In a political milieu dominated by extreme polarization, with creative output scrutinized by a cabal of self-appointed torchbearers, each in thrall to their own specious orthodoxy, Peter McCormack stands alone as a beacon: He remains proudly unpretentious.
When I spoke to McCormack earlier this month, the host of the “What Bitcoin Did” podcast had just emerged from his regular brutal dog-piling on Twitter, where he lives. As usual, it was over some minor slight. McCormack has a childlike curiosity about him, which is often mistaken for ignorance or stupidity. And so it was on Tuesday, Dec. 9.
This post is part of CoinDesk's 2020 Year in Review – a collection of op-eds, essays and interviews about the year in crypto and beyond.
Here’s how it happened. “Mr Hodl,” an irreverent “Bitcoin maximalist,” had taken to Twitter to complain about people who “don’t know the difference between a seed, pin and a 25th word passphrase.” Much laughter at these poor souls ensued, but McCormack jumped into the fray with an admission. “There’s a 25th word?” he asked, innocently. “Stop moving the freaking goalposts.”
And so McCormack found himself once again at the receiving end of a barrage of pedantry over obsessive technical details. “One guy,” he recalled in a recent interview, “messaged me and was like, ‘the 24 words show different private keys when you use your 25th word … like when you store one bitcoin as a decoy and use another bitcoin as a Trezor and … and use only one bitcoin from your decoy 24 words,’ and I’m like, ‘Huh?”
“I’m not technical,” he says. “I really struggle with the technical side of things. And when people explain, I forget immediately.”
What McCormack brings to “What Bitcoin Did,” rather, is “creativity,” and a deep and abiding sense of curiosity that has made his podcast among the most popular in the Bitcoin world. According to the financial reports he releases monthly, the show pulled in over $77,000 last month, and was downloaded 400,000 times. Big name bitcoin companies such as Kraken and BitGo sponsored. He has over 90,000 Twitter followers. Things are on the up.
He doesn’t achieve all this by kissing up to his flock. Lately, he has been using his influence to question the guiding principles of his own followers, many of whom, as well as being bitcoiners, are libertarian, meat-loving, lib-hating, god-fearing and American. Just recently, he has questioned in a new series whether President Donald Trump “pose[s] a threat to democracy,” argued in favor of gun control and defended at least one version of socialism. All of this, of course, is outrageous to the average bitcoiner.
The other day, he put out a post almost clinically calibrated to produce the optimal amount of online aggression: He said he’d happily get a COVID-19 vaccine, which was bound to piss off his conspiratorially minded followers. “It’s not a lie, I am gonna get a vaccine,” he says. “But I want to trigger people – because it’s really helpful to understand [the current political climate].”
Call it good old English provocation. McCormack, 42, grew up – and still lives – in Bedford, which is as sleepily Middle England as it sounds. He is tattooed and bearded, and in the pastoral nothingness of England’s South, he resembles a marooned metalhead. But in a way he’s home now, after a long slog. His early years were a one-man Bataan March through a desert of corporate ennui: He studied Music Management at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College (he dropped out in 2000 because, per his LinkedIn, the “course was rubbish”), then fuddled his way into digital marketing, working at companies with names like Evolving Media Network, Rapier UK, Bantr.TV and McCormack and Morrison.
By 2018 he had, not for the last time, grown to distrust the industry he was working in. In a thoughtful piece on LinkedIn that anticipated his now-familiar adversarial style, he argued digital marketing doesn’t actually work. “If you track clicks from banner ads to conversions they never pay for themselves,” he told me. “But if you go on a page with an ad and ignore it, but still buy from that company, they’ll attribute the purchase to that ad. So if you’re clicking on thousands of websites, you’re creating a network of coincidences.”
Duly motivated, he left advertising. In January 2017, his mother died and he took time off to grieve. That year he got briefly rich on bitcoin, then lost almost everything, but was fascinated enough by the technology that he launched his podcast, “What Bitcoin Did.” The podcast was insightful and distinguished by a sense of genuine curiosity, and it quickly grew.
Online, meanwhile, he was combative, often ill-advisedly so. At the start he was playing to the crowd, the same crowd he has since begun to pointedly provoke. He would berate other podcasters as “scammers,” ridicule notorious goldbugs like Peter Schiff and, most prominently, involved himself in a drawn-out libel case with Craig Wright, an Australian computer scientist who claims to have invented Bitcoin and whom McCormack called a “fraud” publicly. (McCormack says he “can’t talk about that,” although the lawsuit has already cost both parties millions and is starting to look somewhat regrettable.)
See also: NLW – State Power After Coronavirus, Feat. Peter McCormack (podcast)
These two qualities – inquisitiveness and combativeness – have led to the sort of belligerent innocence that has so annoyed his base on Twitter. Looking at how his followers have responded to his various perceived failures, be it misunderstanding seed phrases or defending Socialism, McCormack has learned that the right-wingers who follow him and complain about “cancel culture” are themselves more than happy to try and shut him down for wrong-think.
“They’ve tried to cancel me three times,” he says. “Whatever view you have there always seem to be two quite fierce opinions on it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the [COVID-19] virus, Black Lives Matter, policing. There’s always two opinions on it. How do you navigate these when opinions are so divided? People talk about the intolerant left, but there’s also an intolerant right.”
McCormack is now branching out, away from the Bitcoin echo chamber and into the hellscape of mainstream political discourse with his newer show, “Defiance,” which he hopes will be even bigger. Much of it involves McCormack’s willingness to revisit supposedly resolved questions and figure them out for himself.
One show, for instance, attempts to determine whether Trump is really as much of a threat to American democracy as the mainstream media says he is, and concludes that, well, indeed he is. The trailer features McCormack’s trademark innocence: “As I looked into his background, his 2016 campaign and his first term in office,” he says, “I found that the man portrayed in public was a construct and the man who became president was someone who had a history of deception and a willingness to break the rules.”
He’s proud, too, of a recent series on the late Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged procurer Ghislaine Maxwell, which, unsurprisingly, drew the conspiracy theorists out in force. “When I do Maxwell, they’re, like, ‘why haven’t you investigated the Clintons?’ and I’m, like, ‘They knew them, when they found out they were pedophiles they left them.’ They’ll say, ‘Oh, so you’re one of the Clinton pedophile elite.’” He inhales deeply. “Oh, come on.”
He stresses that it’s more than just cynical provocation. The problem is that he honestly doesn’t understand, and he resents the typical rejoinder of “educate yourself.” “I’m not really left- or right-wing – I get different opinions,” he says. “I get called a leftie and a Socialist by bitcoiners. But I’ve never voted Labour. I’ve only voted Conservative, except Green once.” (The Conservative Party is the closest thing the U.K. has to the U.S. Republican Party but they’re hardly analogous.) He continues: “The problem I have with [bitcoiners] and the problem they have with me is that they’re anarchists and want the complete collapse of government. And I don’t.
“I buy your arguments, and theoretically they’re great,’ I’ll tell them, but then I’ll ask, ’What does it all mean? You want the downfall of the state, sure, but what does it all mean? Instead of complaining about the state, talking about bringing the downfall of the state and saying bitcoin fixes this, we ought to say, ‘why do we have the state?’” Well, McCormack says, “it’s a natural evolution of the human race.”
He determined this after reading William Rees-Mogg’s “The Sovereign Individual” and he now thinks the state might not be so bad after all. (Although he’s still not a fan.) “When we were hunter-gatherers and traveling in small bands of 50 of fewer people, we needed thousands of acres to gather enough food. You couldn’t have thousands of people. But then, when we got agriculture, we became more fixed in our groups. And then to prevent violence, people stealing, we made rules, which led to feudalism and where we are now. The state is a natural occurrence.”
“I mean, what happens around regulation around chemicals when you have no state?” he asks. “I don’t buy the idea that the free market does that. Look at DuPont!”
See also: NLW – Peter McCormack on a Defiant New Era for Bitcoin (podcast)
He sighs. “The bitcoiners get pissed off at me. They’ll say, ‘I hope you die from cancer, like your mum.’ But I’m just curious. When I ask ‘what things are’ they say I’m an idiot, but I want to know. My job is not to put the blinkers on and just promote bitcoin relentlessly and support every issue. My job is to be curious and ask tough questions.”
“A lot of bitcoiners hate the old media. They think everything is left-leaning or biased,” he adds. “Yet, they’ll trust anything they hear from an influencer online.”
Says the online influencer. Curious though he is, you have to wonder why he keeps making very obvious gaffes. “He has this entire character that is making him so rich,” says a longtime acquaintance who declined to be identified. “This, like, likable moron. When in all actuality, he’s a f**king evil genius.”