is going to have to stay competitive,” Pierce says. “It has to be able to move as fluidly and efficiently—and technology is enabling that. We’re living through the fourth industrial revolution, and it is imperative that we are a major participant in it. When our tech leaders testify before our government, the quality of the questions being asked, it’s embarrassing. They do not have their finger on the pulse at a time where it really matters.”
To Michael Casey, author and chief content officer of blockchain news site CoinDesk, having someone such as Pierce drawing attention to cryptocurrency at the governmental level is a vital conversation that’s not happening loudly enough. “At the moment, the only place everybody wants to be is the [U.S.] dollar, and therefore you get this illusion of its strength, power, and desirability. But questions in this system, particularly when we have so many doubts around our political system right now, are going to undermine confidence in the dollar,” Casey says. The feeling is that the U.S. financial system is aging, if not broken, and that will inevitably lead to a turn toward a global alternative that could be rather deleterious for American interests. “It’s coinciding with this technological change,” he adds, “that China is driving from a geopolitical perspective.”
“This is where we need really forward-thinking people to grapple with what is the value proposition of the United States’s perspective on open systems relative to China,” Casey continues. “Because China is creating a very powerful, programmable digital currency, but it’s a centralized system that we know is going to be full of privacy risks. So I want people to start to think creatively about what this future is. As dangerous and disruptive as it will be throughout Wall Street and to everybody else, we have to give up the dominance we have in the current version of the dollar and create a digital concept that has privacy protections.”
While Casey believes Pierce to be an adequate harbinger of cryptocurrency’s potential, he doesn’t have high hopes for him executing these ideas as commander in chief. “I certainly don’t think he’s the right person to be president of the United States,” Casey says. “With all of my interest in these big issues, you’ve got to have a breadth of understanding of so many [other] issues. And there is no evidence that Brock has anywhere near that sort of experience that you would need to do this.”
But Pierce is giving himself a considerable amount of time to figure it out.
“I do things in decades,” Pierce says, referencing his childhood dedicated to acting; his teen years in media with DEN; his twenties building out the digital currency in gaming; and his thirties becoming a cryptocurrency tycoon. “And so I committed my forties, which starts [November 14], to living my life in service to this country and governance and trying to bring transparency and accountability and financial inclusion and fairness.”
It stands to reason that in doing all of the above on an independent platform would be an easier sell starting with local governance as opposed to jockeying for the highest seat in the land. According to Pierce, while on the campaign trail, he’s had citizens in states including Wyoming and Utah asking him to run for mayor or governor.
“I believe we should all keep an open mind in life. So I told all of these people around the country, on November 4, we can begin that conversation,” Pierce says. “I’ve been asked would I take a role with either administration depending upon what happens on the election. I said [yes], if it’s an impactful role where I can make a meaningful difference. Would I help out the Treasury Department? Of course. Am I committed to helping out in Puerto Rico and other places? Of course. And that could mean running for another office.”
“I’m here to do what I can to help,” he continues. “I’m willing to be the janitor. It’s not about the title. It’s about the impact. I’m here to serve, and I’ll show up in whatever capacity I can that is going to make the biggest positive impact for all of us.”