When Josh Hawley first ran for Senate in 2018, he raised $11.8 million, less than a third of his opponent’s amount. But Missouri is by now a deep-red state and Hawley is a Republican, so he won by nearly six percentage points despite that fairly modest total.

In the first three months of 2021, Hawley’s fundraising numbers were immodest. He pulled in more than $3 million through March, more than a quarter of the total in the last cycle — and he’s not even up until 2024. What’s more, that total came despite his taking an active role in encouraging Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential contest. Hawley infamously objected to the final counting of electoral votes in the days before the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, gave the assembled crowd a fist-pump of support that morning and after the attack went ahead with challenging the votes submitted by Pennsylvania, precisely the outcome the rioters sought. Yet this didn’t keep him from pulling in more money than most of his colleagues.

In fact, it probably helped. That Hawley became a face of the effort to overturn the election (and that he continued to dine out on that position in the weeks that followed) probably helped him pull in that total.

Consider another Republican official who raised more than $3 million in the first quarter: controversial Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). Greene’s hard-right rhetoric and repudiation by her peers unquestionably helped goose her fundraising.

That Hawley and Greene managed to convert their public profiles into fundraising windfalls isn’t novel. When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) first arrived in Washington, she demonstrated a similar ability to leverage her popularity to raise money. The effect was that direct: Ocasio-Cortez was so popular and able to get enough people to contribute to her campaign that the odious task of fundraising itself became background noise.

It’s obviously the case that this is something that couldn’t happen without the Internet to the same degree. In fact, it is evidence of a broad shift in the maturity of the Internet that’s rippling into a lot of other domains.

When the Internet first reached significant scale, it facilitated the emergence of bespoke communities with shared interests, creating groups including people who, without the Internet, probably would never have discovered one another. The example I like to use is furries, people who enjoy dressing up as animals. Such people existed before the Internet, but with the Internet’s emergence, furries became something of a cultural phenomenon. Enough people who shared this interest emerged that there were conventions predicated on the idea. The Internet fostered the community.

Now the Internet has reached another point of saturation. Online commerce has evolved enough that people don’t see buying things online as a novelty. There’s little friction in spending money online and increased familiarity with things like online subscriptions, thanks to tools like Netflix. One effect of that fluidity is that individuals can create communities — at times lucrative communities — around themselves.

There are online tools that make this easier. One is OnlyFans, a site often used by adult-focused entertainers. That’s not a requirement, of course; any individual who thinks that people will pay them a monthly premium for unique content can use the site to facilitate those transactions.

Another example is Substack, a newsletter tool that has cut deals with a number of writers to allow them to build their own communities of supporters — and to allow Substack to take a slice of the subscription. The New York Times has lost several writers to Substack, with those writers gambling that their own brand will be strong enough to replace (or exceed) the salary they drew from being associated with the paper.

That so many people are willing to pay those subscription costs has made the structure appealing to other companies, too. Twitter is a tool predicated on allowing people to build their own communities, to share information with self-selected followers. This year, Twitter announced that it will allow users to charge for premium content, allowing its customers to do things like create newsletters (ahem, Substack) or share premium photos (ahem, OnlyFans) without having to build new communities on other sites. Twitter, of course, will get a piece of the action.

There are two important components to this evolution.

The first is that it depends on a certain level of celebrity. Not everyone can earn a living — much less a windfall — by setting up their own community. There’s some uncertain, emerging recipe for success, one that is different in different spheres. Success in campaign fundraising requires something different from success on Substack, though there is almost certainly some through-line of energy or passion.

The other component is that it necessarily erodes already wobbly institutions. Substack is encouraging writers to step away from existing outlets and become their own brands, giving up the benefits of working for a news outlet in favor of keeping more revenue for themselves. The effects of this are broad, from reducing cooperative efforts to diminishing an outlet that’s losing, almost definitionally, one of its better-known employees. Instead of subscribers paying $60 a year to get the New York Times, money that boosts a number of employees beyond the writer himself, the writer and Substack’s smaller pool of employees share that amount.

In the political context, the situation differs in important ways. There, the diminished institution is the party. Few people will mourn a less powerful Republican Party or Democratic Party, but a scenario in which small donors forego giving to the party to give to candidates — often candidates who stand in defiance of the party — reduces the party’s ability to win elections more broadly. It also means candidates carrying the party label who are increasingly not beholden to the party itself.

It’s not new that some politicians raise more money than others, of course, nor is it new that fundraising correlates to rabble-rousing. But it’s hard to ignore how the broader trend in Internet-based communities is manifesting on Capitol Hill.

The unanswered question is whether this is a novelty or the beginning of a broad trend, whether in the future we’ll see a reversion to institutions or more widespread interest in going solo. It’s easy to see the appeal of the latter for those who can do it, but institutions exist, among other reasons, to protect individuals and to shield them from risk. It would probably only take a few examples of individuals suddenly being exposed to unusual risk for the appeal of institutions to increase.

Luckily for elected officials, political parties have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to be extremely forgiving of freelancing members.