Follow the money: Understanding the deep roots of Donald Trump's coup attempt

It sure looks as if Jan. 6, and the entire Trump presidency, were planned and funded by oligarchs in the shadows

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 10, 2021 9:11AM (EDT)

Former U.S. President Donald Trump during a rally on July 3, 2021 in Sarasota, Florida. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump during a rally on July 3, 2021 in Sarasota, Florida. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images)

Donald Trump and his allies and followers were involved in a conspiracy against American democracy, the Constitution, the general welfare and the rule of law. Trump may have been president by title, but not in spirit or through his actions. At almost every opportunity he betrayed the presidential oath and worked to undermine the United States and its interests.

The examples are legion: Trump was elected with the help of a hostile foreign power and appeared to do its leader's bidding throughout his presidency. Trump engaged in acts of democide against the American people through sabotage and willful neglect in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Trump is directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of more than 600,000 people in America. He was impeached twice — something unprecedented in American history — for crimes against democracy and the Constitution.

Donald Trump was grossly corrupt as president, using the office to enrich himself, his family and his political allies.

Trump and his regime debased America's democracy and political culture, elevating neofascism and white supremacy in an attempt to create a new form of apartheid.  The damage Trumpism caused to American society has created a full-blown political and social crisis. Matters are so dire that many observers, including President Biden, have described the Age of Trump and beyond as the greatest threat to American democracy since the Civil War.

Of course there were also the events of Jan. 6, with Donald Trump's coup attempt and his followers' lethal attack on the Capitol.

What new information have we learned? Trump's coup attempt came much closer to succeeding than was known even several weeks ago. The coup attempt was not "amateurish" or a joke. Trump and his allies' attempts to overthrow American democracy were entirely in earnest. Trump's followers who overran the Capitol should not be described as a "mob." At least some of them were organized, dedicated and well-financed, as well as zealously loyal.

The danger that Trump would invoke martial law and declare himself president for life after his defeat by Joe Biden was so great that the country's senior military leaders were preparing to stop him.

Last week it was revealed that Jeffrey Clark, a Trump loyalist within the Justice Department, attempted to pressure acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen to declare that there were "irregularities" in the votes in key battleground states such as Georgia, where Trump had narrowly lost to Biden.

On CNN's "State of the Union" last weekend, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said that testimony from Rosen and another Justice Department official had "lifted the lid on 'frightening' maneuverings at the department after November's election." Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told CNN's Manu Raju he was struck by "how close the country came to total catastrophe" in the last days of Trump's presidency. According to CNN, Clark "drafted a letter that he asked Rosen to send to Georgia state legislators to say they should convene to examine irregularities in the election." The New York Times has reported that Clark's letter suggested the Georgia legislature should void Biden's victory in the state, while falsely claiming the Justice Department was investigating allegations of fraud. CNN's report on Durbin's Sunday interview continues:

The Illinois senator said that he was surprised by "just how directly, personally involved the President was, the pressure he was putting on Jeffrey Rosen." He added: "It was real, very real. And it was very specific. This President's not subtle when he wants something, the former President. He is not subtle when he wants something."

Asked by Bash whether Trump tried to get Rosen to overturn election results, Durbin replied: "It was not that direct, but he was asking him to do certain things related to states' election returns, which he refused to do."

The New York Times has reported that Rosen "told investigators from the inspector general's office about five encounters with Mr. Clark, including one in late December during which his deputy admitted to meeting with Mr. Trump and pledged that he would not do so again." Clark reportedly urged Rosen and other DOJ officials on several occasions "to falsely assert that continuing voter fraud investigations cast doubt on the election results."

For those who choose to see the truth, there is nothing "shocking" or "revelatory" about what is now known about Donald Trump and his agents' attempt to overthrow American democracy.

Trump and his agents and followers repeatedly said in public that they would not respect the results of the election if he did not win. From the beginning of his presidential campaign in 2015 and throughout his presidency, Trump and his movement have publicly and repeatedly displayed their contempt for democracy.

While the mainstream news media is now trying to present itself as sounding the alarm in defense of democracy, too many in the media spent the last five years downplaying the Trump regime's existential danger to the country.

In his role as chief law enforcement officer of the United States, Joe Biden should declare that investigating and punishing Donald Trump and his regime's crimes against democracy are a national priority. Attorney General Merrick Garland should initiate a full investigation of Trump and his regime's many crimes as well.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that either Biden or Garland will do that. In a new op-ed for the Washington Post, the constitutional law experts Laurence Tribe, Barbara McQuade and Joyce White Vance warn that "failing to investigate Trump just to demonstrate objectivity would itself be a political decision — and a grave mistake. If we are to maintain our democracy and respect for the rule of law, efforts to overturn a fair election simply cannot be tolerated, and Trump's conduct must be investigated."

To fully expose and unravel the conspiracy to overthrow American democracy — in which Jan. 6 was just one element — will require that investigators follow the money.

Jane Mayer of the New Yorker has already begun that necessary work. In her new essay "The Big Money Behind the Big Lie," Mayer details how a small number of billionaires and elite right-wing interest groups and activists are working across the country to overthrow America's multiracial democracy.

She offers this context about the Arizona "audit," a model for the methods these neofascist oligarchs hope to use to overthrow democracy:

Arizona is hardly the only place where attacks on the electoral process are under way: a well-funded national movement has been exploiting Trump's claims of fraud in order to promote alterations to the way that ballots are cast and counted in forty-nine states, eighteen of which have passed new voting laws in the past six months. Republican-dominated legislatures have also stripped secretaries of state and other independent election officials of their power. The chair of Arizona's Republican Party, Kelli Ward, has referred to the state's audit as a "domino," and has expressed hope that it will inspire similar challenges elsewhere….

Mayer reports that the Arizona audit was "fed by sophisticated, well-funded national organizations whose boards of directors include some of the country's wealthiest and highest-profile conservatives. Dark-money groups, whose donors may remain anonymous but are clearly linked to influential right-wing think tanks and interest groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), "have relentlessly promoted the myth that American elections are rife with fraud, and, according to leaked records of their internal deliberations, they have drafted, supported, and in some cases taken credit for state laws that make it harder to vote."

The nonprofit groups behind the Big Lie, Mayer reports, have all received funding from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, an obscure Milwaukee tax-exempt organization that supports "radical challenges to election rules — a tactic once relegated to the far right." Since 2012, the Bradley foundation has spent $18 million, Mayer says, supporting right-wing groups pushing to restrict voting rights. 

It might seem improbable that a low-profile family foundation in Wisconsin has assumed a central role in current struggles over American democracy. But the modern conservative movement has depended on leveraging the fortunes of wealthy reactionaries. ...

For now, though, conservative groups seem to be doubling down on their investments in election-fraud alarmism. In the next two years, Heritage Action plans to spend twenty-four million dollars mobilizing supporters and lobbyists who will promote "election integrity," starting in eight battleground states, including Arizona. It is coördinating its effort with the Election Transparency Initiative, a joint venture of two anti-abortion groups, the Susan B. Anthony List and the American Principles Project. The Election Transparency Initiative has set a fund-raising goal of five million dollars. Cleta Mitchell, having left her law firm, has joined FreedomWorks, the free-market group, where she plans to lead a ten-million-dollar project on voting issues. She will also head the Election Integrity Network at the Conservative Partnership Institute, another Washington-based nonprofit. As a senior legal fellow there, she told the Washington Examiner, she will "help bring all these strings" of conservative election-law activism together, and she added, "I've had my finger in so many different pieces of the election-integrity pie for so long."

The campaign against multiracial democracy involves multiple fronts on which culture-war issues — in this case, the white right's moral panic over "critical race theory" — are a powerful tool for mobilizing white "conservatives" and other neofascists. At Popular Information, Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria expose the money and networks behind this most recent battle, noting that the attack on CRT "didn't happen on its own":

Rather, there is a constellation of non-profit groups and media outlets that are systematically injecting CRT into our politics. In 2020, most people had never heard of CRT. In 2021, a chorus of voices on the right insists it is an existential threat to the country.

A Popular Information investigation reveals that many of the entities behind the CRT panic share a common funding source: The Thomas W. Smith Foundation.

The Thomas W. Smith Foundation has no website and its namesake founder keeps a low public profile. Thomas W. Smith is based in Boca Raton, Florida, and founded a hedge fund called Prescott Investors in 1973. In 2008, the New York Times reported that The Thomas W. Smith Foundation was "dedicated to supporting free markets."

Legum and Zekeria report that Smith personally "opposes all efforts to increase diversity at powerful institutions and laments the introduction of curriculum about the historical treatment of Black people."

These big-money financiers of the plot against America benefit from a system of laws that allows them to evade taxes and conceal their resources. America's extreme inequalities of race, income and wealth are reflections of long-standing systemic and other forms of institutional racism and simultaneously a means through which such systems and outcomes are maintained, protected and advanced.

In a recent interview with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, sociologist Brooke Harrington discusses her research into the views and actions of ultra-wealthy individuals, who wield, she says, a transnational, unaccountable power. ... They regard states as playthings. The law is their marionette. They interfere in democratic processes and legislative processes":

They gave me a picture of what the world looks like to not just Fascist leaders, but to the larger group to which Fascist leaders belong: people who've purchased complete impunity, for whom the rule of law and the boundaries of nation states are just a set of shopping opportunities. If you can't find what you want at one shop, you just move on to the next. ...

This matters because in the 21st century, Fascism cannot exist without an offshore system: Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán, all of them depend on it. If you want to get to a Fascist in the 21st century, you turn off the money taps and those money taps are not in their home nations, they are overseas, in offshore financial centers.

The spread of fascism, Harrington says, "is funded in large part by a strain of offshore financial networks, like the ones that were behind Brexit and behind the Trump campaign." Neoliberalism (a nicer word for "gangster capitalism") cannot entirely be separated from neofascism and the assault on multiracial democracy, if one seeks to understand America's democracy crisis. Those forces are in a symbiotic relationship.

In a new essay at Boston Review, economist Prabhat Patnaik explores this further:

As the old prop of trickle-down economics lost its credibility, a new prop was needed to sustain the neoliberal regime politically. The solution came in the form of an alliance between globally integrated corporate capital and local neofascist elements.

This dynamic has played out in countries around the world, from the rise of Narendra Modi in India and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to Donald Trump in the United States.…

The neofascist assault on democracy is a last-ditch effort on the part of neoliberal capitalism to rescue itself from crisis. To escape this state of affairs, world public opinion has to be mobilized decisively against neoliberalism, and the support of global democratic movements has to be garnered. Only then will this breeding ground for neofascism at last be undone.

The American neofascist movement is a very well-funded hydra. Pro-democracy forces must of course be focused on the immediate goal of defeating the Republican Party in the 2022 and 2024 elections, which will be an uphill battle. But America's pro-democracy forces must also understand that these are battles in a longer cultural, political and social war that has been fought for decades, with no end in sight.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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