Peter Thiel, the arch-capitalist fifty-four-year-old cofounder of PayPal, was throwing one-hundred-dollar bills from the main stage, trying to signify their unimportance. When members of the crowd rushed to grab them, Thiel appeared shocked. “I thought you guys were supposed to be Bitcoin maximalists!” Raging against the “finance gerontocracy”—which, of course, had helped to make him very rich—Thiel derided legendary investor Warren Buffett as the “sociopathic grandpa from Omaha.” (Tell us about your childhood, Peter). Also on the dais were luminaries like Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who found his true, and truly lucrative, calling as an alt-right provocateur who encouraged young men to clean their rooms.
In the hall backstage, we passed Tucker Carlson, deep in expository discourse to some trailing microphones and cameras. On the conference floor, picking up on the trend, Bitcoin influencer Max Keiser, a vocal supporter of Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele, tore up some dollar bills with another attendee—caught on smartphone video, of course. They immediately posted the video, cackling at their own daring, their ultimate, performative disregard for real money.
All these histrionics felt choreographed and banal. For me, the conference was less about experiencing loud, overwrought paeans to the glory of Bitcoin than studying some of the industry’s leading personalities in their seemingly candid moments (which admittedly could be rare). It was also about retail investors, the average folks who had committed their lives to this stuff. I wanted to understand what attracted people to the Bitcoin story.
But first, I wanted some merch. Across the sprawling Miami Beach Convention Center, the product and sales pitches ranged from free NFTs to getting in on the ground floor of the next ICO (“initial coin offering”) that seemed a lot like the last ICOs. A DAO (“decentralized autonomous organization”) promised an investment scheme to “democratize yachting.” Crypto mining machines sold for thousands of dollars each. There was a surprising amount of art, loosely defined. One painter was selling a knockoff of a Jeff Koons-style balloon Bitcoin dog fucking—doggystyle, naturally—another dog representing the US dollar. We passed Panties for Bitcoin, a father-son undergarments business that was mostly an exercise in enthusiastic branding. Bars sold overpriced drinks matched by concession stands that sold overpriced stadium food. A mechanical bull, booth babes, endless giveaways, all of it filmed and tweeted and Instagrammed from every angle. In front of a small crowd, I did some push-ups for the Lord and received a “Jesus for Bitcoin” T-shirt.
If you ignored the formal hysterics and instead talked to regular folks milling about the conference, Bitcoin Miami sometimes felt like just another trade show. Big and energetic, full of boozy salesmen talking about how Bitcoin had changed their lives, with sponsorships adorning every surface, it was a Potemkin village of American consumerism and gambling addiction masquerading, in typically humble crypto fashion, as the future of the entire financial system. Eight-dollar Budweisers were offered for sale underneath the fifty-foot-tall Bitcoin volcano that burped out steam with all the grandeur of a high school science fair project. The volcano was meant to celebrate the issuance of El Salvador’s Bitcoin Bonds and tee up President Nayib Bukele’s keynote address. Sadly for the attendees, on the first day of the conference, Bukele canceled his trip to the United States to deal with the growing unrest in his country.
At the conference, the featured speaker was in the wind, but the featured volcano still spewed smoke and the bar remained well-stocked. I ordered a Budweiser and asked if I could pay in Bitcoin. Unfortunately, their Bitcoin-into-real-money machine was down, but they accepted my American dollars that conference notables seemed eager to rip up in protest. Maybe TradFi still has its uses.
Outside the convention center, all eyes were drawn to an imposing sculpture of a swaggering creature known as the Bitcoin Bull, an homage to the Wall Street original. Fashioned from thick glossy plates of material that seemed like an unholy amalgam of metal and plastic, this creature was no joke. Replete with laser eyes and a fierce stare, the bull was slick: a gleaming, furious testament to capitalist America’s macho brand of innovation. “In Miami we have big balls,” said Francis Suarez, Miami’s Bitcoin bro mayor, who has toyed with the idea of abolishing taxes and funding the city through a nearly worthless token known as MiamiCoin.
There was just one problem: Contra Suarez, the bull did not have big balls. Yes, the ferocious Bitcoin Bull was apparently of the castrated variety. I gently asked a few folks posing for pictures beside him if they had ever heard of incels. The confused responses were reassuring.
The local faithful, while zealous, were peaceful. No one yelled at me at the Bitcoin Conference or denounced me as a nonbeliever. Some people overflowed with solicitous generosity—there was at least one strip club invitation that I believe wasn’t a covert marketing stunt. The lack of open conflict was almost a letdown—and an indicator of my own latent narcissism, perhaps. Everyone was just excited to talk to some guy from TV that had cameras following him around.