In the wake of the election of President Donald Trump, a new class of social media star began to emerge. Peppering their tweets with hashtags like #resist and #impeach, promising access to unique insights (and sometimes even inside info), these #Resistance fighters struck a chord with the millions of angry, frightened and confused Americans searching for some way to hit back against the Trump administration.
Almost two years later, the voices of the #Resistance have become a prominent part of the national political conversation. With six-figure follower counts, lucrative book deals and guest spots on national TV shows, these social media stars have become established mainstream voices and trusted authorities on how to fight back against Trump — even if they never seem to actually engage in anything more impactful than Twitter.
Despite their shiny new legitimacy, it’s become increasingly clear that many of these people aren’t quite what they claim to be; they’re often more about the change in their pockets than changing the nation. While Trump’s atrocities pile up, these so-called fighters are cashing or seeking paychecks — and sometimes even insulting, if not actively harming, members of the marginalized communities for whom they claim to be taking a stand.
The charge that a voice for social justice might be more in it for the attention than the cause isn’t unique. Prominent Black Lives Matter voices like DeRay McKesson have repeatedly been derided as more “actorvist” than activist, regardless of their actual accomplishments.
But unlike the members of Black Lives Matter who’ve occasionally secured a modicum of fame and prestige from their work which often predated the fame or prestige, the (usually white) people running the #Resistance were hardly associated with progressive politics before 2017 and still aren’t connected to the groups most directly affected by Trump’s racism and bigotry today; they’re not the ones at risk of violence or deportation or death. While others live their lives on the front lines of the fight at protests and marches, the keyboard warriors of the #Resistance are a comfortable distance away tweeting about it, cashing their checks and often accusing anyone who doubts their commitment to the cause of being a Russian operative.
But as disappointing as it is to see the genuine desire to fight against Trump co-opted in service of enriching grifters, we can’t really be surprised. As more and more people are forced out into the gig economy, we’re facing increased pressure to sell ourselves instead of just the fruits of our labor, being called upon to craft “personal brands” and accrue fan bases to stand out against our competition. And in a world where personal brand and social media follower count carry as much — if not more — weight with institutional gatekeepers than actual skills and experience, it’s easy for the frauds and fakes to rise to positions of branded prominence, burnishing their bank accounts on the basis of their alleged reach while more talented or experienced people are left out in the cold.
The fight against Trump isn’t the only front that’s been compromised by the grift. The comedy world has its own crowd of social media manipulators, with stars like The Fat Jew and Goth Ms. Frizzle routinely accused of building their careers on stolen jokes and other people’s ideas. Over in publishing world, for instance, Lani Sam’s YA book "Handbook for Mortals" was booted from the bestseller list after it became clear that it had achieved that ranking by dubious means, and Los Angeles’s literary community was taken for a ride by a woman named Anna March, a faux socialite who used a professed interest in social justice to scam writers out of labor and cash. Even the supposedly rational world of science and tech isn’t immune to grifters: Elizabeth Holmes raised billions of dollars in investment for Theranos in spite of the fact that her technology didn’t work, and Silicon Valley darling Elon Musk routinely traffics in bold statements about his work and companies that have no basis in fact.
And then, of course, there’s the Grifter-in-Chief, the very man these #Resistance fighters position themselves against: A president who rose to prominence through scams and the creation and maintenance of a personal brand, whose administration seems determined to get one over on everyone else.
So long as we value a solid sales pitch over anything more substantial, we’ll always be susceptible to these sorts of hucksters. But fortunately, there are some signs that suggest that we may be approaching the end of the era of grift. Earlier this year, Twitter cracked down on fake accounts and bots — the kind someone in search of prestige might use to bulk up a lackluster follower count — slashing the fan bases of many a scam artist, and revealing them for the frauds that they are. It’s just a first step towards accountability and honesty, but it suggests a hunger for something real.
Now if we can just teach ourselves to look past the showy branding of these grifters and actually pay attention to their actions in between their requests for money, we might be able to get ourselves — and our wallets — into a better place.
Lux Alptraum is a Development Producer for Fusion’s "Sex.Right.Now." and the author of "Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And the Truths They Reveal," out in November 2018 from Seal Press.