Getting Rich Off Left-Wing Activism
John Hlinko’s wife calls it “the house that Trump built.”
They could afford the historic Tudor-style residence in Washington’s tony Georgetown thanks to Donald Trump’s candidacy and the traffic it generates to Left Action, a hub for progressive causes founded by Hlinko, a wannabe stand-up comic who is finding that left-wing activism in the Trump age can be a lucrative calling.
“It’s like the sleeping giant has been awakened,” Hlinko said, describing the heightened interest in the progressive organizations and nonprofits that are his clients. Left Action’s active list of 750,000 names in November has ballooned to 2 million. “I’ve never seen so many people getting active in politics, smart, creative people who were never political. Suddenly a switch is turned on.”
With business up and people outraged by Trump, Hlinko and his architect wife, Leigh Stringer, wanted a place that would serve as “the path of most resistance,” where they could hold fundraisers and have a couple hundred people over at a time. The Georgetown house they bought last June, when Trump wrapped up the Republican nomination, was originally a church, so it has cathedral ceilings and is spacious inside, perfect for parties.
The first floor was getting a fresh coat of paint when Hlinko gave me a tour, pointing out an interior balcony that used to be a choir loft, and imagining the grand events the couple can host to raise money and rally the troops.
“It’s a fallacy thinking a movement happens spontaneously, that it’s like the gang from Little Rascals getting together and turning the town dump into a playground,” Hlinko said. “Somebody needs to drive it.”
It will take multiple drivers to resuscitate the Democratic Party after the 2016 wipeout, he said, crediting the Women’s March with kicking things off, and Trump’s ill-conceived travel ban on seven majority-Muslim countries with keeping outrage at a high boil. In “99 Ways to Fight Trump,” Hlinko tops his list with the guide from Indivisible, the how-to manual on grassroots activism drawn up by former Hill staffers and distributed free online.
Hlinko, who is 50, has the same scruffy hipster look he had when he launched the Draft Wesley Clark movement in 2003. The former NATO commander was not a household name, but he was first in his class at West Point, had a stellar résumé, and Democrats needed someone strong on defense to go up against President Bush in the midst of the Iraq War.
“I started to think of him in viral terms—the more contagious an idea is, the more people are susceptible, and it can spread,” Hlinko said. “People of different ideologies were interested in him, which told me if there was a draft campaign, it could go viral.”
The draft campaign launched Clark’s candidacy. “They took an inconceivable idea and made it conceivable,” Clark said when he announced his run for president in September 2003. A novice to politics, he didn’t last long in the competition, withdrawing after a string of third-place finishes in the primaries.
Next came DraftObama.org, “more of a gentle breeze than a draft,” Hlinko said. Its high point was a TV ad that ran during Christmas 2006 on all three news stations in Honolulu, where then-Sen. Barack Obama was vacationing with his family. Obama announced in February, and later told Hlinko that when Michelle saw the ad, she came running in to ask if he was running for president.
“Well then, Senator Obama, we reached our target audience,” Hlinko deadpanned.
None of this political activity was lucrative; in fact, it didn’t pay at all. When Hlinko met the parents of his bride to be in 2003, he was unemployed and spending his own money to fund the campaign of a guy not actually running for president (Clark). They weren’t impressed, he said.
Time to get a real job, and in Washington that meant doing PR by day, mostly for trade associations, and creating pop-up websites by night, “trying to recapture the magic of MoveOn.”
Hlinko was in on the creation of MoveOn.org, an early internet sensation that channeled voter frustration over the impeachment of President Clinton. It was 1998. He was in San Francisco working on a comedy page for AOL, his first paid web gig. A mutual friend put him in touch with Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, founders of MoveOn, who enlisted him as a political strategist or a member of the board, “whatever the press release needed,” he said.
It was more “straitlaced” than what he does today, he said, but the intersection of politics and satire is where Hlinko is most at home. At Valley Stream High School on Long Island, his best friend was Fred Armisen, who played Obama on Saturday Night Live. Hlinko came in second for “class clown,” but give him a break, he said. He lost out to Jim Breuer, another SNL alumnus.
Hlinko is not a child of privilege, but his father earned enough selling vacuum cleaners at Sears to have a home and a middle-class life, “and I think that is being lost,” he said.
“My left-wing followers would be shocked,” he said, if they knew that as a teen he volunteered for his local Republican congressman and that he was once a registered Republican. His first job after graduating from Wesleyan College was with Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that went belly-up in the Great Recession.
“I got the job by telling jokes,” he said. The interviewer, seeing he had done comedy radio at Wesleyan, asked him to tell a joke. “I did an imitation of Jimmy Stewart as a crack addict, and I pulled a wallet out of my ear. Somehow they thought that made me qualified.”
It was a two-year program and when it ended, everyone realized it was a dreadful match. He got a job with the ACLU while the National Endowment for the Arts was under attack, then went to Guatemala for a few months to work on his Spanish before getting accepted in 1992 at Harvard’s Kennedy School for a Master’s degree in Public Policy.
That’s when he got his first email address, and as they say, the rest is history. A self-described “master procrastinator,” Hlinko plays Words With Friends on his computer while he waits for news to break and inspiration to strike. With Trump in the White House, it won’t be long.