6: Dark Free Speech – Big Money

THE CONSTITUTION OF the United States of America has guided the country and its citizens since 1789. Only twenty-seven amendments have been added, the first ten, known as the Bill of Rights, straightaway. Compared to the Magna Carta from 1215, which has guided the UK for eight hundred years, the US Constitution seems young, however, its endurance for over two and a quarter century is impressive. The constitutions of most other countries are much younger. Italy, Germany, and France, for example, received their current constitutions in 1947, 1949, and 1958, respectively.

Now, Trump and Trumpism have put the resilience of American democracy under severe political stress. Dark geopolitics radiating out from Moscow and Beijing are calling Western democracies into question. Nationalistic populism is pushing them into illiberality on both sides of the Atlantic. Walls are built against people and goods; discrimination and bullying of immigrants, refugees, and various others are increasing; authoritarian rule is propagated. Deadly winds of political turmoil are rising.

Why did Europe have to forge so many post-war constitutions? Because populism is a democracy-destroying force. Its previous big wave, raised by Fascism and Nazism, ended with World War II. Strongman-type leaders like Mussolini, Franco, and Piłsudski are now in charge again, Trump in the US, Putin in Russia, and others elsewhere. T-Plus and Putinism are antidemocratic “frenemies” on the move – how could America become a complicit actor in creating this problem instead of a leading power toward its solution? Dark free speech of big money is one reason.

FREEDOM OF SPEECH is the first amendment to the US Constitution. It includes the freedom of the press and stipulates that Congress “shall make no law … abridging” these freedoms. So far, Congress has heeded that rule. The Legislative has not passed any laws inhibiting or curtailing the basic American rights to free speech and a free press, yet President Trump has begun to attack the Fourth Estate as an “enemy of the people.”1

The American judiciary opened that amendment up to the dark side by extending the exercise of free speech to political spending. In 2010, the Supreme Court of the US ruled in the case of Citizens United versus Federal Election Commission (FEC):

Political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. While corporations or unions may not give money directly to campaigns, they may seek to persuade the voting public through other means.2

Thus, the Court made the fateful decision of declaring it a free speech act to put corporate and union money into American elections. Big money vehicles, called Political Action Committees (PACs), were the outcome of this ruling. PACs are made for the persuasion of the voting public by all legal means money can buy, such as TV ads, provided the PAC operates independently from a political campaign. In 2014, this crack was blown wide open by another ruling, which permitted the creation of Super PACs.3

In McCutcheon versus FEC, the Court decided that “aggregate limits” to political contributions were “invalid under the First Amendment.”4 With this ruling, wealthy donors gained the right to “support or denounce” political campaigns with unlimited amounts of money. The requirement of super PAC independence from official campaigns, an easily circumventable condition, remained.

What does political spending without limits mean for an American billionaire and a citizen earning less than $250,000 a year? Well, spending one percent of the wealth of a middle-class family, which has $100,000 in savings, would give one thousand dollars to the candidate of their choice. Yet spending one percent from a net worth of $1 billion unleashes $10 million in political campaign support. The difference between a thousand-dollar contribution and a multimillion-dollar influence-buying investment could hardly be clearer. Money talks and the Supreme Court has amplified the money talk of billionaires millions of times over the dollar murmurs of 98 percent of all Americans.

Since Citizens United, the “voice” of big money grew stronger with every election.5 Dark words are now spoken by money too. The firewalls between political campaigns and super PACS are crumbling and their independence has become a legal fiction.6

The number of regular super PACs was 2,393 in the 2016 presidential election; they raised nearly $1.8 billion and spent over $1 billion. In addition, 241 single-candidate super PACs, many with close ties to the campaigns of their recipients, supported individual candidates and attacked their opponents. Dark money groups – organizations, such as nonprofits, which are allowed to hide donors and sources of money – also proliferated in the 2016 election and their spending rose significantly as well.7

A small group of extraordinarily wealthy Americans (Table 1) is on record for its big political spending. Contributing nearly $90 million to the Democratic candidate (Thomas Steyer) or $78 million to its Republican opponent (Sheldon Adelson) is not done without gaining priority access to, and some personal influence over, the US President and key advisors. Of course, part of that money is filling both party coffers equally and cancels itself out; but some of that multimillion-dollar kind of speech can make a decisive difference, as this chapter will show.

Table 1: Top Ten 2016 Election Donors | Source

Table 1 is compiled from the election spending data of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which has been tracking “money-in-politics” since the 1980s. Its OpenSecrets website lists federal election spending over the years, including the contributions of the biggest 100 donors to the 2016 election. The New York Times determined the size of this activist group as 158 families.8 Alexandra Pelosi (daughter of Nancy Pelosi) has portrayed a cross-section of this group in her documentary, “Meet the Donors.”9 Two observations are in order before I turn to one donor whose wealth has helped making Trump President of the United States.

First, the unmitigated partisan orientation of the top ten donors is not a fluke but a signature of this elite class of superrich people seeking high-level access and influence. Their political tilt is either solidly Democratic and liberal, or Republican and conservative. Top donors are by no means equal opportunity spenders. Only two of the 100 top donors gave a bit more than 10 percent of their big free speech money to the opposite party.

Second, the top 100 donors in 2016 delivered about equal amounts of electioneering money to each party (pro-liberal 49.1% and pro-conservative 50.8%). Super PAC spending was less balanced (pro-liberal 59.4% and pro-conservative 38.1%). Yet both donor groups combined spent almost equally on both parties (pro-liberal 49.0% and pro-conservative 49.9%).10 So, big money is a factor, but does not determine the winning party.

The high sums in play encourage the suspicion that candidates running for public office can be bought. And surely, some get corrupted that way. However, the conspiratorial idea that big money can buy the President’s Office is misguided. If it would be that easy, a donor like Mr. Adelson would probably spend more than a mere 0.26 percent of his net worth of nearly 30 billion dollars on that acquisition. In fact, the relatively low million-dollar amounts spent by his class suggest that billionaire donors know they are not making a sure bet.

BIG MONEY CAN make history though, if used intelligently, allocated strategically, and reinforced by strong tailwinds of change. Robert Mercer, the ninth donor of Table 1, met and benefitted from all three factors.

Mercer bet on Trump. He approached the game of American politics with a long perspective, invested systematically, paid capable players, rode the winds of change, and won. His middle daughter, Rebekah Mercer, became a formidable power broker in her own right. She served on the executive committee of Trump’s transition team and installed her family’s most ruthless players – Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway – in the White House.

The money of the Mercers is newly minted, pouring in from Renaissance Technologies, a Long Island hedge fund at the forefront of quantitative high-frequency trading.11 Renaissance was founded in 1982 by James Simons, a mathematician at nearby Stony Brook University.12 The firm’s exclusive Medallion Fund averaged extraordinary annual returns of 71.8 percent before fees between 1994 and 2014.13 Simons is listed in Table 1 with 99.9 percent of his spending benefiting the liberal side.

Mercer joined Renaissance in 1993 together with Peter Brown. Both had worked at IBM as computational linguists (with educational backgrounds in computer science, not linguistics) pioneering probabilistic approaches to speech recognition and machine translation. In 2009, when Simons retired from active management, Mercer and Brown became co-CEOs of Renaissance and quickly superwealthy.

Reclusive and secretive as well as taciturn in public, Mercer’s dark politics is articulated by his political investments. Super PACs do the talking for him. An hour-long address accepting the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Computational Linguistics was exceptional, not for what Mercer was saying, but rather for the mere speaking effort.14

Mercer’s helping hand in orchestrating the victory of Donald Trump began to show in early summer of 2016, relatively late in the electoral game, about one month before the Republican National Convention. His preparations for playing a major role in national politics, however, had started at least eight years earlier.

The four-day Convention from July 18 to 21 reflected a low point in Trump’s campaign. It was marred by the pointed absence of two former Republican presidents, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, as well as Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland and Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake. Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic Convention speech was bad news, and so was Ted Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump. Instead of asking to vote for Trump, Cruz echoed the Never Trump movement and urged the delegates, “Vote Your Conscience.”15 Cruz’s rebuke of Trump was less dramatic on the convention floor than in the VIP suites ringing it. Sheldon and Miriam Adelson refused to let Cruz into their donor suite after his speech.

Incensed by Cruz’s broken promise to support the nominee of the Republican party, Robert and Rebekah Mercer told the New York Times, “We are profoundly disappointed that on Wednesday night he [Cruz] chose to disregard this pledge.”16 Their disappointment was to some extent personal. Cruz was the family’s first presidential wager.

In April 2015, the Mercers had joined a small constellation of pro-Cruz super PACs. They had put at least 11 million dollars on Cruz, hired pollster Kellyanne Conway to run their Cruz PAC “Keep the Promise I,”17 and retained the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) for the Cruz campaign.18 Cruz had also been their guest at Owl’s Nest, the family’s mansion on Long Island’s North Shore.19

CA’s shady background as a global influencer of elections and its purported voter mining capacity was intriguing for Mercer. Decades of unconventional, systematic, groundbreaking use of data and computer algorithms, honed in developing automatic natural language recognition and translation as well as in spotting, reaping, and securing financial gains in rapid electronic trading environments20 had taught Mercer to look for a big-data approach to tackle the question of how to improve the chances of winning in politics. CA’s tool set was the answer and Mercer secured it. The fact that nobody paid much attention to this acquisition was all right with poker player Mercer (Figure 1) – the less people know, the better.

Figure 1: Robert Mercer – World Poker Tour 2012 | Source: Bloomberg

Mercer commissioned an election assessment to determine the presidential chances of Cruz. The result was shared by “a pair of researchers” with some wealthy Cruz backers on the deck of a Palm Beach donor’s home in February 2014.21 Their information pointed to a “Trump-like” outsider winning in 2016, supposedly Cruz, the universally despised outsider in the Senate. Yet in early May 2016, having lost the Indiana primary to Trump, Cruz’s bid for the Republican nomination was over, though outwardly just “suspended.” Trump was the only outsider left in the race. However, the demise of Cruz was not the real surprise, that was the unexpected surge of Cruz as a serious presidential contender in the first place – a rise that was (rightly or wrongly) attributed to CA’s “psychographic” voter profiling.22

After Cruz had been knocked out, the Mercer family changed horses without delay or sentimentality. In June 2016, it reoriented its super PAC from Cruz to Trump, rebranded it “Make America Number I,” and directed Conway and CA to work on behalf of Trump, the final outsider. Conway immediately recruited her friend David Bossie, the president of Citizens United, to take a leave of absence and run Mercer’s refurbished super PAC.23 Soon afterwards, on July 1, Conway was working for Trump as senior adviser to his new campaign chairman Paul Manafort.24

Rebekah Mercer observed the Republican Convention from the vantage point of donor suite 245. Her guest list dubbed “245 Presidential-Trust I” included Conway and four Breitbart operators: Stephan Bannon, Executive Chairman of Breitbart News, Laurence Solov, Breitbart President and CEO, Alexander Marlow, Breitbart Editor-in-Chief, and Matthew Boyle, Breitbart’s Washington Political Editor.25

Quoted in the New York Times, Conway conveyed the hurt feelings of the Mercers having “to watch Ted’s convention stunt.” Displaying her unmatched nerve, she added, “they supported Ted because they thought he was a man of his word who, like them, would place love of country over personal feelings and political ambition.”26 Paid to promote her paymasters eleventh-hour choice (Trump), Conway diminished Cruz, the former beneficiary of her mercenary professionalism.27 This is how Trump learned that Conway could be trusted; she would never admit the political ambition and financial interests of the Mercer family.28

On August 17, Trump shook his campaign leadership up again. He promoted Conway from senior advisor to campaign manager and appointed Bannon chief executive of the campaign.29 Now Trump had two capable political operatives on board aligned with the Mercers. CNN reported: “Trump decided on the changes this weekend after speaking with campaign donors at a fundraiser in The Hamptons, including Rebekah Mercer, a high-profile GOP donor with longstanding ties to Conway, who shared her concerns with Trump about the direction of the campaign.”30

Manafort resigned two days after Trump’s August shake-up. Manafort had to go; his lobbying for, and $12.7 million dealings with, the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Russian party were uncomfortably close to Trump’s problematic admiration for Putin.31 Bossie was pulled in as deputy campaign manager, and, suddenly, a group of mutual friends and Mercer allies were “atop the Trump campaign.”32

An inside source appreciated the accomplishment noting that Bannon is “tied at the hip” to Rebekah Mercer: “The Mercers basically own this campaign. … They have installed their people. … And now they’ve got their data firm in there.”33 Someone close to Trump cautioned not to overrate the influence of the megadonors: “The GOP nominee is his own man and has strong personal relationships with both Bannon and Conway.” This was true. Trump had known Bossie, Bannon, and Conway independently for several years. In 2011, when Trump was first toying with the idea of running for president, Bossie introduced Bannon to Trump as an “expert on new media” and “very action-oriented.”34

Trump was reluctant to spend money on campaign technology until May 2016. He criticized data crunching as “overrated” and argued his rallies were his best investment.35 Yet by the end of June, Trump was considering the services of Cambridge Analytica,36 and in early August, CA was working for Trump “behind the scenes,” heaved on board by the Mercers and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner over Manafort’s opposition.37 Mercer and his stakeholders in the Trump campaign rooted for CA’s granular approach to voter exploration and manipulation.

Mercer largely owns CA as its “principal investor.” Bannon was vice president of CA’s Board until he joined Trump’s campaign leadership in August 2016. And Rebekah Mercer prodded Trump’s family to use CA.38

How well CA’s touted “behavioral microtargeting” really worked for the Cruz and Trump campaigns is still unclear. Nevertheless, Mercer was uniquely prepared to correctly spot the dark electoral potential of behavioral science, big data analysis, and individual local voter targeting. Michal Kosinski – the scholar who originally developed the psychometrical tools allegedly utilized in CA’s political marketing approach – was terrified when he realized how his work could be used.39

THE MERCERS SPOKE at a crucial moment in Trump’s presidential campaign, not through dark money but with their own dark words. On October 8, the day after the “Access Hollywood” tape publication40 and one day before the second presidential debate, Robert and Rebekah Mercer proclaimed their unwavering support for Trump and complete indifference to his “locker room braggadocio.”41

Over 100,000 people had viewed the video of Trump’s sexual bragging immediately. An instant sensation, it lit up social media and cable news. Leading Republicans like John McCain and Paul Ryan quickly distanced themselves from Trump, and Hillary Clinton tweeted, “We cannot allow this man to become president.”42

In contradistinction to the outpouring of disgust and posturing, the Mercers declared what and who they considered unacceptable. They would rethink their support, they said, if Trump had revealed that he was in favor of open borders, open trade, and gun control. They would certainly rethink supporting Trump, they continued, had he allowed and profited from “the sale to Russia of 20% of US uranium deposits,”43 or built his fortune “by selling favors to foreigners on the American taxpayers’ dime,” or “argued that he needed both a public and a private position on issues facing the American public.” And they would “most definitely” rethink supporting him, they concluded, if he had “serially terrorized and silenced the victims of violent sexual assault.”

All items on this list referenced the Clintons or the Clinton Foundation. Robert and Rebekah Mercer’s support for Trump (as for Cruz earlier) was driven by strong opposition to, and visceral antipathy of, the politics and personalities of Bill and Hillary Clinton. They were mainly interested in defeating the Clintons but agreed with the policy perspectives of radical Trumpism, which Decius-Anton had articulated. Their determination to “stand steadfastly behind” Trump was surefooted because they also thought that the 2016 election was a watershed between doom or Trump.

The Mercers believed that the elites of both parties had succumbed to the mainstream media demand of political correctness, that America was facing an “apocalyptic choice” in the upcoming election, and that only a Washington outsider could save the country:

America is finally fed up and disgusted with its political elite. Trump is channeling this disgust and those among the political elite who quake before the boombox of media blather do not appreciate the apocalyptic choice that America faces on November 8th. We have a country to save and there is only one person who can save it. We, and Americans across the country and around the world, stand steadfastly behind Donald J. Trump.44

BANNON, THE CEO of Trump’s campaign, had become convinced that his candidate could win with dark words, dark social media technology, lots of dark money, and the anti-establishment stance of T-Plus. He fully subscribed to the Flight 93 analogy and viewed the election in apocalyptic terms as well.

Bannon, a “voracious reader” interested in deep questions,45 was driven into political action by the al-Qaeda terror attack in 2001. Screenwriter Julia Jones, a collaborator of Bannon since the early 1990s, observed, 9/11 “changed him.”46

Bannon’s was a Catholic from Virginia with an Irish working-class background. As a former Naval officer, Goldman Sachs investment banker, and Hollywood film producer,47 he had a meandering career. After the events of 9/11, he focused on American politics and developed a propagandist’s aggressive voice, touted American nationalism and the Judeo-Christian West, emulated right- and left-wing filmmakers Leni Riefenstahl and Michael Moore, absorbed dark lessons of questionable history from alarmist books,48 and began to contemplate “outright war” against radical Islam. The 2008 financial crisis affected his father badly and completed Bannon’s transformation into an intense economic nationalist49 and “America First” crusader.

In March 2012, Bannon was named executive chairman of Breitbart News Network.50 A strong behind-the-scenes push for Bannon from the Mercer family can be assumed. In any case, Bannon was then able to disrupt all status-quo arrangements with right-wing propaganda attacks on the traditional order.

Breitbart News Network is a privately held limited liability corporation (LLC). Its financial and ownership structures are closely guarded; however, it appears to be an asset in Robert and Rebekah Mercer’s dark political portfolio. A 10-million-dollar family investment has been reported. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Mercers spent that amount in 2011 to buy nearly 50 percent of Breitbart.51 Petitioning the US Senate Press Committee for press passes, Breitbart’s CEO Larry Solov disclosed in 2017 that Breitbart is owned by him, the Mercer family, and Andrew Breitbart’s widow.52 Several attempts to secure press passes for Breitbart were denied citing the lack of demonstrated editorial independence from Rebekah Mercer.53

Under Bannon, Breitbart News moved further to the right and expanded internationally. Bannon invited incendiary social media influencers, sharpened the site’s nationalistic profile, increased its anti-establishment rhetoric, and started networking with Eurosceptic movements, such as Nigel Farage’s populist UKIP and Marine le Pen’s anti-immigrant National Front as well as Europe’s religious right. In April 2014, two years into Bannon’s successful Breitbart leadership by disruption standards, Bannon visited Rome, befriended traditionalist Cardinal Raymond Burke, and hired ex-priest Thomas Williams as Breitbart’s Rome bureau chief.54

Later that year, Bannon participated via Skype from Los Angeles in a conference convened by a conservative Christian think-tank at the Vatican. Bannon introduced Breitbart as the “third-largest conservative news site” after Fox News and Drudge Report; expressed his strong belief in “a global tea party movement;” and declared, “we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict” with radical Islam, a “new barbarity” the “church militant” has to fight, or “everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years” will be wiped out. Emphasizing repeatedly, “we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism,” Bannon told his audience:

We have to face a very unpleasant fact. And that unpleasant fact is that there is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. It’s going global in scale, and today’s technology, today’s media, today’s access to weapons of mass destruction, it’s going to lead to a global conflict that I believe has to be confronted today.55

Making sure his message got across, Bannon doubled down:

I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam. And I realize there are other aspects that are not as militant and not as aggressive and that’s fine. If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places.

Since the conference topic was Poverty and the Common Good, Bannon spoke about capitalism too. Arguing, “we are in a crisis of the underpinnings of capitalism,” he distinguished “two strands” of capitalism, both flawed: “crony” or “state-sponsored” capitalism, as in China and Russia, and “Ayn Rand” or “libertarian capitalism.” The first creates wealth and value “for a very small subset of people,” but the latter is “almost as disturbing” because it “looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people.”

Realizing that he was veering into the lane of his primary patrons, the ultrawealthy libertarian-leaning Mercers, Bannon stopped short from going further into his preference, the alternative of an “enlightened capitalism of the Judeo-Christian West.” Detailing the ethical and socio-political superiority of Christian capitalism over both libertarian and crony capitalism could have been dangerous. Instead, he quickly assured his audience that he and Breitbart were backing the “entrepreneurial capitalist spirit of the United States” as “free-enterprise capitalists.”

Bannon himself is a multimillionaire with assets valued between $11.8 and $53.8 million.56 Maybe the idea of an enlightened Christian capitalism was just a sound bite for the Rome group or his restraint was tactical, in any event, it paid off to be simultaneously radical and circumspect.57 After his victory, the President-elect announced, “Trump for President CEO Stephen K. Bannon will serve as Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor to the President.”58

Looking forward to his influential new position, Bannon floated the idea of unleashing capitalism for the working-class people. Having carried “all the burdens” and gotten “none of the upside,” they deserved to be employed in “exciting” work, something akin to the German Reich Labor Service (Reichsarbeitsdienst) of the 1930s:

I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Ship yards, iron works, get them all jacked up. … It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution – conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.59

Trump’s inaugural “American carnage” address was co-written by Bannon and anti-immigration hardliner Stephen Miller.60 They showed their hands in lines like these:

  • “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”
  • “For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.”
  • We “spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”
  • “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”
  • “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones – and unite the civilized world against Radical Islamic Terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.”61

A few days after Trump’s inauguration, Bannon was entrusted with even more influence. This time, he received the privilege of a permanent seat on the “Principals Committee” of the National Security Council (NSC). This was unprecedented and clearly a position of undue influence for a political operator with a radical agenda.62 Propelled by his ambition for right-wing change, aided by the steely Mercers and lifted up by Trump’s flamboyant management style, Bannon rose in record time from the fringe of a rabble-rousing new media director onto the highest stage of the US government.

WHAT IS GOING to happen? Trump won and the Republican party is riding on his coattails, both rule in Washington, the locus of their absolute desire and utter contempt. On a stage, the spectacle would be ironic, but this tragedy is for real, at least for the next four years.

Bannon thinks that a transformative president can govern by destruction. At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), he told a cheering crowd to expect the birth of “a new political order” through the “deconstruction” of America’s old order. He announced a heavy downpour of presidential action as “three verticals of three buckets.” The content of these buckets were national security and sovereignty, economic nationalism, and deconstruction of the administrative state.63 Bannon’s and Trump’s aggressive capabilities are proven. What is dubious, however, is their belief that a new political order could emerge from rage and de(con)struction.

Dark money “shareholders” of the US government have gained enormous influence over the nuts and bolts of America’s representative democracy, especially the billionaire Koch brothers, who paved the way for the Mercers.64 Governmental disorder is a welcome opportunity for them. They can say with confidence, Let committed and commissioned right-wing intellectuals fight the “bipartisan junta” and the “administrative state” with its pesky regulations; let them destroy civil society, free press, and independent institutions – it will benefit us, the class of unelected megadonors. Low taxes, low wages, and unobstructed pollution are well worth it.

Fiery minds like Decius-Anton and Bannon are strange birds in the anti-intellectual Trumpian context. Trump and the plutocrats around him are used to hire and fire ideologues, but not to suffer them. How long will the songbirds of radical Trumpism last in this administration? The National Security Advisor after Flynn, General McMaster, assumed control over the NSC. He had Bannon quickly removed from the Principals Committee and himself given the power to convene and chair the PC.65

The loss of Bannon’s “permanent” PC seat was the first setback for the Mercers and T-Plus. The New York Times applauded McMaster’s move as “a welcome course correction, removing a contentious and extremist political voice from a vitally important policy-making body and thus making it more likely that people with actual expertise will help an inexperienced president make tough choices.”66 — Considering Trump’s essential hunger for total admiration and absolute loyalty, I wonder how “people with actual expertise” will fare in his administration.

Further “course corrections” were made in the summer of 2017. The purging started on July 28 with the removal of White House Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, and General John Kelly’s appointment in his stead. Bannon was fired on August 19. Sebastian Gorka, a Bannon protégé, was dismissed on August 25.67

Perhaps the ouster of Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist was a win for the so-called “globalists” around Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn; but it was certainly a major loss for T-Plus as well as Robert and Rebekah Mercer. However, Michael Anton and Stephen Miller are still ensconced in the White House. The nationalist-populist faction of radical Trumpism is not defeated. In fact, it is prepared for big setbacks by the understanding that Trump is but “the principal vehicle of Trumpism.” Fittingly, Bannon declared:

The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over. We still have a huge movement, and we will make something of this Trump presidency. But that presidency is over. It’ll be something else. And there’ll be all kinds of fights, and there’ll be good days and bad days, but that presidency is over.68

How “over” the Trump presidency will be without Bannon remains to be seen. His ejection from Trump’s government has not defeated the proponents of T-Plus but shown the limits of their power. Dark free speech and the big money it commands are not to be underestimated. Yet Making Trumpism Small Again remains feasible too.

  1. Andrew Higgins, “Trump Embraces ‘Enemy of the People,’ a Phrase With a Fraught History.” The New York Times, 26 Feb. 2017.
  2. SCOTUSblog, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
  3. See Robert Barnes, “Supreme Court strikes down limits on federal campaign donations.” Washington Post, 2 April 2014.
  4. SCOTUSblog, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.
  5. See Ian Vandewalker, “Election Spending 2014: Outside Spending in Senate Races Since ‘Citizens United’.” Brennan Center for Justice, 1 Dec. 2015.
  6. See Brent Ferguson, “Candidates & Super PACs: The New Model in 2016.” Brennan Center for Justice, 12 June 2015.
  7. See Infographic “Follow the Shadow of Dark Money.” Center for Responsive Politics.
  8. See Nicholas Confessore, Sarah Cohen, and Karen Yourish, “The Families Funding the 2016 Presidential Election.” The New York Times, 10 Oct. 2015.
  9. See Marlow Stern, “Meet the Billionaires Manipulating the U.S. Presidential Election.” The Daily Beast, 2 Aug. 2016, updated 12 July 2017.
  10. See OpenSecrets, “Super PACs: How Many Donors Give?” 2016 cycle.
  11. See Miles Weiss and Zachary Mider, “Legendary Hedge Fund Wants to Use Atomic Clocks to Beat High-Speed Traders.” Bloomberg, 7 July 2016; Annie Massa and Sam Mamudi, “Trading on Speed.” Bloomberg, 15 Feb. 2017, updated 21 July 2017.
  12. See William J. Broad, “Seeker, Doer, Giver, Ponderer.” The New York Times, 7 July 2014.
  13. See Katherine Burton, “Inside a Moneymaking Machine Like No Other.” Bloomberg, 21 Nov. 2016, updated Nov. 25.
  14. See YouTube, “Robert Mercer, billionaire backer of Ted Cruz, accepts award from the AC.” 14 April 2015.
  15. See Theodore Schleifer and Stephen Collinson, “Defiant Ted Cruz stands by refusal to endorse Trump after being booed during convention speech.” CNN, 22 July 2016.
  16. See Maggie Haberman, “Influential Donors Criticize Ted Cruz for His G.O.P. Convention Speech.” The New York Times, 23 July 2016.
  17. See Pro-Cruz Super PACs, 24 March 2016.
  18. See Sasha Issenberg, “Cruz-Connected Data Miner Aims to Get Inside U.S. Voters’ Heads.” Bloomberg , 12 Nov. 2015; Matt Osborne, “Meet The Data Lords Who Want To Make Ted Cruz President.” Breitbart Unmasked, 18 Feb. 2016.
  19. See Zachary Mider, “What Kind of Man Spends Millions to Elect Ted Cruz?Bloomberg, 20 Jan. 2016. In December 2015, Cruz had been invited to a Mercer costume party themed End of WW II. “Mercer was dressed as General Douglas MacArthur. Ted Cruz, in a three-piece suit, came as Winston Churchill.”
  20. See, for instance, Robert L. Mercer and Peter F. Brown, “System and method for executing synchronized trades in multiple exchanges.” Renaissance Technologies Patent US20160035027A1. The patent application was filed in August 2014 and published in February 2016.
  21. The private researchers were probably Patrick Caddell and Bob Perkins; see Jane Mayer, “The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency.” The New Yorker, 27 March 2017. It appeared in the print edition under the title “Trump’s Money Man.” The reference to Caddell and his partner is on page 44. Mayer’s splendid essay came out after I had finished writing this chapter; it provides lots of additional information on Mercer.
  22. See Harry Davies, “Ted Cruz using firm that harvested data on millions of unwitting Facebook users.” The Guardian, 11. Dec. 2015.
  23. See Breitbart News, “Former Ted Cruz Super PAC ‘Refurbished,’ Becomes ‘Defeat Crooked Hillary PAC.’” Breitbart, 22 June 2016. Bossie had made Citizens United a proven corporate-interest vehicle with $3.6 million from the Mercer family foundation, headed by Rebekah Mercer. Solidly anti-Clinton, Bossie was a trusted operative in the concerted Mercer attack on democratic US politics.
  24. See Sean Sullivan, “Trump Hires Ex-Cruz Super PAC Strategist Kellyanne Conway.” Washington Post, 1 July 2016. Manafort had replaced Corey Lewandowski as campaign chairman in late June 2016.
  25. See Jonathan Swan, “Billionaire father and daughter linked to Trump shake-up.” The Hill, 17 Aug. 2016. See also Guest Lists of Republican National Convention Suites.
  26. See above, note 16.
  27. When Conway was working for Cruz, she criticized Trump for “whining” about a “rigged” election system.
  28. Since short-term capital gains are taxed at a higher rate than long-term gains, Renaissance Technologies has used legal options that turned its short-term investments (which typically last only seconds due to the nature of HFT security trading) into long-term gains, thus avoiding higher taxes. This practice triggered a Senate Committee hearing; see Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, “Abuse of Structured Financial Products: Misusing Basket Options to Avoid Taxes and Leverage Limits.” 22 July 2014; Zachary R. Mider, “Renaissance Avoided More Than $6 Billion Tax, Report Says.” Bloomberg, 22 July 2014. The tax-free earnings of Renaissance’s Medallion Fund are another feature of interest; see Richard Rubin and Margaret Collins, “How an Exclusive Hedge Fund Turbocharged Its Retirement Plan.Bloomberg, 16 June 2015.
  29. See Tal Kopan, “Meet the woman tapped to save Trump’s campaign.” CNN, 17 Aug. 2016; Breitbart News, “Breitbart’s Stephen K Bannon Appointed CEO in Trump Campaign Shake Up.” Breitbart, 17 Aug. 2016. The new and unusual position of a “campaign CEO” reflected Trump’s business background and pointed to the important role Bannon was going to play in the months ahead.
  30. Jeremy Diamond, “Trump campaign shake-up.” CNN, 17 Aug. 2016.
  31. See Andrew E. Kramer, Mike Mcintire, and Barry Meier, “Secret Ledger in Ukraine Lists Cash for Donald Trump’s Campaign Chief.” The New York Times, 14 Aug. 2016.
  32. See Robert Costa, “Trump enlists veteran operative David Bossie as deputy campaign manager.” Washington Post, 1. Sept. 2016.
  33. Jonathan Swan, “Billionaire father and daughter linked to Trump shake-up.” The Hill, 17 Aug. 2016.
  34. John Gibson, “David Bossie President of Citizens United Explains How He Introduced Steve Bannon To Donald Trump.” FOX News Talk Show, 18 Aug. 2016; Rebecca Berg, “How the Trump-Bannon Alliance Took Shape.” Real Clear Politics, 18 Aug. 2016.
  35. Julie Pace, “AP Interview: Trump says big rallies his key campaign weapon.” AP News, 10 May 2016.
  36. See Kenneth P. Vogel and Darren Samuelsohn, “Trump’s secret data reversal.” POLITICO, 28 June 2016
  37. See Eliana Johnson, “Trump Campaign Turns to ‘Psychographic’ Data Firm Used by Cruz.” National Review, 5 Aug. 2016.
  38. See Kenneth P. Vogel, “The heiress quietly shaping Trump’s operation.” POLITICO, 21 Nov. 2016; Nicholas Confessore and Danny Hakim, “Data Firm Says ‘Secret Sauce’ Aided Trump; Many Scoff.” The New York Times, 6 March 2017.
  39. For an article with some good background reporting about the curious and partly shady history leading from Kosinski’s creative doctoral work at the University of Cambridge, UK, to Cambridge Analytica and its offerings, see Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, “The Data That Turned the World Upside Down.” Motherboard, 28 Jan. 2017. See also Kendall Taggart, “The Truth About The Trump Data Team That People Are Freaking Out About.” BuzzFeed, 16 Feb. 2017, and Jamie Condliffe, “The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine May Not Be as Smart as You Think.” MIT Technology Review, 27 Feb. 2017.
  40. See David A. Fahrenthold, “Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005.” Washington Post, 8 Oct. 2016.
  41. Matea Gold, “GOP mega-donors Robert and Rebekah Mercer stand by Trump.” Washington Post, 8 Oct. 2016.
  42. Maxwell Tani, “‘This is horrific’: Hillary Clinton campaign responds to Trump’s lewd 2005 comments about women.” Business Insider, 7 Oct. 2016.
  43. See Jo Becker and Mike McIntire, “Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation Amid Russian Uranium Deal.” The New York Times, 23 April 2015.
  44. See above, note 41.
  45. See Eliana Johnson and Eli Stokols, “What Steve Bannon Wants You to Read.” POLITICO, 7 Feb. 2017.
  46. Christopher Caldwell, “What Does Steve Bannon Want?The New York Times, 25 Feb. 2017.
  47. For Bannon’s filmography, see Phil Hornshaw, “All 19 Movies and Shows Steve Bannon Wrote, Directed or Produced (Photos).” TheWrap, 7 March 2017, last updated 21 August 2020.
  48. For Bannon’s philosophy of history, see Linette Lopez, “Steve Bannon’s obsession with a dark theory of history should be worrisome.” Business Insider, 2 Feb. 2017; Paul Blumenthal and J. M. Rieger, “Steve Bannon Believes The Apocalypse Is Coming And War Is Inevitable.” Huffington Post, 8 Feb. 2017; Neil Howe, “Where did Steve Bannon get his worldview? From my book.” Washington Post, 24 Feb. 2017; Paul Blumenthal and J. M. Rieger, “This Stunningly Racist French Novel Is How Steve Bannon Explains The World.” Huffington Post, 4 March 2017; and Jonathan Swan, “The One Book to Understand Steve Bannon.” Axios, 7 March 2017.
  49. See Michael C. Bender, “Steve Bannon and the Making of an Economic Nationalist.” Wall Street Journal, 14 March 2017. For a skeptical view of this narrative, see Francis Wilkinson, “Steve Bannon’s Preposterous ‘Rosebud’ Moment.” Bloomberg, 16 March 2017.
  50. See Paul Bond, “Breitbart News Names Executives Who Will Run Company in Wake of Founder’s Death.” The Hollywood Reporter, 19 March 2012.
  51. See Gregory Zuckerman, Keach Hagey, Scott Patterson, and Rebecca Ballhaus, “Meet the Mercers: A Quiet Tycoon and His Daughter Become Power Brokers in Trump’s Washington.” Wall Street Journal, 8 Jan. 2017.
  52. See Paul Singer, “CEO Confirms Mercers, Top GOP Donors, Are part owners of Breitbart.” USA TODAY, 24 Feb. 2017; Steven Perlberg, “Breitbart CEO Lobbies For Congressional Press Passes.” BuzzFeed, 24 Feb. 2017.
  53. See Tom Kludt, “Breitbart denied congressional press passes.” CNN, 25 April 2017.
  54. See Jason Horowitz, “Breitbart’s Man in Rome: A Gentle Voice in a Strident Chorus.” The New York Times, 10 Jan. 2017.
  55. J. Lester Feder, “This Is How Steve Bannon Sees The Entire World.” BuzzFeed, 15 Nov. 2016. The subsequent quotes are from this article too.
  56. See Matthew Goldstein, Steve Eder, Kate Kelly, Alexandra Stevenson, and Ben Protess, “Bannon Made Millions in Shaping Right-Wing Thought.” The New York Times, 31 March 2017.
  57. In 2016, Bannon earned “more than $1 million in income tied to conservative-oriented work.” See Steve Eder, Eric Lipton, and Andrew W. Lehren, “Trump Aides’ Disclosures Reveal Surge in Lucrative Political Work.” The New York Times, 2 April 2017.
  58. Read the statement from Donald Trump on Reince Priebus, Stephen Bannon.” Boston Globe, 13 Nov. 2016.
  59. Michael Wolff, “Ringside With Steve Bannon at Trump Tower as the President-Elect’s Strategist Plots ‘An Entirely New Political Movement’ (Exclusive).” The Hollywood Reporter, 18 Nov. 2016.
  60. See Michael C. Bender, “Donald Trump Strikes Nationalistic Tone in Inaugural Speech.” Wall Street Journal, 20 Jan. 2017.
  61. Donald Trump, “The Inaugural Address.” 20 Jan. 2017.
  62. See Merrit Kennedy, “With National Security Council Shakeup, Steve Bannon Gets A Seat At The Table.” NPR, 29 Jan. 2017; Nicole Gaouette, “Bannon role on National Security Council under fire.” CNN, 30 Jan. 2017; and Jeremy Diamond, “The real estate mogul’s architect: Bannon’s influence swells.” CNN, 31 Jan. 2017.
  63. See Philip Rucker, “Bannon: Trump administration is in unending battle for ‘deconstruction of the administrative state’.” Washington Post, 23 Feb. 2017; Z. Byron Wolf, “Steve Bannon outlines his plan to ‘deconstruct’ Washington.” CNN, 24 Feb. 2017.
  64. For an in-depth account of the attack of US billionaires on American democracy led by the Koch brothers, see Jane Mayer, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. With a New Preface. First Edition 2016. New York: Anchor Books, 2017.
  65. See “Organization of the National Security Council, the Homeland Security Council, and Subcommittees.” Federal Register, 6 April 2017; Bryan Bender, “Bannon’s departure solidifies McMaster’s control over the NSC.” POLITICO, 5 April 2017.
  66. The Editorial Board, “Downsizing Mr. Bannon.” The New York Times, 6 April 2017.
  67. See Philip Rucker, Abby Phillip, Robert Costa, and Ashley Parker, “Trump names Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly as White House chief of staff, ousting Reince Priebus.” Washington Post, 28 July 2017; Jeremy Diamond, Kaitlan Collins, and Elizabeth Landers, “Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon fired.” CNN, 19 Aug. 2017; Maggie Haberman and Matt Stevens, “Sebastian Gorka Is Forced Out as White House Adviser, Officials Say.” The New York Times, 25 Aug. 2017.
  68. Peter J. Boyer, “Bannon: ‘The Trump Presidency That We Fought For, and Won, Is Over’.” Weekly Standard, 18 Aug. 2017. Update Oct. 2020: The quoted interview is no longer available (was at See instead Cristiano Lima, “Bannon: ‘Trump Presidency that we fought for, and won, is over’.” POLITICO, 18 Aug. 2017.