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"They tried to supplant mainstream media": Jane Mayer on the billionaire behind Bannon and Trump

Mayer’s reporting on Trump’s reclusive mega-donor is revealing.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 23: Billionaire Robert Mercer speaks on the phone during the 12th International Conference on Climate Change.
The Washington Post / Getty Images

“In my view, Trump wouldn’t be president if not for Bob. It doesn’t get much more effective than that.”

That’s a quote from Nick Patterson, a computational biologist who New Yorker writer Jane Mayer interviewed for her recent sweeping profile of Robert Mercer.

Mercer is a reclusive computer scientist and hedge-fund manager. He’s also the billionaire financier behind Breitbart.com, the Donald Trump campaign, a data analytics firm called Cambridge Analytica (which worked on behalf of Trump), and a whole range of conservative online publications and advocacy groups.

Early in the presidential campaign, Mercer was a Ted Cruz backer. But when Cruz dropped out of the race, he went all in on Donald Trump — to the tune of $13.5 million. Mercer was much more than a money man, though. He also pressured Trump to fire Paul Manafort and hire Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, which arguably turned Trump’s entire campaign around.

Mayer’s profile of Mercer is richly detailed and worth reading on its own. In this interview, I wanted to dig a little deeper into Mercer’s broader influence on the conservative movement. Mayer, who is also the author of Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, has covered big money politics as well as anyone.

Here, I ask her if she thinks Mercer represents a paradigm shift in plutocratic politics, why billionaires like Mercer and Peter Thiel (both Trump supporters) want to blow up a system from which they’ve so clearly benefited, and if the Mercer-Bannon cabal has fundamentally reoriented the Republican Party.

Sean Illing

Maybe we can start with you explaining Mercer’s unusual political morality. Given his enormous influence, it’s important to know what he actually believes and what kind of world he wants to build.

Jane Mayer

I think Bob Mercer has a particular kind of mind that functions at the near-genius level for math and computer science, which explains why his hedge fund is among the most lucrative in the world. But it’s so hyper-rational, and lacking in empathy, it borders on shocking. As David Magerman, a senior employee at his hedge fund, told me, Mercer believes human beings have no intrinsic value beyond what they earn, so in his view, he is worth exponentially more than a school teacher.

Meanwhile, people on welfare, he believes, have “negative” value. In contrast, Mercer has said that cats have intrinsic value because watching them provides pleasure to humans. With the exception of his appreciation for cats, I think this may actually go beyond Ayn Rand.

Sean Illing

What is most unusual about the kind of influence Robert Mercer has had over our political process in general and Donald Trump in particular?

Jane Mayer

Mercer holds a lot of highly eccentric views on issues such as the positive health benefits of being exposed to nuclear radiation. He’s argued, for instance, that there was a silver lining to the atomic bomb damage in Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Outside of the immediate blast zone, he believes, the Japanese benefitted from the low-level radiation. There’s no support for this theory, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

In my view, it is alarming that someone with such unscientifically supported views concerning the ostensible upside of nuclear war would be as close as he is to the president of the United States. More generally, it’s obviously great to have a variety of opinions, and all kinds of eccentrics in the United States. But what’s not so great is when people whose views would disqualify them from ever getting elected manage to wield power all the same, simply because they have enough money to buy influence.

Sean Illing

Can you explain how Mercer, rather than trying to influence Trump explicitly, has created an alternate media sphere to box him in? And do you see this as a paradigm shift in terms of how the super wealthy influence politics?

Jane Mayer

What the Mercers did, with the guidance of Steve Bannon, was not just fight the press — they tried to supplant mainstream media. They invested $10 million or so in Breitbart News, building it into a formidable platform for economic nationalism, and they put millions into creating and funding the Government Accountability Institute, which provided their own politically potent content to the mainstream press.

The book Clinton Cash, which was one of their creations, shaped and drove much of the 2016 campaign narrative depicting Hillary Clinton as corrupt. The book was basically bankrolled by the Mercers, and then handed off to the New York Times. The Mercers are far from the first mega-donors to buy media properties. But they were more effective than most, in part because Bannon figured out both how to use social media more effectively at Breitbart, and how to infiltrate the mainstream media with his own investigative reporting factory.

It’s unclear how much this operation will “box-in” Trump now. Bannon says he has severed ties to Breitbart while serving in the White House. But whether or not Bannon is actively involved, Breitbart continues to exist as a political force, funded by the Mercers, and ready to hammer Trump when he diverges from their political agenda, as it did when opposing the Ryan/Trump health care plan. It’s a pretty extraordinary situation.

Sean Illing

Here’s what I don’t understand about billionaires like Mercer or Peter Thiel or even millionaires like Bannon: They appear to want to blow up the entire system without having really thought about the consequences of that. It’s as though they have no stake in societal stability. What does someone like Mercer think will happen if the “administrative state” is fully deconstructed?

Jane Mayer

I’m not sure you can assume that Bannon hasn’t thought about the consequences. He’s read and spoken about his vision, and it involves the possibility of a cataclysmic clash. I’d very much like to hear more detail from him, but people described him to me as quite a sharp strategist, who has a long-view, big-picture way of thinking.

As for the Mercers, I agree that it’s puzzling. Why are “winners” at least economically, so eager to tear down the system that made them so rich? A frustration when writing about the Mercers is that they don’t consider it their responsibility to explain to the public what they are trying to do to the country where the rest of us happen to also live.

Steve Bannon
Steve Bannon
(Paul Marotta / Getty Images / SiriusXM)

Sean Illing

Where does Steve Bannon fit in Mercer’s orbit? Has Mercer instrumentalized Bannon or is it the other way around?

Jane Mayer

Before Bannon was Trump’s political strategist, he played the same role for the Mercer family. They in turn sponsored him. So the relationship was extremely close, and he has been described as anything from an extra Mercer family member to their Svengali. It’s hard to know for sure, but it seemed from my reporting that Bannon in essence instrumentalized the Mercers by using their cash to transform their inchoate views into a concrete political game plan.

Sean Illing

Bannon believes Trump would not be president without the help of Mercer — do you agree?

Jane Mayer

He didn’t actually say that, quite. What he said was that they, more than any other political donors, provided the platform for the “Trump Revolution.” I think it’s indisputable that no other donors played a comparable role in launching Trump.

What made the Mercers especially important was not just their campaign contributions. It was their willingness to fund institutions that promoted Trump’s message, such as Breitbart News, the Government Accountability Institute, Cambridge Analytica, Citizens United, the Heritage Foundation, and dozens of other nonprofits.

Sean Illing

Did a political operation like Mercer’s become inevitable the moment the Citizens United case was decided?

Jane Mayer

The impact of Citizens United, and the other legal decisions that flowed from it, was in some ways more social than legal. It gave a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval to hugely wealthy political donors whose spending had been viewed earlier as suspect, if not downright corrupt.

Suddenly, people with immense amounts of money to spend on politics were celebrated as simply exercising their right to “speech.” The aura of corruption was lifted, and yes, I think it was inevitable that when there was no longer much social opprobrium, the big spenders were going to buy everything they could.

Sean Illing

Have we lost our democracy? And I don’t mean that in the apocalyptic sense, but rather in the sense that a very small group of extraordinarily rich people have used their money to purchase power and manipulate voters to such a degree that they’ve almost lost their agency.

Jane Mayer

I think we’re at a really worrisome tipping point. Economic inequality breeds political inequality, which results in more economic inequality. The cycle has sped up since Citizens United. Or, as Joseph Stieglitz put it, “Wealth begets power, which begets more wealth.” History suggests that there are waves of corruption, scandal, and reform in this country, and if so, I think we’re at a moment when reform is overdue.

Sean Illing

How has the Mercer-Bannon crowd has fundamentally reoriented the Republican Party, in both the immediate and long-term sense?

Jane Mayer

It’s hard to know for sure about the long-term, but Rebekah Mercer’s [Robert’s daughter] people leaked her plan to bankroll an outside independent expenditure group aimed at whipping up public support for Trump’s policies, and at intimidating office-holders who buck Trump’s lead in their home districts, across the country.

The idea that an heiress who has no experience or expertise in politics, no accountability to voters, and no journalistic skills that would ordinarily take her beyond being able to get a cranky letter to the editor published in a newspaper, is now funding a privatized propaganda machine for a president she helped finance, captures how far money has eaten away into the democratic ideal of “one-man, one-vote.”

She and her father don’t believe in global warming, like many far-right businesspeople, so presto, 30 percent of the EPA's budget is gone, even though strong majorities of citizens and scientists in the US and elsewhere in the world believe man-made climate change is an urgent threat to life on earth.

The Mercers’ position on climate issues is in line with the GOP’s previous stance, but on immigration and trade, they, like Bannon, are pushing the GOP in a far more nativist, protectionist direction. In doing so, ironically, they are clashing with their former allies, the billionaire Koch Brothers, who prefer more libertarian policies.

So, it appears that what we can look forward to in the Republican Party is a clash of GOP mega-donors — the Koch Wing — represented by the House Freedom Caucus, against the Mercer Wing, represented by the Trump White House. Is hard to know who will fold first, but either way, big money wins.