How the Mercers bought a huge stake in Steve Bannon's "populism"

From number-crunching to democracy-choking, the Mercers made their mark

Published November 2, 2017 2:35PM (EDT)

Steve Bannon (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Steve Bannon (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

This piece originally appeared on

A hoary riddle comes to mind. Question: Where does an 800-pound gorilla sit? Answer: Anywhere it pleases.

Meaning no disrespect to our primate brothers and sisters, this is the hour of the gorillas. The Cabinet bristles with billionaires. As the hustler-in-chief from the Pink Palace on Fifth Avenue bleats far and wide that it’s time to drain the swamp, he partners up with marauders. Favors are exchanged. His band of fat-cat brothers (and an occasional sister) is integral to the new constellation of power that aims to erect an enduring, alluring populist future atop a pedestal of plutocracy.

In particular, without the fervent, enduring support of the hedge fund tycoon Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, Steve Bannon would never have amounted to more than a nationalist crank churning out loony movies laying waste to liberal cosmopolitans. Breitbart News would have croaked when its founder died. And Mercer’s company, Cambridge Analytica, would not have stepped up to perform valuable services for Trump’s campaign.

Mercer is an outlier among the computer-based crowd of relatively new money. In the ‘90s and ‘00s, he parlayed his quantitative whiz kid talent into the leadership of a phenomenally successful hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies, which as of 2014 managed something north of $25 billion in assets. Since 2013, Mercer and his family, in particular daughter Rebekah, have also shared in the ownership of privately held data-crunching firm Cambridge Analytica, whose involvement in the American election — as well as the UK’s 2016 Brexit vote — is coming under close, much-needed journalistic inspection.

It’s Cambridge Analytica that loomed large in the campaign whose America First leader proclaimed on Oct. 10, 2016, “I love WikiLeaks.” According to The Wall Street Journal, Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, Alexander Nix, told Rebekah Mercer he had approached none other than Julian Assange

to offer help organizing the Hillary Clinton-related emails the website was releasing, according to a person familiar with the effort. The outreach by the CEO of the firm, which is partly owned by a major Trump donor [Mercer], came as Mr. Trump was publicly cheering the leaks of his Democratic rival’s emails and some supporters were seeking to unearth further messages.

Evidently, Nix wanted to organize the Clinton material into a searchable database. Assange confirms that Nix made the offer but says he rejected it. Be that as it may, Cambridge Analytica’s offer itself, whether accepted or not, might well have violated the law. As Ronn Blitzer writes on the legal website,

…just asking a foreign national like Assange for a campaign contribution is illegal. 52 US Code § 30121 clearly states, “It shall be unlawful for … a person to solicit, accept or receive a contribution or donation described in subparagraph (A) or (B) of paragraph (1) from a foreign national.” Those subparagraphs describe a contribution or donation as including “money or other thing of value . . . in connection with a federal, state or local election.”

And aside from trying to enlist help from Julian Assange, what else did Cambridge Analytica do for the Trump campaign? According to Business Insider:

The Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica in June 2016 to help target ads using voter data collected from approximately 230 million US adults.

Multiple outlets, including NBC News and The Washington Post, reported that the campaign paid Cambridge Analytica more than $5 million in September alone, up from $250,000 in August.

As details emerge about Cambridge Analytica’s role, Trump campaign officials hasten to deny that the company mattered more than a hill of data-beans in the triumph of Trump’s campaign last year. No sooner had the Wall Street Journal report come out than “Michael S. Glassner, the executive director of Trump’s campaign, said in a statement . . . that the only source of voter data that played a key role in Trump’s election victory was the Republican National Committee.”

But Wired’s Issie Lapowski casts a different light on Cambridge’s service to Trump:

Cambridge worked both for the Trump campaign and a Trump-aligned Super PAC. In June 2016, Cambridge sent three staffers, led by chief product officer Matt Oczkowski, to the campaign’s San Antonio office. Oczkowski’s team eventually grew to 13 people, working under Trump digital director Brad Parscale and alongside his staff and outside consultants. According to Parscale, the Cambridge staff provided useful analysis of data about the American electorate. They did not, however, provide the raw data — things like demographic information, contact information and data about how voters feel about different issues — on which that analysis was done . . .

The Cambridge staff helped the campaign identify which voters in the RNC’s data file were most likely to be persuadable, meaning they were undecided but looked likely to swing toward Trump. They also created lists of voters who were most likely to become donors. In August 2016, a Trump aide told me Cambridge was critical to helping the campaign raise $80 million in the prior month, after a primary race that had been largely self-funded by Trump. This was the only period during which Oczkowski’s staff relied on Cambridge’s data, because the RNC was just beginning to share its data with the Trump team.

Cambridge went on to conduct hundreds of thousands of voter surveys for the Trump campaign to better understand the likely Trump voter and sent a full-time staffer to the New York headquarters, who could relay these findings to senior staff, including Parscale. Based on these surveys, RNC data, data the Trump team collected itself and commercially available information from data brokers, Oczkowski’s team developed a heat map of the country to pinpoint where Trump should visit to maximize his impact on potentially persuadable voters.

Having first sought to minimize CA’s significance to the campaign, Trump’s minions went silent. As Lepowski wrote, “Cambridge did not respond to Wireds request for comment.”

Meanwhile, Mercer has leaped into statewide political operations in Arizona and Massachusetts. Surely there’s more to come.

What does it matter? To put matters bluntly — and to cast no further aspersions upon endangered species — as did Jonathan Chait in New York magazine recently: “Trump is fashioning an American oligarchy.” But to understand the Mercers and their importance, we need to place them among other oligarchs. Especially since the Citizens United decision, American politics teems with high rollers. Most famously, the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch rank high in political influence, perhaps even more at the state level than nationally. (Thanks to Jane Mayer’s reporting at The New Yorker and her book Dark Money, their republic-buying works are less dark than before.) But there’s more than one oligarchy at work in the donor class.

There’s the industrial crowd who have yanked America’s power strings since the Civil War — the oilmen, railroaders, steelers, automakers and chemicals joined by the telecom crowd and, after World War II, the military-industrial tycoons. The interests of these groupings are not always identical but tend to converge on deep and shared desires: to arranging for government giveaways, suppress competition, carve out market power for themselves and warp the tax system to their advantage. In an age of Progressive and New Deal reform, reformers worked to tame them with regulations and government supervision, leading to the stage we now inhabit, for which the anodyne expression is “regulatory capture” — worming into and taking over the federal and state agencies whose ostensible purpose was to tame them. In other words, regulating the regulators.

In particular, the titans of extractive industry have been dominant political players since the days when John D. Rockefeller I ruled the oil roost, a spell of power only briefly interrupted when the Teapot Dome oil scandal blew up the Harding administration almost a century ago. The oil plutocracy’s organizational and spiritual descendants ride high today in the form of Environmental Protection Perversion Agency Director Scott Pruitt’s oil-and-gas lobbyist cronies.

Jonathan Chait also singled out Betsy DeVos and her minions, who are relatively new players in the great game of regulatory capture. While DeVos crusades to privatize education, her brother, Erik D. Prince, is the éminence noir of the mercenary firm known as Blackwater and now renamed, in a bid for this decade’s Orwell Prize for Euphemism, Academi. Their hands deep into war and privatized schools, these heirs to the DeVos Amway direct-marketing combine exemplify the role of vast fortunes in oligarchic America.

And of course, in this inventory of oligarch networks, one must never neglect the financial wizards who have been riding high in Washington since the ‘80s, today represented in Trump’s economics trust by Goldman Sachs’s Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn. Or the many-tentacled Rupert Murdoch, the transcontinental oligarch propagandist who is in a class by himself.

Politically more complex is the arriviste Silicon Valley group, disproportionately Democratic, riding high since the Bill Clinton years but now, at last, heading into a buzz saw of opposition to its monopolistic and quasi-monopolistic practices as Congress (if not the Federal Communications Commission) wrestles with the problem of what to do with foreign intrusions into America’s sovereign control of its election finances.

Robert Mercer, whole-hearted, whole-pocketed ally of Steve Bannon and Donald Trump, is an outlier in this crowd. He and his daughter are not the only 800-pound gorillas clearing out space for themselves in 21st century America. They do not go unopposed. But they are Trump’s for the taking. They have bought their way into stratospheric influence, even as regulators and legislators stand by, supine, pounding democracy into submission.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, "The Opposition." Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.

By Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin taught at Columbia University, wrote regularly for and Tablet, and was the author of "Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street."

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