Robert Mercer and his daughter were key players in Trump’s victory. But they will find a repeat performance difficult, writes
A US Supreme Court ruling that allowed corporations to pour unlimited cash into American elections was a key factor in the perfect Cambridge Analytica storm that propelled Donald Trump to the White House.
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 declared that corporations could spend as much as they wanted to support candidates running for Congress or president as long as the contributions were not made directly to candidates.
The ruling overturned major portions of the 2002 McCain-Feingold political spending restrictions and rolled back centuries-old law on corporate spending in political campaigning.
In a key dissenting opinion, Justice Paul Stevens warned that the court made an error in treating corporate free speech the same as individual speech free and that opening the door to unlimited cooperate spending increased the chances of corruption in the political system.
It was exactly the ruling that hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah had been hoping for and they set about exploiting it in full by ploughing millions into the new super PACs (political action committees) that sprung up.
They particularly liked the political work being done by the billionaire Koch brothers, Charles, 83, and David, 78, and pulled out all the stops to back Republican Mitt Romney in his bid to defeat President Barack Obama in 2012.
When that bid failed, despite Romney outspending Obama by $100m, the Mercers were irate at what they saw as the ineffectiveness of the likes of the Koch brothers and began to look for better vehicles for their political
ambitions. Enter Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica.
Mercer was a major investor in Cambridge Analytica and was backing Republican Ted Cruz in the 2016 election. But Bannon had his eye on someone else.
He believed Trump would be the perfect vehicle to carry his and the Mercers’ rightist political philosophy into the White House.
He then went on to persuade Mercer to ditch Cruz and marry the Mercer money with Cambridge Analytica’s tactics and row in behind Trump.
The Mercers didn’t need that much persuading. They were already big investors in Bannon’s own far-right Breitbart News online network, which had spent much of its time supporting Trump.
In June 2016, according to US Federal Election Commission records, Trump’s campaign hired Cambridge Analytica and paid it over $6.2m. By then, according to whistleblower Christopher Wylie, the company had created psychological profiles of some 230m Americans.
Thus, for all of them — Mercer, Bannon, and Cambridge Analytica — Trump was the perfect vehicle to test their theories that if someone could be branded as a populist outsider on the side of voters abandoned by the “Washington swamp”, that candidate could sweep to victory by tapping into anger and resentment, and even racism and xenophobia, and it wouldn’t matter that much if he had no political experience.
In fact, that would be a bonus.
And they were correct. Yet, isn’t that what much of politics is about — whoever fights hardest wins? And wasn’t Obama doing the same in tapping into Facebook and other social media platforms? In some ways yes, but the factor that made the real difference — unlimited campaign spending by corporations — only really came into its own in the 2016 election.
There is also another factor: Unlimited spending by billionaires in US elections is skewing the political process in favour of Republican candidates. While there are many liberal Democratic billionaires like George Soros, there are far more conservative Republican or Libertarian-supporting ones like the Mercers and Koch brothers — and they also tend to be better-heeled.
David and Charles Koch have personal fortunes of $17.5bn (€14.2bn) each, according to the Forbes billionaire list, while Soros has a net worth of $14bn. The oil refining Koch Industries is also the second-largest private US company with about $100bn in annual revenue. Soros is chairman of the hedge fund Soros Fund management with holdings valued at over $4bn.
Other figures, too, tell a bleak story for Democrats. In January and February of this year, for example, the main fundraising arms of the Republican Party took in roughly four times as much as their Democratic counterparts, raising $39.4m to the Democrats’ $9.6m.
In the years before the Supreme Court ruling opening the floodgates to unlimited spending, the picture looked more balanced for both parties. During the 2000 cycle, the Republican tally was $244m to the Democrats’ $219m; during the 2002 cycle, Republican funding was $250m to the Democrats’ $220m.
In addition, since the court ruling, power has begun to tilt away from the two main parties and towards an increasingly powerful group of ultra-wealthy donors with political agendas focusing on their own financial needs rather than those of society as a whole.
David Magerman, a senior employee at Mercer’s firm Renaissance Technologies, told the Wall Street Journal that Mercer’s political opinions “show contempt for the social safety net that he doesn’t need, but many Americans do”.
Magerman added: “He thinks society is upside down — that government helps the weak people get strong, and makes the strong people weak by taking their money away, through taxes.”
While the Mercers keep a close watch on their political spending, they also keep a low profile and avoid the press. However, in the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign after the video emerged showing Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, Robert and Rebekah Mercer issued a statement condemning Republicans who abandoned Trump.
“Those among the political elite who quake before the boom box of media blather do not appreciate the apocalyptic choice that America faces on November 8th,” it read. “We have a country to save and there is only one person who can save it.”
Whether their “saviour” can do it again in 2020 is less certain. The financial floodgates will certainly remain as open as they were in 2016 but some of the characters in the perfect storm that year will be either missing in action or licking their wounds.
Steve Bannon, for one, is now out in the cold. He was ousted from the Trump administration last August and after his attacks on Trump in the book Fire and Fury, he was pushed out of Breitbart — with the Mercers leading the charge against him.