In February, the British political consultant Steve Hilton arrived at the inaugural “Unrig the System Summit” in New Orleans, ready to talk up what he’d done with Crowdpac. On paper, it was a perfect fit: A gathering of politicos from the right and left, and a product designed to let any insurgent candidate, from any party, challenge any well-funded incumbent.
Hilton took the stage, and the crowd began to boo.
“I am the host of ‘The Next Revolution’ on Fox News,” Hilton said. “Yes, I know. Get your feelings out right now.”
Three months later, Hilton announced that he was leaving Crowdpac — a crowd-funding site, not technically a PAC — which he founded in 2014. His successor as CEO, Jesse Thomas, announced that Crowdpac would put 10-day hold on all fundraising for Republican campaigns. The problem, Thomas wrote, was Hilton’s work for Fox News. A campaign to nudge Democrats away from Crowdpac, because its CEO was on TV talking up President Trump’s version of “populism,” had been successful.
“Our business has been built around removing friction from participation for leaders and candidates, and any perceived endorsement of Trumpism, true or not, could hinder our growth and their success,” Thomas wrote. “The truth is that the actions of President Trump and his movement run counter to our values and the values of the vast majority of our users.”
Hilton’s departure from Crowdpac, which he says has been in the works for months, was the latest case of a perennial cause — a “fix politics” effort designed to live outside the party system — succumbing to the reality of America’s winner-take-all system.
Hilton, a strategist and policy expert who helped rebrand Britain’s ruling Conservative Party as environment-friendly, socially liberal deregulators, had launched Crowdpac in 2014 to break the grip of “the global elite.” By 2018, the selectively anti-elite message had been adopted by one party — Trump’s Republicans. Crowdpac had mostly been adopted by Democrats.
“There’s been a low level rumbling every since we started,” Hilton said in an interview. “People told us, ‘There’s no way you can run nonpartisan political platform like this. You have to pick a side.’ And they were right. It was a constant source of difficulty. In this climate, it’s impossible to have a platform for all people of all backgrounds.”
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Before the 2016 election, Hilton’s disruption gospel had plenty of takers. The nominations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump left an unusually large number of voters looking for third-party alternatives; the aftermath of the election, and of hacked email from the Democratic National Committee, left Crowdpac competing with a sea of new, disruptive efforts outside the party.
But the energy, Hilton said, was almost entirely on the left. “The left was using Crowdpac from the beginning,” he said. “It reflected the balance of our team, which was mostly composed of Democrats. And a lot of the political energy has been on the left recently. That caused plenty of tension — we were being told, oh, there are Republicans on your candidate list, and you shouldn’t work with them. There’s an ideological belief on the left that you should not use nonpartisan tools.”
Hilton’s work on Fox News exacerbated those tensions. In 2017, he was given a show — “The Next Revolution” — on Fox’s less-watched weekend block. Almost as importantly, Hilton’s role as a contributor for the network had him appearing on more partisan-leaning shows, where he would be brought in to explain why the president’s enemies were not just wrong, but motivated by elite arrogance.
“The establishment was in total shock that this outsider could be elected president, and very quickly, that shock turned to rage,” he said on Fox after the raid on the offices of Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal attorney. “On the substance, he’s doing really well. But they can’t hear that, because they can’t stand him as an individual.”
On “The Next Revolution,” Hilton frequently booked guests from the left. But there was plenty of material for Hilton’s opponents when they began asking whether Crowdpac wanted to be associated with him.
“Are you putting money into the pockets of a pro-Trump Fox News host?” the linguistics scholar George Lakoff asked in a March post on Medium. “The very candidates and policies he attacks on Fox News are paying him a percentage when they use his platform!”
Lakoff’s post was part of a pressure campaign that got results. As Hilton noted in his “Unrig the System” speech, the biggest successes from Crowdpac’s funding model were Democrats; among the most successful Republican candidates on the site was a self-identified progressive running in a Republican primary.
“I think that initially, when we had an agreed-upon strategy with our board and investors that we were nonpartisan — I thought the show on Fox News would be asset,” Hilton said. “We were so skewed to left in terms of candidates, and I thought a goal should be to boost our standing on the right. Therefore, I thought it would be helpful if I was on Fox; it would balance out perceptions of what Crowdpac was. But it didn’t. It didn’t attract more Republicans, and it angered the left.”
The anger was specific. Hilton’s critics rejected not just his general assessment of how Trump blew up the political system, but of the policies where he aligned with Trump. In an August 2017 editorial, Hilton said that the “left was in meltdown” over the president’s proposed change to legal immigration policy, and displayed Democrats’ quotes from during the George W. Bush presidency, worrying that higher legal immigration suppressed wages and changed the country too quickly.
“Bring back the reasonable Democrats,” Hilton said. “Surely everyone can agree that immigration should be controlled.”
This week, Hilton said that immigration was one of the issues that had become toxic in his attempt to bridge the divide at Crowdpac. “The left has become increasingly dogmatic on immigration,” he said. “Any position short of supporting open borders is described as racist. That’s nonsensical. I’m an immigrant. My family are immigrants, twice over.”
But in the Medium memo announcing Crowdpac’s freeze on Republican campaigns, Thomas suggested that Trump had turned too many issues into racial quagmires. “We find ourselves grappling every day with campaigns fueled by Trumpism that skirt the thinning lines between overt hate speech and the rhetoric and actions used to stir up racial animosity legitimized by the President of the United States,” Thomas wrote. “These campaigns and this activity run contrary to the values of our company and community.”
Whatever Crowdpac said in public, Hilton no longer had to respond. In a few months, he’d be releasing “Positive Populism,” his second book. He had never found party politics as interesting as policy anyway.
“It turns out the people who thought this would be impossible were right,” Hilton said.