DESPERATION STATION

Jill Stein’s doomed recount effort is raking in millions because liberals are desperate for a leader

Obsession
2016
Obsession
2016

Last week, American Green party candidate Jill Stein caused quite a stir on the internet after she announced plans to raise money for a US presidential election vote recount in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Those states won’t flip. But if they did, Hillary Clinton would win the election. Stein quickly hit her $2.5 million goal—and then kept raising money. She’s at over $6 million now, and has officially filed for the recount in Wisconsin. The Clinton campaign has since announced that it will take part in the recount to “ensure that it is fair to all sides.”

Given the enthusiasm propelling Stein’s effort, one might conclude that the majority of American voters wanted Clinton to win, and are desperate to contribute in some way—any way—to defeating Trump. Stein is not exactly beloved on the left; she garnered around 1% of the vote and heavy criticism from some Clinton supporters who accused her of peeling off potential Democrat votes. People have embraced Stein’s campaign not because they love Stein, but because she has offered something like leadership at a time when liberals are desperate for champions.

The support for a recount is, at best, misplaced. Stein has basically admitted that she’s raising more money than she needs to for it. She’ll use excess funds to fund local Green Party candidates—which is pretty clearly not what most contributors believed she’d be doing with their dollars. The flagrant bait-and-switch is already raising eyebrows.

“Not saying this Jill Stein thing is a scam,” Nate Silver tweeted after a report that Stein wasn’t guaranteeing money would go to the recount, “but if it were a scam, it would probably look a lot like this.” Silver’s site, FiveThirtyEight, also largely debunked the conspiracy theory that Russian’s hacked the election results, which is Stein’s putative reason for auditing the vote. Other commenters have pointed out that Trump opposition in general, and the Democrats in particular, might be better focused on strategic battles, like the upcoming Senate race in Louisiana.

Stein’s campaign is clearly opportunistic, and its effort is a reminder that the left, if desperate enough, is just as susceptible to conspiracy theories as the right. But it also shows an understandable, and laudable, desire to continue working against the dawn of a regime that is busily fulfilling many of its critics’ worst fears. Trump has chosen the white nationalist panderer Steve Bannon as his top strategist. He’s floated unqualified grifter Ben Carson as his nominee to head the Housing and Urban Development. He seems to already be using his power as president to enrich himself. He doesn’t even take the presidency seriously enough to read his regular intelligence briefings. As in the campaign, Trump’s transition period has so far been marred by confusion, corruption, implicit support for racial demagoguery, and outright lies about the election results.

Faced with this chaotic mixture of incompetence and iniquity, the Democratic party has alternated between accommodation and self-recrimination. President Barack Obama has understandably been unwilling to denounce his successor openly, at least so long as he serves as head of state. Hillary Clinton, also understandably, has largely disappeared from the spotlight following her defeat.

But no other Democratic leader has emerged to take up the slack. Former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders preemptively declared he’d work with Trump, and has been most visible chastising not Trump, but Democrats, whom he accuses of losing white working class voters. Newly minted Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and the Congressional Democratic leadership have also spent most of their time these past few weeks talking about compromising with Trump on infrastructure improvement. Trump has taken advantage of the moment to tap Alabama senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general, a man who was once rejected from a federal judgeship because of his allegedly racist comments in the 1980s.

Trump has a lot of power as president. It’s not surprising that those who will have to work with him for at least four years are scrambling to find some sort of middle ground. And of course there are always recriminations after a major loss; it’s healthy for Democrats and the left generally to argue about what went wrong in the 2016 election, and to start discussing who will comprise the next generation of leaders.

But Jill Stein’s fundraising gambit demonstrates that amidst all the jockeying and conciliatory moves, regular people are desperate for leadership. Millions want to stand up and oppose Trump’s racism, his corruption, and his fascism. They want to resist. And they are looking for someone to point them to a battle.

Such battles aren’t hard to come by—even if they have nothing to do with recounts. Again, there is the final Senate run-off election on December 10 in Louisiana, with Democrat Foster Campbell facing off against Republican John Kennedy. It’s a difficult race for Democrats, but not entirely out of reach with a national fundraising push. Getting Democrats another senator (bringing their total to 49) would make it that much harder for Trump to confirm cabinet nominees like Sessions. If Sanders decided to use his platform to fight for Campbell, for example, fundraising would skyrocket.

Similarly, many on social media have been trying to raise awareness about Bannon’s positions on issues like abortion, anti-Semitism, and race in order to put pressure on Congress to oppose him. Even though Trump does not need official approval, the Senate could try to hold up the rest of the nominations process in order to pressure Trump to fire his influential advisor. Schumer has said he’d stand up to Bannon, but hasn’t offered any plan for how he will do so. Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren has urged the financial industry to condemn Bannon, which might push pressure on Trump, I suppose. But why not encourage public petitions and activism directly as well? Warren’s supposed to be a leftist populist; let’s have some anti-fascist populism.

Trump’s use of hatred and demagoguery, combined with his record of corruption, emotional volatility, and willful ignorance, poses a potentially unique threat to American democracy and institutions. People are desperate to hear that someone—anyone—is fighting to preserve their ideals and protect marginalized Americans. Trump’s election is frightening, but, as Stein’s campaign shows, the threat he poses has inspired a lot of determination and a lot of energy. People right now want to take concrete steps to oppose Trumpism. If Democrats and the left can’t channel that desire productively, the next four years will be bleak indeed.

Follow Noah on Twitter at @nberlat. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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