The release of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House led to an explosive media cycle as excerpts from the book were published. They also led to the announcement that Steve Bannon, former Chief Strategist in the Trump administration, was stepping down from from his executive chairman position at Breitbart, the “platform for the alt-right” as Bannon described it. It also resulted in a rare public statement from Rebekah Mercer, daughter of billionaire hedge-fund owner and longtime political and financial backer of Bannon, Robert Mercer. In the statement, the younger Mercer publicly cut ties with Bannon, saying “I support President Trump and the platform upon which he was elected,” and affirming that “My family and I have not communicated with Steve Bannon in many months and have provided no financial support to his political agenda, nor do we support his recent actions and statements.”
The public statement from the Mercers came just a couple of months after Robert Mercer stepped down from his position as co-CEO of his lucrative hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies. This came after a Buzzfeed exposerevealed the working relationships and interactions between Bannon, the far-right Breitbart news agency , and self-avowed white supremacists and Neo-Nazis. Up until this announcement, Mercer was a partial owner of Breitbart but with his resignation from Renaissance, he revealed he would also sell his stakes in Breitbart to his three daughters.
Robert Mercer not only has investments in a highly influential platform that has promoted racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism, but has strategically invested millions into organizations, Political Action Committees (PACs), think tanks, and political candidates that all focus on anti-government initiatives. Another theme central to these organizations is the promotion of anti-Islam and anti-Muslim rhetoric and conspiracy theories. Below, the article will highlight how Robert Mercer, his daughter Rebekah, and the family’s foundation, have supported and amplified the voices of individuals and organizations that promote Islamophobia.
Who is Robert Mercer?
Robert Mercer is a computer programmer turned billionaire hedge-fund executive. He began his career at IBM, working on a team that played an influential role in revolutionizing machine translation, helping to lay the foundation for Google Translate and Apple’s Siri. In 1993, Mercer was recruited by Renaissance Technologies CEO Nick Patterson, a former code breaker for British and U.S. intelligence agencies, to join the hedge fund. In 2009, Mercer become co-CEO of Renaissance Technologies along with his former IBM colleague, Peter Brown. With Mercer’s at the helm, Renaissance has become one of the country’s most successful private hedge-funds.
Mercer has been described as “very, very conservative,” and “a right-wing libertarian.” Mercer’s political donations to Republican campaigns and nonprofits, that all happen to be right-wing and ultra-conservative, reaffirm his political leanings. The “reclusive hedge-fund tycoon,” has been accused of “buying shares” in US democracy by a former Renaissance employee, who went on to describe Mercer as an “extreme example of modern entrepreneurial philanthropy.”
Forbes claims that Mercer makes an estimated $135 million a year. In 2016, the hedge fund owner was one of the 10 biggest political donors in the country, having given some $25 million to conservative groups and candidates, including President Donald Trump. The Mercer Family Foundation, run by Mercer’s second eldest daughter, Rebekah, has given “more than $48 million to campaign, committees, and companies run in part by top Trump allies or advisers.”
Mercer has used his financial data-driven background to tap into the political data economy by investing in outlets focused on targeted messaging. He has been vocal about his dislike for mainstream media, an opinion he shares with his former political advisor, Steve Bannon. With investments in Breitbart, the production company Glittering Steel, and an election management firm specializing in “psychographic” profiling, the Mercer’s are shaping how information is packaged and what information people receive. Guardian reporter, Carole Cadwalladr describes it as a “multi-million dollar propaganda network…waging war on mainstream media.”
Mercer holds strong views on government spending, regulations, the environment, and civil rights. A former employee reported that Mercer wants to shrink the US government to this size of “pinhead,” and has funded right-wing think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Heartland Institute, groups that “promote climate-science denial.”
In 2011, Mercer donated one million dollars to the Conservative Party to be used on a series of television ads against the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.” It was reportedly the “biggest donation in Conservative Party history and believed to be the second biggest individual donation in New York electoral history.” In the ad, gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio says, “New Yorkers have been through enough. Now a terrorist-sympathizing imam wants to build a $100 million mosque near ground zero. Where is this money coming from? Who’s really behind it?”
Who is Rebekah Mercer?
In 2016, a Politico article described her as “the most powerful woman in GOP politics.” Rebekah Mercer is a former investment banker who now runs the family’s philanthropic foundation. She also sits on the board of a number of organizations, including the staunchly conservative Heritage Foundation along with the New York Metropolitan Museum of History. In April 2017, journalist Eli Clifton revealed that “Mercer had been listed as a member of the board of governors” of the Gatestone Institute, described by Webby-award winning AlterNet news service as “a hub for anti-Muslim ideologues.” Gatestone has long opposed the immigration of Muslims to the West. Clifton reported that after LobeLog reached out to the organization, the website had scrubbed any mention of Mercer on its board.
The younger Mercer ran the Trump super PAC, Make America Number 1, and pushed for the nominations of Jeff Sessions, John Bolton, and Gen. Michael Flynn. She introduced the Trump campaign to Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon. It was also reported that Mercer was a given a key role on the executive committee of Trump’s transition team. Reporters and journalists have noted that Mercer does not just hand out capital through the family’s foundation; she is also vocal about her views and plays an active role in strategizing how the money is to be used to influence policy decisions.
Jane Mayer, Investigative journalist and writer for The New Yorker, stated that Mercer has been described as the “first lady of the Alt-Right.” An insider at Breitbart reported that Rebekah is heavily involved in Breitbart’s content: “she reads every story, and calls when there are grammatical errors or typos.”
A 2016 Time article found that Breitbart “pushed racist, sexist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic material into the vein of the alternative right.” Breitbart has published falsified claims about Muslims — like the debunked myth of “no-go zones.” It also gave voice to the unfounded accusation that American Muslim organizations and Democratic politicians are connected to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Both Robert and Rebekah Mercer also served as “principal patrons” of Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart editor referred to as a “professional hatemonger,” whom Rebekah Mercer reportedly “loves.” Yiannopoulos has a history of anti-Muslim and racist comments. Glittering Steel, a company co-founded by Rebekah and Bannon, organized Yiannopoulos’ “Dangerous Faggot” tour across U.S. college campuses. In 2017, Yiannopoulos made headlines following the resurfacing of comments he had made defending pedophilia, which later resulted in his departure from Breitbart. The Buzzfeed expose by Joe Bernstein, found that two weeks after leaving Breitbart, a wire transfer from Robert Mercer’s accountant was made to Yiannopoulos. A month or so after the Buzzfeed story broke, the Mercer’s publically “washed their hands of Milo,” The Atlantic reported.
Steve Bannon: former political advisor for the billionaire family
The Trump administration’s former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, whose appointment garnered applause from the American Nazi Party and the Klu Klux Klan (KKK), was the Mercer family’s longtime political advisor. Bannon, who helped the wealthy family direct its political spending, acknowledged the role the Mercers played in Trump’s campaign and election, stating, “The Mercers laid the groundwork for the Trump Revolution.” Further, Nick Patterson the former Renaissance employee who initially recruited Mercer to Renaissance stated, “In my view, Trump wouldn’t be President if not for Bob.”
The former investment banker has long held anti-Muslim views. Bannon has referred to Islam as “the most radical” religion, and when discussing Islam in Europe on his Breitbart radio show, said that “Islam” today is “something much darker” than Hitler and the Nazis during the 1930s. He has sought to spread his anti-Muslim views by providing a platform to individuals like Frank Gaffney, Robert Spencer, and Pamela Geller, who have all been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as “anti-Muslim extremists.”
In 2007, Bannon drafted an outline of a three-part movie titled, “Destroying the Great Satan: The Rise of Islamic Fascism in America,” tracing “ the culture of intolerance” and the threat posed by “radical Muslims” and their “enablers among us” in America. In 2014, Bannon gave a talk at a Catholic think tank in Rome, saying “…we’re now, I believe, at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism.” There he also exhorted, “I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam,” and praised how “our forefathers” kept Islam out of the “Judeo-Christian West.” Bannon sees an “existential war” between the West and “radical Islam,” and wants the Catholic Church to take a “militant” response. During his time in the White House, Bannon was reportedly one of the co-architects of the first Executive Order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, which many human rights and legal advocacy groups termed a “Muslim Ban.”
In January 2018, the Mercer family publicly split from Bannon, following the publication of excerpts from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury book, in which Bannon criticized Trump and his family. A New York Times article reported that the family had began “drifting”’ away from Bannon “amid concerns about how the controversy he was generating was affecting the family.”
The Mercer money trail: financing anti-Muslim sentiment
The Mercers invested millions of dollars into business and organizations that created a network and platform used to push for anti-establishment policies. Many of these involved Steve Bannon. Alongside many of these organizations’ anti-establishment pulse is a running theme of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant animus.
Between 2008-2014, the family foundation gave the $1 million to the conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation. In 2014, Heritage held a panel on the Benghazi controversy, featuring Frank Gaffney, Clare Lopez, and Brigitte Gabriel. The Center for American Progress (CAP) identifies Gaffney as one of the leading “misinformation experts” of the “Islamophobia network.” SPLC considers his organization, Center for Security Policy (for which Lopez works), an anti-Muslim hate group. SPLC also identifies Gaffney and Gabriel as “anti-Muslim extremists.”
During the panel, Gaffney and Gabriel responded to a question posed by a Muslim woman, in what a Washington Post article described as the “ugly taunting of a woman in the room who wore an Islamic head covering.” Saba Ahmed, an American University law student, asked why Muslims weren’t represented on the panel, to which Gabriel responded “180 million to 300 million” Muslims are “dedicated to the destruction of Western civilization.” Further, she “drew a Hitler comparison: ‘Most Germans were peaceful, yet the Nazis drove the agenda and as a result, 60 million died.’”
Heritage has published pieces supporting Trump’s travel bans targeting Muslim-majority countries, arguing that the they’re not Muslim Bans, despite a court ruling stating the most recent proclamation was “unconstitutionally tainted with animus toward Islam,” and that Trump’s own “disparaging comments and tweets” about Muslims “offer undisputed evidence of such bias.” Another piece argued, “Muslims claim to want more democracy… but their anti-American complexes and grievances are so huge that they are forever trying to find some third Muslim way that ignores hundreds of years of historical experience, born mainly in the West, of what works and what doesn’t.”
In December 2017, Heritage contracted Sebastian Gorka, a former adviser to Donald Trump, to deliver a “series of five foreign policy speeches to Heritage audiences.” Gorka has argued that the US is a “Christian nation, a Judeo-Christian nation,” and implied that accepting Muslim refugees would be “national suicide.” He supports racial profiling, calling it “common sense.” In early 2017, pictures were posted showing Gorka wearing a medal associated with a Hungarian group listed by the State Department as “having taken direction from Germany’s Nazi government during World War II.” The Nazi-linked group, Vitézi Rend, has claimed Gorka as a member. Between 2009-2011, Gorka wrote for the Gatestone Institute.
Along with giving at least $15.5 million to the family super PAC, Make America Number 1, the Mercers also gave $4 million to the John Bolton Super PAC and $2 million to the Club for Growth Action.
Bolton’s super PAC states it “will aim to make America’s defense and foreign policy a significant factor in federal elections.” Bolton served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 until December 2006, and currently serves as chairman of the Gatestone Institute, described by investigative journalist Lee Fang, as “one of the loudest groups agitating against Muslim migration.” The website publishes a stream of “anti-Muslim propaganda” depicting “Muslim refugees in Western countries as rapists and hosts of ‘highly infectious diseases.’” In 2015, the Mercer family foundation contributed $100,000 to Gatestone. Gatestone also partnered with The Rebel, a Canadian media company “with a history of bigotry and anti-Semitism,” to produce a series of 12 “cross-branded videos.” The videos feature “misinformation expert” Daniel Pipes and far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, and promote “paranoid, apocalyptic far-right themes vilifying Muslims and refugees.”
Further, Bolton has a “warm relationship” with “anti-Muslim extremists” Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. Bolton wrote the foreword to Geller and Spencer’s book criticizing former President Obama, which journalist Eli Clifton described as “a series of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about Barack Obama and sweeping anti-Muslim statements.” Bolton is closely affiliated with Gaffney, having spoken at CSP’s National Security Summits, a regular guest on Gaffney’s radio show, and awarded CSP’s 2006 Freedom Flame Award. Following Trump’s election, Politico reported that Rebekah Mercer pushed for Bolton’s nomination for Secretary of State.
In April 2018, the Center for Responsive Politics revealed that Robert Mercer had donated $2 million to Secure America Now, an ultra-conservative non-profit that advocates U.S. withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear deal and promotes the debunked conspiracy theory that the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to overturn the U.S. constitution. Secure America Now worked with Facebook and Google to target ads at voters in key swing states during the 2016 presidential election. The ads aimed to “stoke viewers’ fears of imminent Muslim conquest.” One ad was an “Islamic States of America“ travel promo, where Syrian refugees had overtaken America and the iconic Hollywood sign reads “Allahu Akbar.” The Mercer family’s close ally John Bolton sits on the board of Secure America Now.
Politico described Club for Growth as the “pre-eminent institution promoting Republican adherence to a free-market, free-trade, anti-regulation agenda.” It seeks to support candidates who support “limited government and free markets.” Journalist Jane Mayer describes Club for Growth as “a small, single-minded, Wall Street-founded group powerful for one reason: it had the cash to mount primary challenges against Republicans who didn’t hew to its uncompromising line.” It was at a Club For Growth conference that the Mercers first met the late Andrew Breitbart and heard about his vision for pushing the conservative agenda by “our own source of information” to take on “mainstream media.”
Investment in Cambridge Analytica
In 2013, the Mercer family became the principal investors of Cambridge Analytica, an “election management” company specializing in behavioral profiling. CNN described the company as “Donald Trump’s secret political weapon,” and Elon University Professor Jonathan Albright described it as a “central point in the right’s ‘propaganda machine.’” In 2016, the company was a partnering sponsor of CPAC’s annual conference. In the same year, Cambridge was paid $5.9 million by the Trump campaign, according to public filings.
Cambridge Analytica grew out of the SCL Group, an “older British military and elections contractor,” with which it reportedly still “shares staff, directors, and a London office.” It’s a behavioral research and communications firm that works with governments and corporations. SCL’s former advisor included disgraced ex-NSA director Gen. Michael Flynn, who helped expand the company’s contracting work.
The company specializes in behavioural profiling that it claims can produce “psychographic” profiles for every single American adult based on aggregated data, personality, and behavioral surveys. With this methodology, the company claims it can rightly predict an individual’s political leanings. This was used to to identify the millions of voters most “open to being persuaded to vote for Trump.” Cambridge Analytica’s website states that with these profiles in hand, it can then effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations,” appealing to individuals at an “emotional level.”
The company is currently under investigation by the UK Electoral Commission for its role in the Leave.eu campaign, which spearheaded the successful anti-EU referendum in the United Kingdom. NPR reported that Mercer was also a key supporter of Leave.eu, as well as good friends with Nigel Farage, the British politician who served as the lead advocate for the Brexit campaign. The campaign routinely employed anti-immigrant themes.
In March 2018, a former employee of the company revealed to The Guardian that in 2014, Cambridge Analytica had harvested data from 50 million Facebook user profiles without authorization, in order “to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements.”
The Mercers appear to have a particular interest in information sharing, in shaping messaging and creating discourse. The consistent messaging throughout the Trump campaign and into the current administration has been to discount the mainstream media, creating room for this “alternative” world in which the Mercers have large interest. The family foundation’s investment in Breitbart helped create a platform for activism and right-wing nationalism. With its interests in Cambridge Analytica, the family has equipped a company specializing in “psychological warfare” to create “propaganda” targeting specific audiences.
According to Megan Janetsky of Open Secrets, the Mercers were Trump’s top campaign donors, pouring “more than $15 million into outside groups to get Trump elected.” Central to the Trump campaign’s messaging was building on already existing anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment. The campaign’s rhetoric identified Islam as the enemy, consistently promoted the stereotype that all Muslims are potential terrorists, called for building a wall in an effort to combat ‘illegal immigration,’ and even partook in anti-Semitic messaging. This break from standard Washingtonian politics shook mainstream media, as they too often became targets of Trump’s abrasive tweets.
In response to growing interest in the Mercer family’s ideological leanings, Rebekah Mercer penned an op-ed in the The Wall Street Journal, outlining her “political goals.” She states:
I support a United States that welcomes immigrants and refugees to apply for entry and ultimately citizenship. I reject as venomous and ignorant any discrimination based on race, gender, creed, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
However, following the Mercers’ money tells a strikingly different story. Despite the younger Mercer’s assertion that she rejects discrimination, the family has contributed millions to organizations and supported individuals who are known for their anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Additionally, Rebekah herself stated that she supports the platform Trump was elected upon; a platform largely consisting of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies. While the family prefers to stay out of the limelight, their financial contributions have amplified discriminatory rhetoric and policies, helping to create an atmosphere in which white nationalism and Islamophobia have been mainstreamed.
Mobashra Tazamal is a Senior Research Fellow at the Bridge Initiative.